Translated By J.P. Seaton
A lot of guys want high office.
A job that pays enough to fill two bowls
of rice is good enough for me.
The fire that simmers the rice pot
will warm my toes too.
Listen you, enjoy your time,
you don’t really have very long.
You were born just a moment ago,
and in another moment you will die.
The wind will blow it all away,
the flames embrace it,
where the waters flow.
and mud congeals: so is made, a human.
Bodies need clothing.
Mouths require food.
Everyone wishes for a great long life,
But buried, at least, you’ll fertilize the fields.
It will be good to see at last The City of Nirvana,
and to leave these lands of the End Times.
The Sky gave me life,
Death is the Earth’s last warm embrace.
But at last Life-and-Death are nothing to me.
I am the ever flowing stream.1
Wang Fanzhi (flourished early 600s CE, also Wang Fan-chih) is the first Chan/Zen poet whose work is still around and who wrote mainly in something real close to spoken Chinese. Even the much more famous Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”) and his sidekick Shide wrote a style closer to “classical.” Wang’s rough poems were pop music for Tang- and Song-dynasty Chinese readers. Lost after Song, and only rediscovered at the beginning the last century, in the Buddho-Daoist cave library at Dunhuang.
J.P. Seaton is a poet and translator who lives on Chicken Bridge Road in central NC. In July 2009, Shambhala Publications will bring out his volume of translations Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih-Te, and Wang Fan-chih. Seaton has also edited/translated The Shambhala Book of Chinese Poetry, and he collaborated with Ursula K. Le Guin on a version of the Daodejing. His first book of translations, The Wine of Endless Life—presently in print from White Pine—is a classic.
1. Though it begins with reference to the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, and alludes to the thinking of the Buddhist “Sect of the Five Stages” in line two, the rest of this final poem has much more the feel of the naturalistic fatalism of Daoism (if it is proper to call anything so joyously positive as the Daoism of Laozi and Zhuangzi “fatalistic”). Such a confusion of Buddhist and Daoist beliefs is often apparent in the Hanshan poems (which may indeed have come together over a period of nearly four hundred years). The same time frame may apply to Wang Fanzhi’s poems, but it seems to me more likely that they simply reflect a lower level of conventional education (though certainly not of spirit or of poetic talent) for the “Wang Fanzhi” poets. Hanshan was the model for the early Beat poets: Wang Fanzhi is (pace Buk lovers) is a Buddhist Bukowski, maybe. I’d love to hear that argued, anyway, though at my age I wouldn’t want to take part.