Cultivation Stories of Ancient Poets: (Part 2) Bai Juyi

Mei Songhe

PureInsight | January 27, 2003

[] Bai Juyi, also known as Bai Letian, was a renowned poet during the period immediately following the peak period of the Tang Dynasty. He lived from 772 to 846 AD. The less educated people at that time could easily understand the language used in his poems, with their explicit themes. The poems flowed smoothly. His poetic style was so unique that it became a literary form commonly known as Yuan-Bai-Ti, or Fundamentally Plain Form.

Bai was an advocate of new ballads and folk songs in the style of the Han Dynasty. He also developed a framework of poetry writing, "Yu Yuan Jiu Shu" or "Nine Principles of Poetry Writing." It is highly esteemed and considered a masterpiece of the critical approach to Chinese literature. He excelled in various forms of poetry, especially narrative and lengthy poems. Among his best works are "Song of Eternal Sorrow," which is a long poem describing the rise and downfall of the famed beauty Yang Gui-Fei and "Song of the Pipa Player' about a pear-shaped Chinese lute. Throughout the ages, poetry critics have eulogized "Song of Eternal Sorrow" as an extremely beautiful poem.

Many other great poets in the Tang Dynasty, such as Han Yu and Du Fu did not receive recognition for their poems until well after their death. Bai Juyi, on the other hand, was famous in his lifetime. He and his works were sought after in the whole of China and even abroad. After his death, his works continued to have a substantial historical influence on the field of Chinese poetry. During the peak of his fame, lasting about twenty years, Bai Juyi's poems were seen on the walls in various temples, shrines, and postal kiosks. Devotees of Bai Juyi's poetry included people from among higher authorities as well as those of lower ranks, ranging from nobility and ministers of state to old peasants and young shepherds. Men and women from the young to the old were equally attracted to Bai Juyi's poems. People everywhere would often transcribe his poems in exchange for wine or tea. The prostitutes who could recite or sing "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" would demand a higher price for themselves because they have differentiated themselves from other "songbirds" with their ability to recite or sing Bai Juyi's poems. Even prime ministers of foreign countries would ask their traders who conducted business in the Chinese courts to purchase Bai Juyi's poems for the astonishing price of a hundred pieces of gold for a poem.

Throughout his lifetime Bai Juyi wrote more satirical poems than any other poet in Chinese history. This is an indication of his genuine concern for the poor and their sufferings and a revelation of his compassion for the impoverished and less fortunate. Among Bai Juyi's most famous satirical poems are "The Elderly Charcoal Seller," "Watching the Wheat Harvest," and "A Piece of Fine Liao Silk." To the present day, when reading these poems, one can feel Bai Juyi's contagious compassion. The most commendable aspect of Bai Juyi's character is, while he was deeply concerned and sympathetic toward the poor, and he often looked inward and criticized himself for leading a luxurious life. When he saw a woman carrying a baby and, to allay hunger, picking up each and every grain of wheat dropped by the wheat harvesters in the field, Bai Juyi mentally berated himself severely for receiving 300 bushels of rice as his official salary. This was a considerable amount of rice, which he did not earn by working in the rice patty. This was recorded in "Watching the Wheat Harvest."

His compassion gradually led him to cultivation in Buddhism. In his later years, Bai Juyi called himself "The Hermit of the Fragrant Mountain " and became a cultivator who cultivated outside the temple. His cultivation enabled him to see a principle that everything in the world is a result of karmic relationships. Consequently, Bai Juyi was not overly concerned or stricken by melancholy like everyday people when he confronted tribulations. He was not overly distraught when he was demoted in his official capacity and sent to Jiangzhou to be a minor official. He grew detached from fame and wealth, and cautioned others not to be consumed by such pursuits; otherwise, the means they used to attain their pursuits would bring them nothing but disasters. Bai Juyi also told others sincerely and earnestly that tribulations were a result of our own words and deeds. [1] Because he was able to detach himself from fame and wealth, he made rapid progress in cultivation and soon acquired a relatively strong capability of precognition and retro-cognition.

During the height of the Tang Dynasty, many court officials, who were appointed by royalty, and also scholars, cultivated Buddhism, and many of them knew their previous lives. Bai Juyi was one of those. One of his poems related that, "It is said that Fang Taiwei was a Buddhist monk in his previous life, and Senior Assistant Officer Wang, or the well-known great poet Wang Wei, was a painter in his last life. When I sat in meditation and used the ability of retro-cognition to look at my past life, I saw that in my many past lives I had an unbreakable predestined relationship with poetry." [2] Here Bai Juyi revealed that his talent in poetry was a result of continuous effort, accumulated over his many lifetimes. Bai Juyi's statements provide a good explanation for such things as talent and proof of reincarnation for western researches on the subject. From one of the studies on reincarnation, it was reported that a toddler could drive a motorboat without any prior lessons, an indication of a most extraordinary natural gift. Later on, the researchers discovered that the toddler had been the captain of a motor boat with decades of experience in his previous life.

From his cultivation, Bai Juyi possessed the strong supernormal abilities of precognition and retrocognition. Moreover, he appeared to be better enlightened on the Buddha Fa than most people. In "Reflections upon Reading the Zen Scriptures," Bai Juyi wrote, "It must be borne in mind that most things in life are merely illusions. For example, what may appear to be insufficient to you is actually in surplus. A forgotten speech is no more important than speaking of a dream in a dream, for neither is constant or real. Expecting a seedless flower to produce a fruit is as realistic as searching for fish at noon. Perturbance is an advanced level of meditation, so is meditation in absolute stillness, for tranquility of the mind is the true key."

Since different people have different understandings toward a Zen poem, I will not comment on the poem and leave it to the readers to fathom.

[1] Bai Juyi, "Two Impromptu Poems:" "Good or ill luck, misfortune or good fortune have their origins, but most importantly one must not worry about them. […] Fame is a public servant and should not be sought after. Profit claims calamity so one should not seek it. […] I have one advice for you; too many people on earth suffer because they choose to do so."

[2] Bai Juyi, "Self-Explanation:" "Fang was in his other life a Buddha meditative cultivator, and Wang Dao was a renowned painter. During my meditation I had a precognition of my previous lives where I was a poet."

All quoted poems can be found in "Bai Xiang Shan Collection," in "Fundamental Collection of National Studies (Four hundred types)," edited by Wang Yun-Wu, and published by Shang Wu Printers of Taiwan, first edition being published in September of 1968. "Two Impromptu Poems" and "Reflections upon Reading the Meditative Scriptures" was quoted from the 65th volume, and "Self Explanation" was quoted from the 68th volume.

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