Sunday, May 23, 2021

A Reading of a Su Tung Po’s poem

 Su Tung Po (Tô Đông Pha), pen name of Su Shi [ 蘇軾 (1037–1101) ] was a famous, pensive poet in the Song dynasty, one of the most accomplished writers and calligraphers of classical Chinese literature. Here is the poem of his, which has to do somewhat with the “nature”, or quality of poems, how he views what may be called excellent, exquisite poetry.

Some ideas, philosophical thoughts on Emptiness and Inactiveness, sedentariness are required.
The poem and my translation--in meaning only:
Tiễn Sâm Liêu Sư ( Saying Goodbye to Monk Sâm Liêu)
Thượng nhân học Khổ Không
Bách niệm dĩ hôi lãnh
Kiếm đầu duy nhất quyết
Tiêu cốc vô tân dĩnh
Hồ vi trục ngã bối
Văn tự tranh ủy bính
Tân thi như ngọc tiết
Xuất ngữ tiện thanh kỉnh
Thối Chi luận thảo thơ
Vạn sự vị tường bính
Ưu sầu bất bình khí
Nhất ngụ bút sở sính
Phả quái Phù đồ nhân
Thị thân như khâu tỉnh
Đồi nhiên ký đạm bạc
Thùy dữ phát hào mãnh
Tế tư nãi bất nhiên
Chân xảo phi ảo ảnh
Dục linh thi ngữ diệu
Vô áp Không thả Tĩnh
Tĩnh cố liễu quần động
Không cố nạp vạn cảnh
Duyệt thế tẩu nhân gian
Quán thân ngọa vân lĩnh
Hàm toan tạp chúng hảo
Trung hữu chí vị vĩnh
Thi Pháp bất tương phương
Thử ngữ đương cánh thỉnh
Wise men (like you) learn Suffering, Void
Hundreds of thoughts turn into cold ash
When the sword cuts the hair
The little dwelling cave ends growth of grains
Why are you after us
For the “glory’ of catching the beauty of literature
Our poems appear as pulverized pearl
Forming crystals (1)
Tuizhi discussed “thảo” calligraphy
But never let his job hindered
When his heart was frustrated
One touch to pen (2) could say a lot
Why in the world, a man under the roof of Buddha, (like you)
Who views this body like mound, like well (3)
And so, willing to lead a simple, poor life
Then, with whom will you compete for the strength or abundance (5)
But deepening thoughts (on them), it is not so
The true depth is not illusionary
Wanting to get poetical wonderful words
Don’t force anything ( 6), let Void (7) and Inactiveness come and go
The immobile absorbs/understands the mobile
The void can embrace thousands of visions
Traversing in Life, observing it
Seeing the self on top of the clouds
Tasting abundance of sour grapes in life
Has its own way of knowing the exquisite
Poetry and Dharma (8) do not give rise to conflicts
Please let us hear your opinion.
To approach an understanding, to have an appreciation of Su’s main points/themes on the way of writing poetry, these following lines may help.
Poetry is the art of using language to express your feelings, your emotions, thoughts, in short. Together with poetic elements like imagery, sound, symbol, metaphor, story-telling etc. the poets cause ‘vibration’ in us, move us, inspire, aspire or simply sincerely tell us a story in its more concentrated use of language than the prose to induce or provoke a vivid perception, awareness, or deepening a sense of experiencing an event, or a situation, condition. The more talented poet will create a deeper impression, a carve in your feeling about the story, the situation, or condition with a (very) limited use of words, sentences, symbols, metaphors etc.
But language, in general, can be problematic, due to its own ‘nature’ and its way of representing, signifying, conventionalizing and arranging through symbols and meanings , to say the least. Words are fingers pointing to the moon, not the moon. Misunderstanding is abundant; sometimes there are big gaps between the real and its representational elements, or symbols; unskillful usage of words, ideas can lead to lengthy dreary feelings, tasteless ‘food of thoughts’, boredom , or insipid verses. This is the first thing Su Tung Po advises against in poetry.
