A Tang Dynasty Poem: Visiting the Incense Storing Temple

Wen Sige

PureInsight | July 19, 2004


Visiting the Incense Storing Temple

By Wang Wei

Not knowing where the temple was,
I traveled miles on cloudy hills,
Through ancient pines, no good tracks,
Toward bells sounding across deep gorges.
Streams gurgling where rocks are high.
Cool sun in fir branches.
Sit at night by the mountain pool,
Seeking to reign in the Dragon.

About Wang Wei

Portrait of Wang Wei

Wang Wei (699-761) was one of the three great poets of the earlier Tang Dynasty along with Li Bai and Du Fu. His father was a local official and his mother was a member of a distinguished literary family. At age 16 Wei and his brother were introduced to society in the Tang capital of Chang'an, then the largest city in the world, and at 23 he passed the shin-shih which guaranteed him entry into literary and official circles (exams which Du Fu failed and Li Bai never deigned to sit).

A man of outstanding talents — courtier, administrator, poet, calligrapher, musician and painter — Wang was immediately appointed Assistant Secretary for Music, which he seems to have found irksome. After a minor indiscretion, he was exiled to the provinces in Shantung, where he remained for some years before resigning and returning to Chang'an. He married and set about developing an estate in the Chang'an hills south of the capital, to which he returned whenever possible.

Wang's wife died when he was 30 and he never remarried. The poet returned to government service a few years later, dividing his time between Chang'an and various missions, including three years on the northwest frontier. In 750 AD, when his mother died, Wang retired to write, paint and meditate in his beloved Chang'an.

Far more than the mercurial Li Bai or the plainspoken Du Fu, Wang Wei was a successful official — he amassed several fortunes and gave lavishly to monasteries — but he became extremely caught up in the An Lushan Rebellion from 755-759. Captured by rebels, Wang was obliged to collaborate, for which he was briefly imprisoned when imperial order was restored. But always valuable, Wang returned to Government service and belonged to the Council of State until he died in 761. Modest, supremely gifted but detached from life, Wang was the model scholarly official, and his 400 poems are included in many anthologies.

It is clear that Wang Wei's spiritual temperament struggled in attempting to relinquish the deep feelings that are obvious in his poems, and that overwhelmed him at the time of his wife's and mother's deaths. As a Confucian trained official he felt a duty to exercise his great talents on behalf of the State, and always returned to State service, though he never occupied the very highest offices. As a Taoist artist he used his Wang River retreat to reconcile himself to nature, and used his poetry, painting and music as a means of cultivation. His works often take a cultivation perspective, combining attention to the beauty of nature with an awareness of sensory illusion.

The Superficial Meaning of the Poem
The opening stanza brings us to an ancient temple in a tranquil forest deep in the mountains. In this poem Wang Wei expresses his yearning for tranquility and enlightenment of his Buddha nature through abandoning secular attachments. He tried to "reign in the Dragon" of desire. The allegory of the dragon comes from a story in Buddhist scriptures. There was once an evil dragon that lived in a lake and harmed a lot of people. Finally, a learned monk drove it away with the power of the Buddha Fa. The evil dragon here refers to the secular desires of the human world.

The Meaning Between the Lines
Wang Wei has heard of the Incense Storing Temple, but does not know where it is. He decides to wander around leisurely on the mountain, hoping his feet will lead him to the temple. It shows his relaxed, happy-go-lucky nature. After a couple of miles, he is surprised to find himself high in the mountain surrounded by fog and clouds. It gives the impression that the Incense Storing Temple is quiet, distant, grand and due respect. Walking in a forest of ancient towering trees reaching the sky where no has set foot before, Wang Wei suddenly hears the sound of a large bell, calling from a remote distance, yet he cannot quite tell which direction it comes from. The temple's silence and tranquility are profound, and the air of mystery and imagination is gripping. The meandering spring winds its way along the ragged rock faces, as if sobbing and sighing softly for the pain and sorrows of life. The crimson clouds at sunset haven't paled the ancient pine trees. The green pine trees look even more dignified and composed, having endured years of wind and storms. In front of the vast and mysterious lake at dusk, Wang Wei is free from worldly thoughts. Naturally, he yearns to rid himself of all selfish desires and other secular thoughts through tranquil meditation.

Wang Wei, the great poet and painter of the Great Tang Dynasty, illustrated numerous beautiful scenes full of sounds and colors through his poems. Every picture painted through words carries the poet's unique aspiration to reach his ultimate goal, which is to cultivate his heart and rise above the human world.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2004/6/11/27553.html

Add new comment