Su Dongpo: Being Childlike and Guileless Are My Teachers

Min Xu

PureInsight | October 18, 2004

[] Su Shi (1036-1101), also known as Su Dongpo, is one of the few figures in Chinese history who were masters of multiple artistic and literary disciplines. He was a great writer, artist and calligrapher. His calligraphy style was based on the traditional script styles but evolved into a new and original style. He, along with Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu, and Cai Xiang are known as the "Four Greatest Calligraphers of the Song Dynasty." Out of the four, he is considered the best. He, along with his brother Su He and father Su Xun, were all famous writers. The three of them were among the eight greatest writers of the Tang and Song dynasties. He also excelled in poetry. He and Huang Tingjian, the founder of the Jiangxi poetry school, went down in history together as the best poets of their era. He founded a new style of Ci (a type of lyric Chinese poetry). He was also an exceptional painter. His flower-and-bird paintings were so fine that, after him, it became fashionable for writers to learn how to paint. He also was very interested in cooking, wine making, and tea tasting and became a master of those disciplines as well.

One day, he invited several good friends to sample tea. After three rounds, inspiration struck them. They began to write and recite poems to show off their literary skills. They also engaged in urbane conversation. One of the guests Si Maguang jokingly asked Su Dongpo, "The best tea is white while the best ink is black. The best tea feels heavy while the best ink feels light. Tea should be savored fresh while the ink gets better with age. Why do you love these two things that are so different from each other?" Su Dongpo answered the question without a moment of hesitation. He put down his writing brush, took a sip of tea, and answered, "The best tea and the best ink both have fragrances, and that is their virtue; both of them are firm, and that is their character. Just as worthy persons may have different skin colors going from dark to pale, they may be handsome or ugly, but their virtue and conduct are the same."

Su Dongpo was also a cultivator of Zen Buddhism and engaged in making alchemy pills of immortality. Though he was quick-witted and humorous, as a cultivator he was very serious and self-disciplined. He said, "Nobody who achieves enlightenment isn't extremely self-disciplined." There were many interesting stories about him and his good friend Zen Buddhist master Foyin. The following is a famous one.

One day, Su Dongpo felt inspired and wrote this poem:

I bow my head to the heaven within heaven
Hairline rays illuminating the universe
The eight winds cannot move me
Sitting still upon the purple golden lotus

The "eight winds" in the poem refer to praise, ridicule, honor, disgrace, gain, loss, pleasure and misery - interpersonal forces of the material world that drive and influence the hearts of men. Su Dongpo was saying that he had attained a higher level of enlightenment, where these forces no longer affected him.

Impressed by himself, Su Dongpo sent a servant to hand-carry this poem to Foyin. He felt certain that his friend would be just as impressed. When Foyin read the poem, the Zen master wrote "fart" on the manuscript and had it returned to Su Dongpo. Su Dongpo was shocked when he saw what the Zen master had written. He hit the roof: "How dare he insult me like this? Why that lousy old monk! He's got a lot of explaining to do!" Full of indignation, Su Dongpo ordered a boat to ferry him to the other shore as quickly as possible. Once there, he jumped off and charged into the temple. He wanted to find Foyin and demand an apology. He found Foyin's door closed. On the door was a piece of paper, with the following two lines:

The eight winds cannot move me
One fart blows me across the river

This stopped Su Dongpo cold. Foyin had anticipated this hotheaded visit. Su Dongpo's anger suddenly drained away as he understood his friend's meaning. If he really was a man of spiritual refinement, completely unaffected by the eight winds, then how could he be so easily provoked? Ashamed but wiser, Su Dongpo departed quietly. We have no way to know what level Sun Dongpo was finally able to achieve in his cultivation. But we can imagine that after that episode, he advanced further in cultivation and made improvements in his xinxing (mind nature).

Su Dongpo was gifted in many ways. His life was rich and colorful. On one hand, he was charismatic, outspoken and open-minded. On the other hand, he also aspired to be as innocent and guileless as a child. For more than a thousand years, his distinct and versatile legacy has lived on and fascinated people for centuries through Su Poetry, Su Essays, Su calligraphy, Su Lyrics, Su painting as well as his famous recipes of Dongpo Fish and Dongpo Pork.

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