To come to the second point Su Tung Po wants to arrive at, we need to know some of these on things clean, clear like the purity, clearness of glassware; the brilliance of the crystals, especially those made by Swarovsky. From choosing the elements, mixing them, firing in furnaces to get molten, blowing glass and creating different products, each step requires skill , care and patience. Imagine a few hundred years to discover different ratios of elements to make different types of glass, a few hundred years to make the right tools such as blowing tubes of all sizes; more than a couple of thousand years to get the furnace to get to 1000 degr Celsius and longer to get to 2500 degr C, a few thousand years to get glass to purify , or yield clear , not the greenish color. Quite a lot of experience, quite a level of skill and patience through out a few thousands of years. Some brief reading on them is needed, at least.
a) the art of making glassware, crystal
Glass blowing is a challenging task that is usually best tackled by a team. The lead glassblower is called the gaffer. A combination of sand and soda lime, along with coloring agents is used to produce a raw material, which is melted together to from molten glass. This glass is “gathered” from the furnace onto a blowpipe; – glassblowers use air blown into the pipe combined with movements of the glass, and special tools, to quickly shape the molten glass before it cools. Once properly shaped, the art glass sculpture is placed in an annealing oven to slowly cool down the glass until it is stable. If it cools too quickly, the glass art may break or crack
Offhand glass blowing
Offhand glass blowing requires three furnaces. The first, called the furnace, is used to hold the hot, molten glass that is the raw material of a glassblower. The next furnace is known as the glory hole, where the piece is heated and reheated during the process of shaping and the material. The annealer is the third and final furnace, where the glass is slowly cooled in order to reduce thermal stress
( The Art of Glass Making-Feltmagnet)
Swarovski glass is produced by melting a mixture of quartz sand, soda, potash and other ingredients at high temperatures.[16] Lead, usually used in the form of lead tetroxide, is not used anymore and all Swarovski Crystal glass produced since 2012 has been lead-free.[17][18] To create crystal glass that lets light refract in a rainbow spectrum, Swarovski coats some of its products with special metallic chemical coatings. For example, Aurora Borealis, or "AB", gives the surface a rainbow appearance.[19] Other coatings are named by the company, including Crystal Transmission, Volcano, Aurum, Shimmer, and Dorado. Coatings may be applied to only part of an object; others are coated twice, and thus are designated AB 2X, Dorado 2X, etc.
Swarovski has developed a unique technology that preserves the unsurpassed brilliance and brightness of crystals without the use of lead dioxide. The hologram on the back of the package contains the inscription: advanced crystal superior brilliant lead-free. Thanks to this, Swarovski crystals are absolutely safe to use.[20]
b) The art of making the sword
Just as the skill, the care, patience men put into making glass, the history of sword making shows these efforts in an fascinating way. It took men a couple thousand years or so to perfect this art to get to a kiếm ( jian= long sword ) or a đao (dao-=single-edged broadsword) ) which balances the weigh and the force used , and is most ‘deadly’, delicately balanced and sharp. In short, they can strike and ‘cut iron like cutting clay’. In an appropriate lighting setting, a kiếm (jian) can emit frightening greenish-blue light.
Speaking about the art of sword making, it’s probably an interesting idea to learn a little about the art of sword practicing. Stories I have read from Chinese and Vietnamese sources render :
a) Khí công ( Qi gong) and the strength of the shoulder and arm, and wrist. (4)
b) Stances in martial arts. In martial arts, learning to have firm stances is the most basic thing. It helps one not to lose balance easily when in an inconvenient position; in the practice of fighting with the sword it helps greatly in striking with force and ‘exactness”
c) Training to have clean, sharp, and exact strikes. This means a swordsman with excellent skill can strike, and thrust, and stab in 14 directions with clean, sharp strikes, exactness within the length of the palm.
And these are somehow can be incorporated into an understanding of the quality of poems, or art of writing poetry, not just with the poet Su Tung Po.
Lastly is
c) the art of calligraphy.
Chinese cultured men love calligraphy and the public enjoy looking at beautiful writing. That fondness of calligraphy spreads to Japan, Vietnam and Korea. A few big names in Chinese calligraphy were Wang Xizhi (303-361), Zhang Xu (658-747), Yan Zhenquin (709-785), Huang Tingjian ( 1045-1105), and Su Tung Po was also famous in that field.
Western calligraphy has some best known calligraphers, such as Edward Johnston, Sachin Shah, Suzanne Cunningham too. Comparing the two we may have these remarks :
1) Western calligraphy has, from the start, lines to guide the writers. Chinese calligraphy, from the start, only has imagined ‘squares’ to help them move the brush pen. Western calligraphers are more restricted in space within lines, but has more of an advantage than Chinese calligraphers to make nice, orderly, in line horizontally, but then the latter has more space in the imagined squares to move more freely to add artistic flavors to their characters.
