One of my top 3 favorite classical Chinese poets, Wang Wei lived in the Tang Dynasty, 8th century (701–761). He is sometimes referred to as the “Poet Buddha”.
Born to the upper class, from along line of bureaucrats, he passed the civil service entrance examination in 721 and had a successful civil service career, rising to become Chancellor in 758. During the An Lushan Rebellion he avoided actively serving the insurgents during the capital’s occupation by pretending to be deaf.
He spent ten years studying with Chán master Daoguang. After his wife’s death in 730, he did not remarry and established a monastery on part of his estate.
He was also an accomplished artist and his original work was often published along with his paintings related to the poetry. Few if any of these illustrations has survived. A few of his poems are rendered below.
|Light cloud pavilion light rain
Dark yard day weary open
Sit look green moss colour
About to on person clothes come
|There’s light cloud, and drizzle round the pavilion,
In the dark yard, I wearily open a gate.
I sit and look at the colour of green moss,
Ready for people’s clothing to pick up.
|Down horse drink gentleman alcohol
Ask gentleman what place go
Gentleman say not achieve wish
Return lie south mountain near
Still go nothing more ask
White cloud not exhaust time
|Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.
(The above poem is special to me- I used to practice drawing Chinese characters writing the poems of Wang Wei. This particular poem I spent a week on the Oregon Coast in October writing and re-writing on leaves I had found. When I was finally satisfied, I put it in a frame and gave it to a friend who was going to another city to live. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again. Fifteen years later he came to visit. He still had the poem in the frame I gave him.)
Replying to Subprefect Zhang
|Old age think good quiet
Everything not concern heart
Self attend without great plan
Empty know return old forest
Pine wind blow undo belt
Hill moon light pluck qin
Gentleman ask end open reason
Fisherman song enter riverbank deep
|Now in old age, I know the value of silence,
The world’s affairs no longer stir my heart.
Turning to myself, I have no greater plan,
All I can do is return to the forest of old.
Wind from the pine trees blows my sash undone,
The moon shines through the hills; I pluck the qin.
You ask me why the world must rise and fall,
Fishermen sing on the steep banks of the river.
Returning to Songshan Mountain
|Clear river belt long thin
Cart horse go idle idle
Flow water like have desire
Dusk birds another with return
Desolate town face old ferry
Set sun whole autumn hills
Far successively Song high down
Return come for now close shut
|The limpid river runs between the bushes,
The horse and cart are moving idly on.
The water flows as if with a mind of its own,
At dusk, the birds return to perch together.
The desolate town is faced by an ancient ferry,
The setting sun now fills the autumn hills.
And far below high Songshan’s tumbling ridges,
Returning home, I close the door for now.
Temple Tree Path
|Narrow path sunless temple locust tree
Deep dark much green moss
Should gate except meet sweep
In case have hill monk come
|A narrow, sunless path to the temple tree,
Deep and dark; abundant green moss.
Wait by the gate when finished sweeping the yard,
In case a monk should come down from the hill.