20 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/16

Living in Seclusion, Sitting in Silence

Living in seclusion, one can simply do as one pleases,
With a single text, one can forget oneself for a while.
The daylight hours – how much time is there really?
Why then do I not exert myself?
Although the ancients are long gone,
Their wisdom must still be grasped.
From the empty eaves, water keeps on dripping,
From the censer, ashes fall marking the time.
This mood always brings me great pleasure,
As with both hands, I clasp my book tightly.
What a pity it is that ordinary people of the world
Know not this intimacy with the words of the wise!

Jingnuo, translated from the Chinese by Beata Grant

Like the poems from the last two weeks, this one involves our relationship to what we read and how we read it.

Jingnuo was a seventeenth-century Buddhist nun who lived in the Hangzhou province of China. Living apart from the world (which means only the social world), cut off from the entanglements and pressures, the tragedies and trivialities, of conventional social life, she has a certain freedom, which is dedicated to exploring the deeper spiritual aspects of life. Her guides are the thoughts, preserved in writing, of previous nuns and other spiritual sages. Even a single text opens up vistas of thought that remove her from the consciousness of self that limits each of us. Yet far from being lost in a sense of eternity, her religious dedication has given her a keen sense of the passing of time, of how limited and valuable it is – time's passing comes through not in sweeping statements about long spans or epochs, but in the mention of brief, measurable units that make up a life speeding by: the daylight hours, the dripping of water, the fall of ashes from a censer. Given her time and place, her hours of study would be limited by the amount of daylight available. Her awareness of the dripping water gives a sense that she is in as much silence as is possible in this world. The eaves are empty, yet water falls from them drop by drop; eventually it might wear away even a tough stone like granite. A footnote to the poem tells us that the "use of calibrated incense to keep time appears to have originated in Buddhist monasteries; later the 'incense-seal' became a widely used time-keeping device." We have a sense of solitude, of near silence, of near stillness, interrupted only by the gentle drip of water and the scented smoke rising up while the ashes fall down. Though in a state of deep contemplation, Jingnuo is aware of the world around her: the water drops, the ashes. She clasps her book tightly. Far from feeling lonely, isolated, or bored, or even solemn, she feels great joy; a sense of fullness and deep meaning permeates the scene she creates for us. As final proof of her compassionate awareness of the world's problems, she wishes that ordinary men and women could share this happy state that comes from continued intimacy with wise words.

For some ascetics, a love of Nature and poetry is a hindrance rather than a help on the way to enlightenment. Even those who found them useful gateways to spiritual awareness could not avoid a feeling that this, too, was vanity. In her biographical note on Jingnuo, Beata Grant (from whose anthology Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns I took this poem) ends with these remarks: "Jingnuo also occasionally professed shame at the pleasure she derived from words. Late in life she is said to have noted to a disciple, somewhat ruefully, that 'The religious life does not rely on words and letters. I am already old, and I've managed to cleanse myself of all kinds of attachments; still I laugh at myself and this one remaining thought.' "

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