Wu Junlin, MA student, Graduate School of Chinese Language and Literature, National Hsinchu University of Education
“Under the Bodhi Tree”
Who has a mirror hidden in the heart?
Who is willing to walk barefoot through this life?
All eyes are blindfolded by eyes –
Who can get fire from snow, or turn snow into fire?
Under the Bodhi tree. A man with only half a face
Raises his eyes to heaven, sighing in answer to
The azure sky that looks down upon him
Yes, someone has been sitting here!
The grass is intensely green. Even though it is winter
Even though the sound of the truthseeker’s footsteps have faded
Resting on a world of voices you still have
The joy of intimate talk with the wind and the moon
How many springs did you sit through?
And how many hot summer days?
When you came here, snow was snow, and you were you
Yet after the night had passed, snow wasn’t snow, and you were no longer you
All the way down to this frigid night ten years later
When the first comet blazed through the sky and all was clear again
Then you were startled to realize:
Snow was still snow, and you were still you
Although the sound of the truthseeker’s footsteps have faded
The grass is still intensely green
“Under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha beholds a comet in the night sky: Supreme enlightenment.”
Poem by Zhou Mengdie
Translated by Robert Fox
“Under the Bodhi Tree” is selected from Zhou Mengdie’s collection The Grass of Returning Souls (1965). Known in literary circles as “the ascetic poet,” Zhou met with many difficulties in his life, experiences strongly reflected in his choice of themes – life and death, illness and pain. After he began practicing Buddhism, Buddhist parables, doctrines, and terminology all became sources of creative inspiration, influencing the poet’s perspective on life and living. A careful reading of “Under the Bodhi Tree” reveals a number of important Buddhist allusions; one is the poet’s comment after the last verse: “Under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha beholds a comet in the night sky: Supreme enlightenment.” This sentence sets the thematic stage, calling attention to the work’s subject – the process enlightenment. The “you” in the poem refers not only to Siddhartha Gautama – the historical Buddha – but also to all who would seek complete enlightenment.
Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism’s founder, was an Indian prince born in Kapilavastu, capital of the Shakya kingdom. Tradition has it the pampered young nobleman one day chanced to discover that birth, old age, sickness, and death were humanity’s unavoidable and painful lot. Determined to solve the problem of suffering, Siddhartha left his father’ palace to become a wandering ascetic, engaging in extreme self-mortification. But six years later he had yet to attain enlightenment. Rejecting asceticism, Siddhartha washed the accumulated filth from his body – ascetics weren’t permitted to bathe – in the Nairanjananadi River. He then took a seat beneath a Bodhi tree, vowing to remain there until he had found the answer to the problem of human suffering. On the seventh day, just as dawn was breaking, a comet streaked through the sky, and in that instant Siddhartha saw into the ultimate nature of reality. “Under the Bodhi Tree” is based on this allegory.
Zhou Mengdie begins the poem with two questions: “Who has a mirror hidden in the heart? / Who is ready to walk barefoot through this life?” The poet asks who has a heart like bright mirror, one capable of illuminating all of the subjective and objective worlds’ intermingled concepts and changes. Who can go resolutely, steadily, on completely unhindered “bare feet,” to seek the truth of this life? The third line in the first verse – “All eyes are blindfolded by eyes” – implies that humanity is limited by the physiological sense of sight – seeing only the surface of things, we stubbornly clinging to superficial perceptions, and are thus incapable of grasping the essential nature of that which we see. Hence, the question: “Who can get fire from snow, or turn snow into fire?”
“Fire” and “snow” are seemingly contradictory elements; in fact, this “paradoxical” method of inquiry – employing diametrically opposed pairs to break through practitioners’ intellectual barriers – is borrowed from Chan (Zen) Buddhist thought, which views opposites as interdependent and mutually engendering. Both “fire” and “snow” are products of principal and secondary causes; thus, Buddhist practitioners are reminded that they should seek to grasp the essential nature of things.
The poem’s third and fourth verses echo Song dynasty Zen Master Qingyuan Weixin’s words on awakening to the truth: “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.” The lines “snow was snow, and you were you,” “snow wasn’t snow, and you were no longer you,” and “snow was still snow, and you were still you” express the integration of three aspects of the “true self” – “self,” “no-self,” and “self-as-object” –an allusion to Buddhist practitioners’ differing perceptions at each stage of the enlightenment process.
