Two Qing Dynasty Poet Monks

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Translated By Andrew Yang

Eight-fingered Mendicant had special karma with flowers

There were quite a few poet monks in the Qing dynasty (1636-1911), but none is more legendary than Eight-fingered Mendicant (1851-1912). He only had a three-year schooling, and never learned to write any poetry, but the poems the bhuta-guna practising monk composed impromptu and recited offhand were all elegant in diction, profound and yet cordial in meaning and full of Chan. As he was able to create verse but could not set it down on paper by himself, his contemporaries helped compile it into ten volumes called Eight-fingered Mendicant’s Collected Poems, which became widely popular.

With Jing’an being his real name and Jichan his penname, Eight-fingered Mendicant was born in Xiangtan, Hunan of central China. He lost his father and mother at the ages of seven and twelve. As a result, he had a rather tough childhood. His family was too poor to afford him school and so he herded cows at school age. One spring day when he was sixteen, as he was grazing cattle on a hillside, he saw peach patches on the mountain in full bloom and aglow with resplendence, and being among them delighted him. In an instant, however, the sky was overcast with thick clouds and down came a sudden storm, which totally wrecked the trees and blew away all the peach petals. The experience made him feel the impermanence of things, and he went to Fahua Temple, Xiangyin, not far from his birthplace, where he undertook Pabbajja, an ordination presided over by the monk Dong Lin, and became a renunciate.

Once, he walked to Ashoka Temple on the eastern coast on a pilgrimage over hundreds of kilometres to worship the stupa where an important part of Buddha’s sarira was preserved. To pledge his piety, he burned two fingers off his left hand and made them sacrificial offerings, hence the name Eight-fingered Mendicant. Nevertheless, having had no training at all in composing poetry, how did he become a renowned monk poet? It was an incredible story of divine impact.

One day, when he was working at Renduan Temple, Qishan as a service monk, he saw a sickly dog wandering in, hungry, tired and looking for food. With compassion he kept it hidden in a kitchen corner. At the time, it was forbidden to keep animals in the monastery, and if exposed, the perpetrator would be expelled as a punishment. However, in order to rescue the poor sick dog, he was willing to take the risk. As the Four Questions of Ananda Sutra says, “One should nurture the young and weak with mercy. When seeing worms, moths and beasts, always take pity and let them eat as they do, so they get rested and recover”, he was determined to practise compassion and mercy in adherence to Buddha’s teachings.

More than ten days had passed when the ailing dog had gradually recuperated, and it would only take another few days to find it a new owner. Yet unexpectedly, the abbot, having heard of someone keeping a dog in the temple, suddenly wanted to inspect the kitchen. Fearing that the abbot would find it out, in panic the monk drove the dog away and gobbled up all the leftover dogfood to clear up his suspicion. By then, the dog was gone and so were all traces of its food, and the abbot was hence no more suspicious. Afterwards, however, as he returned to his dorm quarters, the young monk developed a bad breath with a stuffed stomach and kept vomiting. Yet, when he woke up the next morning, he was in a state of total lucidity and enlightened mindfulness. And having attained the “prajna of words”, he became instantly insightful of all the scriptures and writings that he had not been able to discern before.

It is said that this unique state was caused by his compassionate citta that made him unwavering in keeping the wretched dog despite the risk of being punished, as well as his indiscriminate mind towards filth when he ate up the dogfood.

When the compassionate citta and indiscriminate mind are brought into full play, one attains true wisdom in an instant.

From then on too, the monk was able to utter words and lines with apt rhyming in stanzas off the cuff when a circumstance emotionally overwhelmed him. One of them, Searching for Plums After a Snowfall, was such a poem made ad lib and recited without deliberation,

“With snow packs the day turns bright and clear. A stick aided my stroll to explore and discover.

As the ancient shore emanates a chill, the calm makes one appreciate the clandestine aroma.

Thin shadows stand as if aided by a hazy fume, one clear light illuminating against the moon.

Even though no one befriends the lone purity, one smile has in itself tenderness opportune.”

Indeed, Eight-fingered Mendicant, so fond of plum blossoms, has another eight-line stanza singing their praises,

“The world’s spring is like Poseidon’s Realm. In solitude I love my mountain home.

I lean in the shade of one lone isle. On high branches against the cold plums bloom.

In ontology there is no form nor mark. Where do I let a horizontal, slanting twig lie?

Not knowing the intent of an easterly wind, pursuing spring the goings get awry.”

As well, the monk loved travelling in mountains, about which he produced many poems, such as the following one, Returning to Mount Mao,

“My Chan mind not so carefree as white clouds, appearance succumbs to a life travel-laden.

Off the woods, surprisingly the year winds down, red leaves filling autumn hills on my return.”

And also below, Putting Up a Cabin at Tiantong Temple,

“Mountain monks love the mountain. To live outside it they’d have little passion.

With a gourd dipper and a straw hat, I should rather go deeper into the mountain.”

