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Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Tang poet, gates and goodbyes

          Our parting in these hills is over
          The sun sets and I shut my door
          The spring will be green again next year
          Will I never see your face again?
          [Wang Wei, famous Tang poet C.7 CE]

Many traditional Chinese poems have as their subject the theme of parting of friends and relatives dear to them.
   The reason for this is that even in the best of times, these partings were very often permanent. Times were dangerous, life could be short and often was, and there were no guarantees that they would ever meet again. Very often they did not.
   I read these sorts of poems to a generation of university students when we talked about traditional Chinese literature. I thought I appreciated them, but never so much as now.
   Alice returned to Melbourne a fortnight ago, and Sylvia made her way south on the train this morning. When my daughters left this time, the true poignancy of these poems was revealed to me with crystal clarity.

          Quietly, I've waited here so long,
          Day after day; but now I must return.
          It's time to seek the fragrant grass,
          But I grieve to part from my old friend.
          Who is there who would help me on the road?
          Understanding friends are few in life....
          I should just observe my solitude,
          And close again the gate of my old home.

I am thankful that I can reach out and touch the one who is here for me, in spite of the sadness.

   That’s all I want to say today. I’ll close the gate and sleep a little now, I think.


  1. My favourite poems (and Rumi).

    I can't imagine how much you would miss your dear daughters. You'll see them again, won't you, though we can't be absolutely sure of that for anyone. That fleeting moment that is each day, each sunset (each butterfly)is also what the poets mean, I think. But your daughters..that is special.

    For you, I would not agree that 'understanding friends are few in life', however. There's a number of people who are 'there for you' but they can't all live with you daily and only a few can be privileged to help in a practical sense.

    And after all, there at home you have 'plenty of pigs and chickens', yes? 'a garden planted with yellow and purple plums' :)

  2. That was lovely, what you said, Julie.

    I do think though, that the poet has a point in that "understanding friends are few in life." That's what makes them so precious.

    I have often found that in moments of crisis, the friends who are there are not the ones I expected. Friends I thought dear, whom I nursed through relationship breakups, job losses, and personal upheavals, disappeared in my moment of loss. And the person I thought the least likely to help, was there.

    Of course that doesn't necessarily mean understanding; perhaps just someone with unexpected compassion.

    Many of those Chinese poems are full of loss, and so poignant: children, wives, and time. I discovered this when I was trawling through Chinese poetry looking for quotes on enlightenment. I found very few.

    Sometimes that's where we find understanding in times of crisis -- though literature. It's not often that even our closest friends can share the pain, as what is happening to you is happening to them as well, and they are also looking for comfort and understanding.

  3. Exactly, Joan..
    I agree about the friends there in crisis -often not whom you'd necessarily expect.

    And the Chinese poems ARE full of loss, or else/and full of life's incredible beauty. But always too its poignancy.

    Wonderful. Thanks, Denis. Always, and for so much.

  4. Yes, Julie - lovely daughters are easy to miss. But we'll never not be there, no matter what. That makes physical partings less difficult and goodbyes less necessary. I prefer to hold to the bits in between hello and goodbye. I'm not keen on goodbyes and would rather people didn't impose them on me most of the time.
    And I agree with you also, Joan. Sometimes the best friends are the ones you see only at the right time, if there is a right time. There are those who grieve that they did not know the right time to say goodbye to someone dear to them. Maybe there was no right time, especially for that person.
    In the end I am not so sure that most of the traditional Chinese ever 'got' Buddhist enlightenment at all, except through Ch'an. Mostly it was a jumble of Mahayanism and Chinese folklore, popular Taoism and Confucianism. So I am not surpised that the poetry focused on the immediate, and death and parting were uppermost in the poets' minds.
    And in the end, it's the immediate people and things that matter most to us as conscious beings, no matter what anyone says.

  5. I did find some evidence of spiritual awakening in the Taoist poetry, but not as much as I'd hoped or expected. I assumed I would find it in Cold Mountain, but that proved to be just the experience of loneliness, disappointment, and despair on a cold mountain, despite what the critics had to say, who were determined to massage his experience into their fantasies.

    You'll get no "goodbyes" from me. I don't believe in them. See you later is all you're going to get from me. :).

  6. Wasn't it also something to do with the fact that the poets were writing at a time (many times, long times) of war and banishment, so separation was more intense, and the beauty was a respite from the external turmoil??? So there were 'historical' not just 'spiritual' reasons for the style?


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