Somewhere near the year 400 the Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien composed these lines:
“Nothing like all the others, even a child,
Rooted in such love for hills and mountains,
I stumbled into their net of dust, that one
Departure a blunder lasting thirteen years.
But a tethered bird longs for its old forest,
And a pond fish its deep waters—so now,
My southern outlands cleared, I nurtured
Simplicity among these fields and gardens…”
(Translation by David Hinton, New Directions Publisher, 2005)
How crippling is language and how magnificent! How limited in its professed intention to communicate. How eager our senses are to capture sensations: the ears, the eyes, and the tongue, running the finger over a silk scarf or caressing the newly bathed hair of the loved one. Poetry. What is that? Indiscernible, non-conformist, dissident, epigrammatic, free, obstinate. Verse writing goes very far back in human history and has always prospered on images, whittling away the coverings.
In ancient Chinese poetry Taoism, Zen and other spiritual creeds interact with nature and oriental poets thrive on images taken from non-urban settings, from nature, the hills, lakes, the moon, the oneness with everything, the inability to completely express a feeling, a thought with sentences. Seasons. Change, the belonging to a universe in constant and unending transformation. Pre-consumer society scenarios.
But what are these verses really about? Are there hidden valleys, paths that wander off to nowhere or get lost in the underbrush? Infantile creativity. The reflection of a lop-sided agrarian civilization, of empires that came and went, of social behavior ethics smoked out in the never ending struggle for power.
They had everything they needed, didn’t they? Those monks, hidden away in temples, listening to their breath, imagining the good deeds the emperors tore to pieces. Oriental “philosophy” is about this world, not Heaven, not Hell, not another world beyond this one. For the ancient poet and their modern counterparts and for many pre-capitalist notions the cosmos is all embracing, a self-generating entity subject to one basic rule: change, transformation. And that change takes place inside and outside each individual organism; inside there is an unending process of renewing, forgetting, rebuilding, and disappearing. Nothing is permanent. If anything, existence is dialectic.
This is in strong contrast to “Western” religious, psychological and political constructions. Chinese translator David Hinton explains this in an interview in the January issue of The Sun. In the West, he says, “we understand the self as a sealed-off identity, something fundamentally separate from the world. The typical Christian belief is that you’re being tested in this existence, and you’ll end up in either heaven or hell…” There is also a language angle which is also reflected in poetry. Chinese does not require the use of personal pronouns the way English does. Hinton continues: “Language, image-making, storytelling—these create the illusory self. Our language enshrines that self in grammar. Language also structures the mind, so we don’t even notice this. But every time you speak a sentence, you’re reinforcing the illusion of separation.”
Here is a key notion. In the “West” thinking is considered essential for dealing with human problems. It isn’t that the oriental approach discards thought but thinking is a process which further produces separation; on the contrary problem solving in the orient is based on the need to clear the mind of thought patterns so that creation may proceed as if on an unmarked path.
Another verse by T’ao Ch’ien illustrates the point:
“I live here in a village house without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,
and you wonder how that could ever be,
Whenever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.”