Translated By Andrew Yang
It is hard to meet and hard too to part.
With flowers fading, the east wind is inept.
Silkworms spin silk down to the last minute.
A candle sheds tears up till it is all burnt.
In the dawn mirror I worry your changing hairdo.
Chanting at night you feel my chill in the moon.
Mount Pengshan, ‘tis not far from this point.
Pray the messenger bird puts in a timely visit.
–Untitled by Li Shangyin (813-858)
This poem, which could initially make people feel rather dejected, is all about the parting of a couple in love or between close relatives and friends, using depressing words such as “flowers fading”, “last minute”, “tears” and “chill”. On the other hand, Dear Reader, do you not realize that melancholy and the feeling of unpredictable transience in life sometimes may inspire us to cherish the present and let go of gratuitous love and attachment? In fact, it could further turn into a superior cause for the pursuit of awakening, known in Buddhism as an adhipatipratyaya.
It is true that human life is fleeting and impermanent, as everything in the world is in a process of germination, termination and constant change in between. And every living being, too, is subject to birth, sickness, ageing and death, while time cycles through the seasons in perpetuity.
Now, let us attempt to appreciate the poem a bit and see what it says in relation to the truth of impermanence so we could learn together.
“It is hard to meet and hard too to part.” We are, as a rule, each busy with our own lives, and often fear for not enough time spent with those close to us, and when we do get together, it seems harder to part. Farewell for now, and chances are we know not when to see each other again over time.
“With flowers fading, the east wind is inept.” The poem here chooses late spring to depict a forlorn parting scene, when the breeze is no longer vibrant and blooms not dazzling any more. The following four lines contain typical parting advice for the parties involved and read remarkably touching.
“Silkworms spin silk down to the last minute.” Note that in Chinese “silk” is homophonous with “thinking”, so a silkworm spinning silk nonstop is a metaphor for thinking of a loved one every breathing moment.
“A candle sheds tears up till it is all burnt.” In return, the other party uses another image to assure their partner that in the same way, my tears of joy and sorrow, like what comes down a burning candle, are all for you, and will flow until the very last drop.
“In the dawn mirror I worry your changing hairdo. Chanting at night you feel my chill in the moon.” Here, first in a man’s voice, one party tells the other to take good care of herself as he is worried about her day-to-day appearances. For a reply, the woman reminds the man not to stay up too late musing over his verses. In a gentle way the lovesick couple exchange simple but memorable words of affection that are honest and endearing.
“Mount Pengshan, ‘tis not far from this point. Pray the messenger bird puts in a timely visit.” Pengshan, or Mount Penglai, is a fabled paradise in Chinese mythology, used here by the parties to comfort each other. While they do have to say goodbye now, the joy in a reunion somehow is not far away, and in between they promise to write to one another and keep the messenger busy.
Thus the foregoing agony of parting has been skillfully turned into the dream for a happy, more accessible tomorrow, something for both parties to look forward to with hope. While parting does cause anxiety and sadness, it is as well an opportunity for a future homecoming, reminding people how the present is indeed worth much more embracing and relishing.
When Li Shangyin wrote the piece, who was it meant for? Quite likely, he may not have been saying goodbye to his wife or another partner. Perhaps he was merely a bystander, who felt for loved ones bidding farewell and wrote it to express his own personal feelings.
Everything in this world is, of course, in constant change, where nothing stays permanent, let alone relationships. Our Buddhist forerunners have said, “If love were not strong and deep, it would not have given rise to Saha.” Mortals are born into this Saha world as a consequence of the karmic force from entanglement in love and desire during their previous lives. The love between a couple and their attachment to each other is called en ai or conjugal affection in Buddhist terminology. When people become obsessed with love, they are bound by it and unable to escape, which will eventually make them further reincarnate in the six pathways of existence. Forest of Jewels in the Dharma Garden has this to say in Volume 22, “Transmigrating within the three realms, conjugal affection is something one cannot cast off. Those who do abandon it and take inaction truly pay back with kindness.” Buddhists maintain that people should give up conjugal affection and turn to Buddhism instead, for attaining enlightenment is the ultimate recompense to those one is bound by love.
The emotions epitomized in the poem may appear to be a lament on the impermanence in human life, but one also should know that impermanence is not at all something undesirable. It was because of an awakening realization of it that Buddha himself left all the wealth and lustre behind to pursue a way to ultimate enlightenment. As Mahaparinirvana Sutra, or The Sutra of the Great Demise, points out, “All things are impermanent, it being a law of germination and termination. Things go from germination to termination, and when the end comes, termination is joy.” Thus, impermanence has rather a positive role to play in life, making us undergo pain and agony in appreciation of the doctrine of dependent origination. It will inspire us to let go of the attachment to love and desire and instead practise Buddhism for the purpose of transcending life and death and finding timeless joy in Nirvana.
Therefore, in impermanence lies the most practical and intimate truth with infinite hope and an abundance of dynamism.