Translated By Andrew Yang
Jia Dao (779-843), a prominent member of the so-called “belabouring poets” that thrived in the Tang dynasty (618-907), was a monk in early years. Later, when he met Han Yu (768-824), a leader of the literary circles of the day, Jia Dao’s talent impressed him so much that the latter persuaded him to leave monkhood for an official career, and so Jia Dao returned to lay life. His poems, with a well-known inordinate amount of deliberation over word choice and sounding uniquely ethereal, brims with an indelible charm of Chan. Some of them became influential masterpieces for late Tang.
In particular, Jia Dao wrote a few parting pieces that readers today still love to hum. Among them is Farewell to Master He Lan:
As the solitary mendicant came to say goodbye, we sat on the sand by a fountain.
He had come from afar with an empty bowl, over fallen flowers deep in the mountain.
No guru to help him understand Chan, with fortitude he wrote gathas worthy of praise.
Departing for no particular cause, like a lone cloud the monk calls home no fixed place.
So, the piece was written on parting with a Buddhist master. “Master” is, of course, a respectful form of address for an accomplished monk. As A Guide to Sakyamuni explains, “With wisdom and virtue on the inside and superior deeds on the outside, a master is one whose morality is above everyone else.”
“As the solitary mendicant came to say goodbye, we sat on the sand by a fountain.” An itinerant bhikkhu, the monk for whom this poem was written, did not work with a particular sangha as a home base, but practised alone while on the road. To say goodbye, the poet and the venerable monk sat down briefly beside a spring to chat and reminisce over gathas and other matters.
“He had come from afar with an empty bowl, over fallen flowers deep in the mountain.” The poet imagines that his fellow Buddhist had been covering a long distance holding an empty alms bowl and hiked alone, trekking over mountains and across rivers, or meditating in the jungle over fallen petals and leaves. The master was living a simple, decent life, giving up all worldly attachment for his spiritual pursuit, as signified by his empty alms bowl. It refers to the fact that the monk had nothing on his body except for a small container to receive alms. At the same time, it is a metaphor for a purified Chan mind that harmonizes with emptiness. Devoid of any material hindrance, it flows freely with the wind like a fallen petal and nowhere does it get stuck.
“No guru to help him understand Chan, with fortitude he wrote gathas worthy of praise.” Chan, a mental state of enlightenment realized by practitioners when they let go of all mundane attachment and entanglement, is neither knowledge nor learning, and as such is not taught by a master, but must be ascertained by the individual through queries. Importantly, an enlightened state of mind is both clean and ethereal. In daily life, every move by such a cultivator, every word uttered and every verse made, all can be elegant and detached, containing wisdom that helps awaken and inspire people.
“Departing for no particular cause, like a lone cloud the monk calls home no fixed place.” The departing master had no obvious reason to leave, but that is what a wandering monk does, going where they like and doing what they want, much like an eagle in the wild. This is part of what contributes to the tranquility and a Chan mind they pursue.
The next poem, also on parting with a monk, is by Jia Dao’s cousin Wu Ke, a monk himself.
Having attachment nowhere, you have a mind set on the road to explore the Dharma.
With three pieces of clothing for the life of a monk, a bamboo pole helps you travel far.
While night erases sunny shadows, the spring season melts all traces trodden in snow.
Going into the depths of white clouds, where is the peak to sleep on tonight all by you?
“Having attachment nowhere, you have a mind set on the road to explore the Dharma.” The parting monk had travelled to many places, not based at one temple like most monastics. During the day he would call at mountains shrouded in clouds and seek company with emerald water and yellow flowers, while over night he would stay at perhaps a different temple among buddha statues, ancient sutras, oil lamps and incense burners, doing everything with a free, joyous mind and entertaining an abiding interest in seeking the Dharma.
“With three pieces of clothing for life as a monk, a bamboo pole helps you travel far.” Here, the poet takes the opportunity to emphasize that all life, a wandering renunciate routinely had only three pieces of clothes, and how ever long his journeys might be, a bamboo carrying pole was the single tool that would help him travel. Thus, his life was indeed ascetic, with few desires and little attachment to material necessities.
“While night erases sunny shadows, the spring season melts all traces trodden in snow.” When seated in meditation after nightfall, all shadowy images in his mind were gone together with delusions, as if snow melts when a spring sun warms things up. These specific details are included to point to his clean, undefiled state of mind that did not hang onto earthly things but was leisurely and carefree.
“Going into the depths of white clouds, where is the peak to sleep on tonight all by you?” In such a tranquil environment with densely packed clouds, the poet wonders which mountain his Chan master colleague was going to stay on that night. This means that although he had no fixed abode, everywhere the wandering mendicant went he would call home. He did not need one, nor did he seek one, and he felt free with equanimity.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in addition to the basic needs of a human existence such as food, clothing, lodging and transportation, without a doubt, spiritual freedom and joy of the mind are well worth pursuing.