A Buddhist Retreat in a Ruined Mountain Temple by Chang Jian 题破山寺后禅院 (常建)

I come to the ancient temple at first light;

The lofty trees are steeped in sunbeams white.

A winding footpath leads to deep retreat,

Where Dhyana Cell is hid ‘mid fiowers sweet.

In mountain’s aura fiying birds feel pleasure;

In shaded pool the carefree mind finds leisure.

All worldly sounds are hushed when you come here,

But chimes of bells still linger in the ear.

清晨入古寺,

初日照高林。

竹径通幽处,

禅房花木深。

山光悦鸟性,

潭影空人心。

万籁此俱寂,

但余钟磬音.

This poem is an inscription on the wall, which depicts natural scenes the poet had seen while stepping into the ancient temple in the e morning. It focuses on the quietness and seclusion of the place, showing the beauty of nature and conveying the poet’s feelings when he was so much in harmony with nature that he was oblivious of himself.

One means of artistic expression of the poem is using the scene to express the poet’s emotion. The rising sun, the secluded ancient temple, the flourishing  flowers and trees and the clear water of the pond are all interspersed with one another. When dotted with the bamboo path, the birds and the bell rings, they form a beautiful picture. The beautiful scenes center about the temple, which is a shrine for meditation. The portrayal of the scenery highlights the poet’s ideal of transcending the worldly cares, seeking seclusion and yearning for harmony with nature.

The most attractive part of the poem is the line “a winding path leads to a quiet retreat,” from which the Chinese idiom “Qu Jing Tong You” has developed. This well-known idiom has now become an aesthetic standard and artistic pursuit of the horticulturists and artists. Its original meaning “a winding path leads to a quiet retreat” is consistent with the pursuit of symmetrical curves and the beauty of the ancient Chinese culture, so it best portrays the Chinese gardening, literature and art.

Chang Jian, whose dates of birth and death are unknown, was a native of Chang’an (now Xi’an, Shaanxi Province). He became a jinshi in 727 together with Wang Changling, another famous poet of the Tang Dynasty. He was once a junior officer and later withdrew from society and lived in solitude.

Chang Jian’s official career was one of frustrations and disappointment throughout his life, and he seldom had dealings with people in official circles. He often visited scenic spots to amuse himself and most of his poetic works, except some about his “frontier-life”, depict the rural scenery and the mountains and forests. His language is succinct and natural and has its unique artistic attainments. In his poems, he also complained of the changeability of life and conveyed his pessimistic desire to become a hermit.

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