Poetry of Zen: Wang Wei

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Wang Wei ( 699-761), a man of outstanding talents, was a courtier, administrator, poet, calligrapher, musician and painter. Wang Wei was a successful official in the civil service who chose to balance his duty to serve his nation with his life of Zen.        

Although not a monk, Wang Wei was clearly a serious and long-term student of Chan. He wrote funerary inscription memorials for Huineng and others, and, according to his own account of his studies with his teacher Daoguang, "For ten years I sat at his feet and obediently received the teachings."

In much of Wang Wei's poetry Chan and poetry go hand-in-hand. His poems abound in references and allusions to masters, sutras, teachings, and places.

Visiting Hsiang-Chi Temple

Unknown, Hsiang-chi Temple—
miles and miles into cloud-draped peaks.
Among the old trees, a path no one travels,
a bell deep in the mountains but where from?
A brook gulps among protruding boulders,
and though the sun glows, it's cool beneath the pines.
At dusk, by a bend in an empty pool,
meditating quietly I rout the deadly dragon.

Offering a Meal for the Monks of Mount Fu-Fu

Having come late to the pure truth,
every day I withdraw farther from the crowd.
Expecting monks from a distant mountain,
I prepare, sweeping out my simple thatch hut.
It's true: from their place in the clouds,
they come to my poor house in the weeds.
On grass mats, we have a meal of pine nuts.
Burning incense, we read books about the Way.
I light the oil lamp as daylight thins,
ring the stone chimes as night comes on.
Once you've realized the joys of stillness,
your days hold ample peace and leisure.
Why give serious thought to returning?
Life now looks completely vacant.

As we noted above, many of Wang Wei's finest poems are "Zen" not in their direct references to the Dharma. Rather:

. . . they seem to carry its resonance as all things do, simply by nature. Here, the clouds are clouds, and what lies concealed behind them is Mount Chung-nan. If you say the clouds represent delusion and Chung-nan the unmoving reality of buddha-nature, you ruin the poem and defile the world.