A friend (thanks Tracy!) recently gave me David Hinton's translation of poems by Wang Wei, the great Tang poet. I like Hinton's translations of Chinese philosophy, precisely because he translates so much poetry, which, I think, gives him a certain appreciation of the lyric qualities of Chuang Tzu and Mencius and others.
I came upon a poem that captured the moment I find myself in now. It is entitled "Mourning Yin Yao."
How long can a life last? And once
it’s gone it’s formless all over again.
I think of how you waited for death:
ten thousand ways a heart wounds.
Your gentle mother’s still not buried,
your daughter’s hardly turned ten,
but outside the city, cold-silence wind-
scoured expanses, I listen to lament
on and on. Clouds drift boundless skies,
birds wing through without a sound,
and travelers travel deserted silence
through a midday sun’s frozen clarity.
I remember you back then, still alive,
asking to study unborn life with me,
but my guidance came too late. Sad
how you never found understanding.
And those old friends here with gifts—
they never reached you either. So many
ways we failed you. All bitter lament, I
return to my brush-and-bramble gate.
Let me focus on the first two couplets. The opening two lines reveal Wang's immersion in Chan Buddhism, which itself is an amalgamation of the Buddhist ideas and practices that gradually moved from India to China, and the Taoist ideas and practices indigenous to China. Thus, it is not surprising that Wang's contemplation of death brings him to an appreciation of the formlessness of life, a notion that I associate with Chuang Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, though especially the former.
The second two lines brought my aunt to mind. She was not comfortable in her last days. The slow decline of her body and mind frustrated her. There were good moments, but as the end drew near these became fewer and fewer. Just before she passed away she slipped into a peaceful unconsciousness. I thought she was sleeping but obviously it was something deeper. I was relieved at that time, not knowing what was coming, because she seemed to have escaped "the ten thousand ways a heart wounds." And now she has for good.
She did not have the same sorrows to which Wang Wei refers - her parents are long dead and she was unmarried and childless. Would her heart have been even more wounded if she had the burden of worrying about a surviving mother and daughter?
I do not share Wang Wei's sense of failure. Of course, there may have been more I could have done for her. But she would have done what she would do, regardless of my counsel. She lived out her time in Way. And so, without the bitterness, I return to my own brush-and-bramble gate.