In particular, the monk was fond of taking up residence in a mountain temple where there were plum trees, as this quatrain conveys,

“With green mountains I have old karma. Living in them yet no need to buy them, however.

The days in the mountain like flowing water, seeing plums blossom means yet another year.”

Eight-fingered Mendicant had a life-long bond with flowers. His mother dreamed of orchid before giving birth to him. In youth, he saw peach blossoms shattered in a storm and attained enlightenment. And when he died, his remains were buried in a plum grove. Master Tai Xu thus summed up his life, “Born in an orchid dream, enlightened at seeing peach blossoms, and dying with plums, he took flowers as a cause for karma, as a means to enlightenment, as a spiritual sustenance and as an emblem of solemnity.”

The Monk Xu Yun’s life of Chan was never without tea

Since ancient times, tea has been closely connected with Chan. Many Buddhist temples run meditation classes as a routine, and since it is a taboo for meditators to be drowsy, tea with its refreshing quality has naturally become their ideal drink.

When I first became a monk, I used to think that for Chan practitioners to drink tea every day to refresh themselves was rather an undesirable habit, an obsession and perhaps an addiction, until one day I chanced upon The Collected Poems, Gathas and Odes by Xu Yun the Old Monk, when I realized the meaning of the saying, “A Chan master cannot live a day without tea”. This legendary ascetic (1840-1959), one who was steeped in all the five Chan sects, did have an entrenched tea-drinking habit. One of his series of poems about mountain living concerns the joy of making tea,

“An intent for mountain dwelling reaches far afield, open, boundless and free.

Take pine roots as makeshift pillows, and when waking up alone, make tea.

No visitor comes to a mountain residence, a bamboo trail locking in the haze.

Clear is the shallow water facing the gate. A few flowers flutter in the breeze.”

In mountain woods far away from the secular world, to sip a pot of light tea made by oneself right after waking up, and then sit in a padmasana and attain serenity, it is so interestingly full of Chan. Further, Master Xu Yun not only loved to make tea, he also knew how to pick it. Here is what he wrote in a timeless piece, fittingly titled Picking Tea,

“With my busy life in the mountain making a living, I pick pepper and I pick tea leaves.

If nothing else being amazing, awesome tea buds sprout overnight in a spring breeze.”

The monk often made tea for guests while talking about bygone days. In his collection, quite a few poems depict this part of his life and three of these follow. First, Sitting in a Spiring Tower with Friends on an Autumn Night,

“Amidst good autumn scenery here, we fashioned lines for verse in a sky-ward room,

Opened the door to watch a new moon, and made tea to wash down pent-up gloom.

With no vulgar guests in the mix, there was fine company making poetry impromptu.

Thin coats felt the nightly chill, ere our discourse on the tradition found enough clue.”

And next, A Farewell Evening Chat after A Chance Meeting with Tang Yousheng in Puli,

“On such a desolate road in southern Yunnan, what fortune to see you by chance, again!

I admired your early start to a civil service career, ashamed of my own late intro to Chan.

We made tea, finished each other’s couplets, and lit a lamp to reminisce over old poetic lore.

A beautiful moon scene was finally filling the window. Only when could we meet once more?”

And finally, A Matching-rhyme Quatrain in Reply to Zhan Liwu about a Dream of Conversing over Tea,

“The road not yet dry with more snow to melt, to say I am fine three smiles were dreamt.

The whistling tea bottle starting to boil, the world’s wintry chill we did somehow forget.”

Tea aficionados like to say that the tea ceremony has a virtue of simplicity and unpretentious frugality. The master’s humble mountain life gives such full play to this virtue, with its involvement of Chan from planting, picking and making tea to welcoming guests to musing over yesteryear.

In the history of Chinese poetry, Xu Yun is one who enjoyed the longevity of living 120 years. The eminent monk had travelled to all China’s sacred mountains, and composed over 390 poems, gathas and odes. His verse combines the natural scenery of mountain dwelling with a Chan practitioner’s experience of achieving enlightenment, and so it is pure, mesmerizing and pristine, and is highly adored by those in poetry circles, as the Buddhist poet Zhan Liwu, a contemporary of his mentioned above, had this to say,

“The elder Xu Yun’s thoughts are so pure they are immaculate, with a boundless desire to help sentient beings attain enlightenment. Thus, his poetry has a unique appeal, with purely natural sentences and diction, and frequently revealing a monk’s inherent nature of unbridled freedom. It would be hard for me to find an appropriate match for his unique charm among China’s generations of unworldly poets.”

Friends, in your spare time you may wish to quietly read and enjoy The Collected Poems, Gathas and Odes by Xu Yun the Old Monk. It would certainly help purify your mind and clear up your vision, to an extent that virtually transports one into Chan. And while perusing it, you might also want to make tea and sip, to naturally forget about all the noisy mortal vagaries. After all, “Tea has the same taste as Chan”!

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