2) Western calligraphy uses pens much similar to a Parker fountain pen with nib touching and moving the paper. This again has a considerable advantage over Chinese calligraphy because, that gives weighty help in guiding the forming of characters. The writer of the latter touches the paper and has help from the ‘friction’ of the brush pen with the paper, too, but pretty lightly, only to an extent much less than a writer in the earlier. Therefore a skill in the latter calligraphy’s art needs substantially more practice. I practice both , so I know. I remember when I was about 5, then 7, 8 year old and in kindergarten and subsequent grades, we very young students used what we called ngòi bút lá tre ( bamboo leaf nib), which was like a Parker’s nip. It had good guidance for the force used from fingers and wrist, and from the friction of the nib with the paper. We were prohibited to use ball-point pen because the rolling point of the ball-point pen easilier makes us slide, skid in writing than the nib of the pen with bamboo leaf nib, especially when you make tildes, curves and the round “o’. Notice this, because of the difficulty from using Chinese brush pen they rarely have characters with curves in Chinese words, and no “o” at all.
3) The control of the tip of Chinese brush pen depends very much on the control of the force the wrist uses to write, and another disadvantage of the Chinese way of writing with a brush pen is the wrist of a writer rests mostly “on air”, while the Western can rest on the table or desk. Consequently, the Chinese practitioner has to learn significantly more how to apply force to the wrist, and fingers well. Therefore, to a certain degree, like in the art of sword practicing, if you know how to breathe well, incorporate that with khí công (Qi gong) and apply force you are ( a lot) more successful in writing nice, fancy, artistic characters, words than the one who does not have the above practices, especially when you use a big brush pen 2, 3 feet long to write large characters. I saw a movie years ago where the director of the film blended the idea of using martial art technique to write on large panel of cloth. In the movie, the actor, who represented Su Tung Po, jumped to air, landed and wrote as if he performed some kung fu moves. It was pretty fascinating. Therefore, mức tinh luyện ( the level of skill) for a calligrapher to write beautiful, artistic characters and words can be required like the swordsman’s skill in a much less use of force and its coordination— in normal, small brush pens.
Another calligraphy example one may want to examine is the only piece surviving by this ‘giant’ of Chinese poetry, Li Bai (701–762 ) that now being housed at the Palace museum in Peking. To me, one can see the khí ( qi= 氣), and thần (shēn = 神) of the splendid art of writing of this poet, who was also a swordsman, according to legend, with good capability.
I have compared what Tung Po tries to suggest an idea about some qualities of excellent poetry, the art of poetry writing with the art of making clean, pure glass and crystals. The care, the patience, the skill of mixing elements, firing into molten, creating shapes, then cooling, tempering of the art of glass making, and to a certain extent the art of making sword. Those effort, patience, practice apply to the art of writing poetry too, to a certain degree. At least the message has to be concise, to the point, the language used not lengthy, dreary, tasteless, the idea/sentiment/thought should be deep enough and refined. Tung Po’s ideas on the excellent qualities of poems suggest these qualities
A high level of skill which sends direct feelings, sensations, sentiments, to the readers is necessary. The message, the idea, sentiment are perceived pretty thoroughly, clearly, and are touching, moving.
Poetical elements move and create, move and affect, move and deepen.
Now another important point Tung Po mentions in his poem on the art of writing is the concept of Void. According to Tung Po :
“The void can embrace thousands of visions”
The Void (Không =空) Tung Po wanted to arrive at, I believe, [ according to his origin and the probability of source of Không =空 he had acquired for his contemplative thought and ponderance has to do much with the sixth patriarch on Chinese Chan (Zen), patriarch Huineng, who had been so famous in teaching the idea/concept and meditative practice of “acinta" ( = Vô niệm, or No-thought, thoughtlessness. The most important ‘ingredient’ in this practice is not to have tâm hành ( volitional thought, want, wish, desire etc. ). Without such volition, desire, wish, want etc. one’s consciousness will become empty, one's consciousness will be free of “tanha” [(तृष्णा (sanskrit), taṇhā (Pali)] or desires of all kinds, which are the sources of all karmas. On the other hand, with mind free of any occupying wish, want, or pre-meditated idea, conceptual molds, one’s consciousness will be free , will be empty. As such one’s consciousness can take in, absorb a lot more of many, many thoughts, feelings, sentiments, sensations and what Tung Po means by “ all cognizable interactive phenomena between our senses and the objects”. Here the practice of Xả [ Upekṣā (Sanskrit: उपेक्षा; Pali: Upekkhā )] can be applied well, too.
