Which way to the Temple of Accumulated Fragrance?
After several miles, nothing but clouds and peaks.
No trail that passes through old trees,
Just a bell that tolls, somewhere deep.
A spring’s gurgle in a jumble of rocks,
The sun’s light cold through green pines.
Empty by a pond’s twilit curves,
Quieting dragons of the mind.
Bureaucrat, Buddhist, painter and poet, Wang Wei (699–759) was, for some, the quintessential Tang dynasty intellectual. Although none of his paintings survive, he was obviously talented enough for later poet and polymath Su Shi to remark, “In [his] poetry there is painting, and in [his] painting there is poetry” (詩中有畫 畫中有詩).
The influence of Buddhism on his poetry is quite profound, and to get a full sense of his life it’s also helpful to remember another saying with which he is often equated: in the world, yet beyond it (入世出世). While it often sounds as if he is out in the mountains living like a recluse, it’s probable that as a full-time bureaucrat he wrote much of his poetry in his studio, and that these poems are not so much a description of the natural world but instead a product of his imagination, designed to convey a particular state of mind. (While it may seem self-evident to say his poems are a product of his imagination, it is easy to miss a lot of symbolism in Chinese art, since quite a lot of it seems to simply depict the natural world.)
This poem in particular seems to me to be a sort of micro-parable for meditation: The destination – a temple, no ambiguity here – is clear at the outset, yet immediately the way there is confused. There is no obvious path, only a distant idea (the bell) of where you are trying to go. In the original Chinese, the rocks (thoughts?) in the next stanza are described as “dangerous 危” (my Chinese reader describes this as a stand-in for “tall,” I didn’t really like “dangerous” and “tall” seems like a cop out so I just used “jumble”), while the fading sun suggests the dropping off into a deeper state of consciousness as the busy day-to-day layer of the mind empties. Although Freud was still more than a millennia away, it is certainly feels like the pool described in the final two lines is the unconscious: the repository for repressed terrors and emotions (“poison dragons” 毒龍), here “tamed 制” through quiet meditation 安禅.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with Chinese poetry, I’m afraid my stilted version here doesn’t quite do justice to the subtlety of the original – expressed in a mere 40 characters.