I sit alone in a remote bamboo grove,
Plucking the zither to the whistle of my long, deep breaths.
In this place no one knows,
The moon and I shine pure light upon each other.
Today I share with you one my favorite Chinese poems. It’s by Wang Wei, a poet who lived in the early- to mid-700s, during the Tang Dynasty. When I was studying Chinese language in college, I memorized a number of Tang Dynasty poems, and this is the only one I still remember completely. It captivated me back then, and it continues to captivate me today. Like so many other things that arise authentically, I really don’t know why.
The translation I’ve given for the poem is my own. I’m not a poet, scholar, or translator, but I have read dozens of translations and analyses of this poem and researched what some of the words mean and how they were used in the Classical era. But more than that, I have felt this poem: I have pondered it, pictured it, put myself in it, and recited it silently and out loud countless times. Through all that over so many years, I feel I have come to know at least one way to express the meaning of the poem in English, even if that meaning defies mental-level comprehension. After all, while understanding things with our minds is certainly useful for living a good, functional life in the material world, there are always deeper truths that can be known, but not by our minds.
To me, this poem feels like what I feel when I let go of thinking and just be, in my body, in the present—experiencing my life through pure consciousness, without the overlay of all the stories, patterns, wants, fears, etc. I carry around in my mind. That is a place no one “knows”—not even I—and where it’s possible to communicate with the moon, since at the deepest levels, all is one. And I can get there when I align my actions with awareness of my breath. There are teachings and teachers who say that with enough practice it’s possible to find that place in the midst of a normal, busy, day-to-day life. But for those of us still working to gain access to that place, sitting alone in whatever serves as a remote bamboo grove for us is very helpful.
I wonder if this is what Wang Wei was aiming for, or whether he would relate to this way of receiving his poem. What speaks to you in this poem? Does anything in it speak to you? Does anything in it disturb you or raise questions for you? What does it feel like inside when you read this poem?
For anyone who’s interested, here is the poem in Chinese, with a transliteration in the Pinyin system. There are many Pinyin guides available online for help with pronunciation.
dú zuò yōu huánglǐ tán qín fù cháng xiào shēn lín rén bù zhī míngyuè lái xiāng zhào