And so, as such our perception will become sharper, more direct; our vision, hearing, tasting, feeling will become more vivid, lively, and etc.
Biographical notes on Su Tung Po suggest that Tung Po read on Chan ( Zen), discussed Zen , philosophical subjects with other poets, cultured men of literature, Zen monks on many occasions, so he had some understanding on the Void in Buddhism and through Taoism, Lao Tzu’s philosophy, as evidenced in some of his poem, most noticeable is this poem on Lô sơn, hay Lư sơn ( Mount Lu )
Hoành khan thành lãnh trắc thành phong
Viễn cận cao đê các bất đồng
Bất thức Lô sơn chân diện mục
Chỉ duyên thân tại thử sơn trung
In which the questions on what the Zen way is, what Buddhism is, what Reality is, what representational thoughts on them are; how to meditate, what the purpose, or benefits. Just come, learn, practice, and practice then you ‘ll find out, just like a Zen monk said:
Come, drink the water from it source, then you’ll know how it
Here I will explain a little more on the Void, Voidness so you can gain more understanding.
Compared to Void ( Sunya), Voidness(Emptiness= Sunyata = शून्यता) of Buddhism, the empty (Không =空 = śūnya शून्य ), the emptiness, i.e. the metaphysical, philosophical essence, characterization, conceptualization ) from the Taoism, or post-Taoism is very uncomplicated, not full-fledged. Point of view of Tung Po has more of a view acquired with Taoism.
In Mahayana Buddhism, it is the most empty, the emptiest in a sense (*), the non-acquiring, non-characterizing , non-substantiating Thus-ness, Such-ness {undefinable “being”, unconceptualizable “entity", the mind is incapable of grasping (*), ‘holding’. The hardest “Thing”, or we may say the most difficult meditative, contemplative, reflective object,
Li Bai's only surviving calligrapy piece
Tung Po's "Hàn thực thiế'p" calligrapy

phenomenon for mental grasping; meditative ‘dharma’, or kammaṭṭhāna) which Nagarjuna Bodhisattva has warned : dealing with Sunyata = शून्यता is pretty much like “catching a snake with bare hands”
for one who is not well-equipped ( with meditative experience and understanding of this Thusness)
A post I wrote in 2015 in which I translated the crucial part of Kinh Pháp Ấn ( Dharma Seal Sutra), a sutra the great monk, master Thi Hộ (Dànapàla) from Oddiyana had translated from Sanskrit into Chinese can elucidate some more. Monk Dànapàla was a superb translator, who had translated many volumes of sutras into Chinese to spread Buddhism to China.
The last thing I want to mention is Tung Po’s idea on the “immobile”, or inactiveness. He said :
The immobile absorbs/understands the mobile
Let your imagination and thinking path find its way to appreciate this line of thought from him.
Chân Huyền Hoàng Minh Chân
Vân Quán sơn trang
Vesak season 2655

* compared to M. Heidegger’s ontological conceptual being, it far surpasses in “substantiation and ‘dynamical dimensions’. Metaphysical thoughts of Wester, Eastern traditions fail miserably in understanding, “grasping it”. In many connotations and “meaningful” modification, description, characterization, the Heidegger’s Being in the ontological sense can be grasped, defined, but for Voidness, all such attempts will fail.
** In its actual experiential " bản thân" ( "nature"), don't take Voidness as a concept, but meditate on the ways things change, transform, dissolve; observe the ever-changing 'nature' of all dharmas.
1) see introduction lines
2) meaning: one lift of the pen to write, discuss something
3) meaning: Buddist monks consider this corporeal body as something confining, "jailing"
5) strength of thinking; abundance from deep
6) plenty of Taoist-influenced thought here : follow nature, follow the smoothness of water; follow naturally
7) Không = 空 = śūnya शून्य
8)Dharma here means Buddhist teaching.

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