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Shambhala Sun | January 2013

About a Poem

RED PINE on Ch’eng Hao’s “Casual Poem on a Spring Day”


The clouds are thin the wind is light the sun is nearly overhead
past the flowers through the willows down along the stream
people don’t see the joy in my heart
they think I’m wasting time or acting like a child

This would be the kind of poem I would write, or wished I could write, if I wrote poems. Ch’eng hao (1032-1085) was the most famous philosopher of his day and one of the founders of a movement that became known as Neo-Confucianism. His unique contribution to this movement was based on his understanding that the world was the manifestation of li, or principle, and that neither li nor the world existed apart from the other.

Ch’eng was especially famous for his lectures. They were attended by thousands of people and were recorded by his students and later edited for publication by such famous Neo-Confucians as Chu Hsi. But, like all Chinese scholar-officials of his day, he also wrote poems and this one appears in the most memorized Chinese anthology, the Chienchiashih, or Poems of the Masters. In this brief quatrain, Ch’eng leads us through his world with stream-of-consciousness artistry and portrays his sense of oneness with that world. Ch’eng’s philosophy is not merely an academic or intellectual posture. He allows us either to stand outside as his critics might have done or to share his experience so that we might better appreciate the arbitrary separation of ourselves from our own world.

When I first read this poem, I was reminded of the story in which Chuang-tzu was out walking with Hui-tzu and commented on the joy of the fishes swimming in the stream under the bridge on which the two men paused to enjoy their own spring day around 300 B.C. Hui-tzu said, “You’re not a fish. How do you know if the fishes are happy?” Chuang-tzu replied, “You’re not me. How do you know I don’t know the fishes are happy?” Indeed, our knowledge of others is one presumption after another. Then too, our knowledge of ourselves is only slightly less presumptuous. But here, in this poem, presumption disappears. It’s a spring day a thousand years ago in a heart full of joy.

An award-winning translator of Chinese poetry and Buddhist texts, Red Pine was born Bill Porter. In the 1970s he spent more than three years living at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. He then struck out on his own, working as a journalist at English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. His book Zen Baggage recounts a pilgrimage to sites in China associated with the beginnings of Zen Buddhism.

From the January 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.

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