Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

    —Li Po (701-762)
(translated by Sam Hamill)

Last week, on our Urban Poetry Café on Radio CHLY, I had the opportunity to share this wondrous poem by Li Po – an eight century poet who was one of China’s most respected and prolific poets. (You can listen to the full hour-long podcast of our show here.)

Known for both his wild imagination and his fondness for liquor, Li Po is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. (Yet another meaning for Rhinoceros Gazes at Moon, but one I don’t intend to try in my own practice!)

More than 1,000 years after Li Po’s death, his poetry was finally introduced to Western audiences through translations by Ezra Pound.

The “Zazen” of the title refers to sitting meditation as practiced in Zen Buddhism. It is a whole-hearted sitting in which all judgment is suspended (also known as “opening the hand of thought”) so that thoughts, images, words, faces all flow past without the sitter becoming involved in any of it.

When read from a purely Western perspective, Li Po’s poem would appear (at least at first glance) to be about death and human mortality – the brevity of a human life when juxtaposed with the permanence of the mountain.

But when read from an Eastern perspective and with an understanding of Zazen (or even just an understanding of the unity of all things), then Li Po’s poem appears to be describing something very different: the process of shedding the artifice of Self (through sitting meditation in this case) until reuniting with the macrocosm — “until only the mountain remains”.

I took this photo a few days ago on Little Mountain (near Errington on Vancouver Island) while participating in the Big Day Birding Competition, which is part of the annual Brant Festival here. Our team was “Herring Today, Gull Tomorrow”. And one of our teammates, Pierre Geoffray, is standing at the very end of the cliff overlooking the valley below. You can barely see him in the distance. He is just a speck really. Almost… gone.

Text & Photo (c) Kim Goldberg, 2011

About Kim Goldberg

Kim Goldberg is a poet, journalist and the author of 8 books of poetry and nonfiction. Latest titles: DEVOLUTION (poems of ecopocalypse), UNDETECTABLE (her Hep C journey in haibun), RED ZONE (poems of homelessness) and RIDE BACKWARDS ON DRAGON: a poet's journey through Liuhebafa. She lives in Nanaimo, BC. Contact:
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4 Responses to Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

  1. hg says:

    Both the poem and the photograph (wow!) make me feel that we’re on the same path, Kim. Even though you’re on Vancouver Island and I’m in Arizona (for the time being).

    I just finished reading a *wonderful* book, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa. She too cites Li Po. The novel is well worth the read (but promise not to peek at even one word of the blurb), with many buried discoveries such as the Li Po fragment.

  2. daniela elza says:

    Thanks Kim. I like “opening the hand of thought”. Reminds me of something in one of Robert Bringhurst’s poems: “Open them. Open the three fists clinging to the world.”

  3. Donna Lytle says:

    I have forwarded your note to all my fellow students at Chinese Medicine School. Playing with herbs and needles in one thing, playing with words and ideas is quite another – the later sadly overshadowed in our milieu. Good medicine – thanks.

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