Without a doubt my favorite poems in The Clouds Should Know Me By Now are those “From Stones and Trees: The Poetry of Shih-shu” translated by James H. Sanford. For me, the poems in this 32 page section are worth the price of the book, especially since I haven’t been able to find a selection comparable even after considerable searching.
Even the introduction to the section stands out and provides a vital understanding of the context of the poems. Perhaps the reason I liked the poems so much is best explained by”: “… Shih-shu —typical of his era perhaps — seems as much Taoist as Buddhist, more a lay hermit than an entempled monk. … Further, as a Buddhist, he is clearly of the ‘samsara is itself nirvana’ variety; for him, the world is far more a realm of enlightenment than a prison-house of sorrow. Indeed, at times he even seems to approach the tantric view of esoteric Buddhism and its watchword ‘the passions are themselves enlightenment.’”
There’s hardly a poem in the section that I didn’t like, but these two might resonate with me the most. This first one sounds a lot like my sentiment since I finally retired.
against the gently flowing spring morning
the arrogant rattle of a passing coach
peach blossoms beckon from the distant village
willow branches caress the shoulder of my pond
as bream and carp flash their golden scales
and mated ducks link embroidered wings
The poet stares about; this way, then that—
caught in a web beyond all speaking
That opening image contrasting the noisy coach passing by and the gently flowing spring seems surprisingly contemporary, even if we don’t have coaches anymore. We’re all too busy to sit around and enjoy nature, even Spring’s beauty. Only the poet “stares about” and finds himself caught in a “web beyond all speaking.”
Most of all, I love the imagery in this poem which almost makes that last line superfluous, at least for the reader who has identified with the imagery.
This next poem doesn’t rely on imagery as much as the previous poem, or even as much as I usually like, but the message rings true to me and sometimes that’s enough, too.
as flowing waters disappear into the mist
we lose all track of their passage
every heart is its own Buddha
ease off; become immortal
wake up: the world’s a mote of dust
behold heaven’s round mirror
turn loose: slip past shape and shadow
sit side by side with nothing—save Tao
The idea of going with the “flowing waters” which disappear into the unseen and unknown also seems very contemporary, if not just plain “New Age,” but it is also a good metaphor for the Tao, for the Taoist Way, and one that appears throughout the Tao Te Ching.
Combining it with the idea that “every heart is its own Buddha” is a little more striking as is the line “sit side by side with nothing —save Tao.” Hanging on to things too long is the source of many sorrows, but, of course, it’s not easy to “turn loose.”