Translated By Andrew Yang
The following seven-character quatrain To Retain Guests in the Mountain was written by Zhang Xu (c 675-c 750), a poet of the Tang dynasty (618-907).
Mountain light and state of things make the spring glow.
Just because of a flimsy shade, do not simply plan to go.
Even if the sky is clear and there is not a speck of rain,
Thy clothes still get wet if ye go deep into the clouds.
Poets and Chan practitioners like to dwell deep in mountains. With poets, the purpose is to get close to nature, so it may bring emotions and inspire creativity. With Chan cultivators, they enjoy sitting quietly among rocks, fountains and forests for contemplation, to attain an undefiled mind that accepts the Dharma of non-existence in a state of leisure and tranquility. Therefore, deep mountains and secluded valleys have always been a favourite place for literary artists as well as Buddhists, especially for monks, as the saying goes, “Famous mountains under the sun are more likely occupied by monks.”
Tang dynasty poet Zhang Xu liked to live in mountains, and often invited friends to be his company. Once, a dozen scholar officials tried to copy Zhang Xu, thinking mountain living seemed such an elegant thing. While enjoying scenery, they could wash away the vulgarity of wealth, sex, fame and gain typical of city dwelling. However, these mortals had only stayed for two short days, before they found that they could no longer put up with the kind of austere life available in a mountain, and they decided to leave. In response Zhang Xu wrote the poem.
The poet describes mountain scenery in the first line, “Mountain light and state of things make the spring glow.” “Mountain light” points to the fact that all things are bathed in warm sun light to shine with vibrant brilliance. The “state of things” refers not to a certain scene on the mountain, but more generally to all things in view, including flowers, trees, grass, rocks, birds and insects. “Make the spring glow” means a balmy sun over all elements, and the word “make” vivifies them, bringing robustness and harmony to everything. This sentence generalizes but not in an abstract way, leaving mountain light and state of things to the reader’s imagination. Whether it is freshly verdant leaves, fragrance from mountain blossoms, the singing of birds in their midst or gurgling nonstop creeks, the poem captures them all.
“Just because of a flimsy shade, do not simply plan to go.” A “flimsy shade” means that sunlight is covered by floating mist and clouds, which temporarily dim the dazzling radiance of the sun. If one loves mountains and rivers, how can they miss this wonderful moment, leaving just for the sake of one faint cloud? The guests, however, are worried that it could soon start to rain, so they want to leave the mountain and get home. In fact, the flimsy shade is no dark cloud blocking the sun, and even if it rains, it may just be a tiny drizzle.
Yet, it is not enough to simply persuade the guests to stay, it is also necessary to make them feel at ease. How does one make that happen? Well, trying to figure out how they actually feel, the poet is aware that whereas they do want to absorb the beauty of the mountain verdure, they worry about their clothes being soaked in the rain. Thus, the poet “advances through a retreat”. Isn’t it true that you are afraid of getting wet? So, what if it is sunny?
“Even if the sky is clear and there is not a speck of rain, / Thy clothes still get wet if ye go deep into the clouds.” Of course it is possible to get sodden, but what a poetic scene to have dream-like hazy clouds, dewy plants and a serene yet barely visible gorge all in one place! Meanwhile, all this delicate mountain vista may only be fully appreciated by climbing up the tall mountain and exploring the deep valley, and by being there immersed in it. Mulling over the phrase “deep into the clouds” greatly arouses the reader’s imagination too, as the deeper one goes, the more they are likely to discover.
At this point, those who are interested to stay will naturally draw the conclusion that whether or not they get wet, they should stay on to find out what happens. It can be seen that the third and fourth lines of the poem are not just passively dispelling the guests’ doubts, they make clever use of the fascinating mountain scenes to light a fire in the guests’ heart, urging them to take the opportunity and appreciate the beauty of the lush mountain the best they could. Thus, the host sets out to retain not only the guests but the reader’s imagination.
Mountain dwelling in pursuit of Chan can be nurturing and refreshing, so that those used to a noisy urban life may free themselves from being entangled in tedious mundane affairs, for a while at the least. Climbing to an altitude deep in clouds all surrounded by tranquility could indeed be delightfully pastoral.