The line “the sound of the footsteps of the one who sits in the lotus position 1 have faded” appears twice in the poem. Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in the classic mediation posture, ultimately attaining enlightenment; thus, Buddhist meditators who came after him have also adopted the posture. The phrase “the grass is intensely green” appears twice in the poem as well, in the second and fourth verses. If a practitioner can achieve complete and unhindered understanding, he or she will no longer be at the mercy of outer circumstances. Thus, in contrast to “snow” – which represents an external element – “green grass” symbolizes vibrant inner being. More than simply an ode to tranquil solitude, “Under the Bodhi Tree,” reveals the transformation and sublimation of Zhou Mengdie’s Buddhist practice as well as his unfettered, contemplative outlook on life.
1This is a literal translation of the Chinese 結趺者 (jiefuzhe): “one who sits in the lotus position,” i.e., a Buddhist practitioner seeking enlightenment. In the English version the term has been translated as “truthseeker.”
Zhou Mengdie (1920-2014) was the penname of Zhou Qishu, a native of Xichuan County in China’s Henan province. At fifteen years of age he read “On Leveling All Things,” a chapter from Zhuangzi. Captivated by the well-known tale in which the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he has become a butterfly 1 , the young man chose as a penname a portion of the story’s title, and butterfly imagery often appears in his poetry. Zhou was raised by his mother; his father, a late-Qing era scholar, passed away early on. Impoverished, the young man was forced to discontinue his studies after graduation from middle school, becoming a library caretaker and elementary school teacher the next year. In 1947 he enrolled in Wanxi Village Normal School, and soon after joined the paramilitary China Youth Corps. He followed Nationalist forces to Taiwan, mustering out of the service in 1956.
In 1959, Zhou set up a bookstall on Wuchang Street, near the Astoria Café, then a gathering place for artists and writers. The stall specialized in pure literature, and works by self-published writers and unsold magazines were often given to Zhou to sell on commission. Young men and women with literary ambitions could often be seen hanging out in front of the bookstall; thus, the business was an important Taipei cultural venue in the 1960s and 70s. During this time Zhou made the acquaintance of Tan Zihao, Xu Guangzhong, and other poets, becoming a member of the Blue Star Poetry Society, and in 1959 the society published his first poetry collection, Lonely Country, establishing him as a poet. Zhou’s second collection, The Grass of Returning Souls (1965) garnered wide critical acclaim.
In 1980 an intestinal disorder forced Zhou to close the bookstall. Weakened by illness, he lived in seclusion at the foot of Five Peaks Mountain in Xindian, spending half of the day reading and the other half meditating. He reemerged in 2002, marking his return to the literary world with two new collections of poetry, Appointment and Thirty Chrysanthemums. The poet passed away on May 1, 2014 in Xindian Tzu Chi Hospital at the age of 94.
Zhou was a longtime student of Buddhist scripture, thus Buddhist philosophy informs much of his work, combining poetic sensibility with Chan (Zen) spirit, a major characteristic of his poetry. Moreover, Zhou’s thoughts on time, life, and death emerge from a plethora of allusions, paradoxes, and somber rhetoric, accentuating a grave and astringent poetic style that was truly his own. In 1997 Zhou was awarded the National Culture and Arts Foundation “Literature Laureate Award,” and in 2011 he received the Chinese Writers and Artists Association (Taiwan) “Honorary Literary Award.” That same year director Chen Chuangxing released The Coming of Tulku, a documentary on Zhou’s latter years that was part of “The Inspired Island – Eminent Writers from Taiwan” series.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=26112
1〈莊周夢蝶〉 (Zhuang Zhou meng die): “Once upon a time I, Chuang Chou [Zhuang Zhou], dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou [Zhou]. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.” (Lin Yutang translation)
|Work(English)：||Under the Bodhi Tree|
|Anthology：||Zhou Mengdie's Selected Poems and Essays: Lonely Land, The Grass of Returning Souls, The Unpublished Writings of Feng Er Building|
|Publisher：||Taipei: INK Literary Monthly Publishing Co.,. Ltd.|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.sudu.cc/front/bin/home.phtml|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|INK Literary Monthly Publishing Co.,. Ltd.|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Unpublished Translation by the Literature Toolkit Project|