Immersed in the wonder of the Tao/ you can deal with whatever life brings you/ And when death comes you are ready. – Zhuangzi
Introducing the Happy Genius
One thousand years ago the banished poet-scholar Su Shi composed his brilliant prose poem “Ode to the Red Cliffs”. Master Su’s exquisite calligraphy and eloquent storytelling forever immortalized a moment in his life which has inspired artists for centuries. The story begins with Su Shi floating downriver with friends, drinking and singing. They are passing near the site of the world changing Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD). Before the battle the mighty poet/warlord Cao Cao was attempting to gain control of the Yangtze River in order to try and restore the Han Dynasty’s former glory. He was not familiar with naval tactics and lost a great portion of his powerful army when his opponents burned his boats. This was considered by many to be the largest naval battle in history with hundreds of thousands of men involved. The near utter destruction of Cao Cao’s army would usher in the Three Kingdoms period a decade later. This era is memorialized in one of China’s four great ancient novels: The Three Kingdoms.
As Su Shi’s boat floats by the site of the famous battle, one of his guests sings a song with verses from Cao Cao’s poetry. The poet asks why he is singing that song. The friend says he is downhearted because he is but a grain on the ocean, and he wishes to fly with the immortals. Su Shi says the moon waxes and wanes and the river flows on and viewing them from the perspective of Change shows that all things are forever changing and neither the moon nor the river are ever the same moment to moment. Everything has a master and Master Su states he would not take even a hair that was not his. The sound of the wind on the river is received by the ear; the moonlight is captured by the eye which makes color. The inexhaustible infinite treasures of the Universe are all around and this glorious life is what we share.
Within the work the exiled Su Shi weaves his own brilliant understanding of the permanence and impermanence of mortal life. In addition to poetry, Su Shi was also one of the Four Great Master Calligraphers in Chinese history. The depth of emotions displayed in this incredible artistic treasure became a common theme in Chinese art throughout the ensuing centuries up to today.
Colophons are one aspect of Chinese handscrolls which is unfamiliar to many Westerners. As you can see in the magnificent Ode on the Red Cliff, there are a lot of red seals. Along with written commentaries, these red name seals are from fellow artists and famous dignitaries. They are literally seals of approval. A handscroll is an art history documentary of its time, and Su Shi’s art genius is nearly unparalleled.
The Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote that great works of literature were written by men of wisdom and ability when they faced adversity. It is adversity that pushes us to the edge of tolerance and understanding. The edge is what we decide is unknown to us. Its limitations inspire survival skills. Adepts like Su Shi train their spirit-essence through meditation in order to overcome the yearnings of the heart-mind. We must cultivate the essence of our souls, and not allow our greed to force us into unnatural behavior. Wrongdoings are manifested by unnatural thoughts or beliefs which warp our behavior. We must strive to adapt to the environment around us and resist trying to force situations to meet our expectations.
Discovering Su Shi’s Final Home
Walking through the gap in the wall I saw a large stone memorial stele with a meter or more Chinese character Zhong 中 carved on one side. My first impression was that this stele must have been some recent addition, as Zhong (Middle) Guo (Country) is Chinese for China, and maybe it was a local government marker. But as we got closer, I could see this stone had been worn and battered for centuries by the elements. Remnants of Chinese characters were barely distinguishable from the stone. Zhong was the family name of Su Shi’s friend in Danzhou. Zhong also means “middle or center”. I have seen dozens of memorial stones, with poetic descriptions of local tourism sites, and this was not one of those.
Su Shi was also one of the most celebrated writers of travel writing. He would compose essays based on his leisure travels. His famous Red Cliffs writing is carved into the very cliffs themselves. Throughout China famous writers composed odes to their experiences when visiting certain places. These are later carved into the actual spots. In this way the traveler, if he is famous enough, alters the actual destination itself. This is also why many local tourism sites include photographs of famous politicians and the like. The words or image of the famous are similar to the red seals of fellow artists on great works of art.
This must be why the stone monument was erected to immortalize the words Su Shi wrote while living out amongst the sago (sugar palms). Although We could never find any record of who set the monument at Su Shi’s door, I am sure it was his great good friend Zhong.
I too had my words immortalized somewhat when I was an editor in China. Articles I wrote about out-of-the-way spots were included in the travel guide to the province. At one time, my voice was the English language voice for local tourism, when I took a voice acting job arranged by a former student. All those things raced through my mind as I studied this wondrous stone monument standing at Su Shi’s former doorway. My fingers and eyes traced along its edges, gently stroking fragments of once elegant characters. Remembering that Su Shi was a connoisseur of rocks, I wondered how much time the sculptor took to select just the right stone.
Su Shi had two prized stones which he took with him everywhere. He named the stones after a poem by DuFu the great Tang Dynasty poet. He acquired the stones after a vivid dream about a heavenly mountain. The mountain had steep, sheer cliffs on all sides with only a single path leading to the summit. On top the mountain there was hundreds of acres of good land watered by clear streams. In a sense the mountain was kind of Utopia. Many Chinese travel articles refer to an imaginary utopia known as “Peach Blossom Springs”. This was similar to Shangri-la. But Su Shi created an inner realm which could be entered through tranquility and meditation the door to which disappeared with the slightest distraction or a single thought. Su Shi meditated on his “scholar rocks” to achieve an inner tranquility and by so doing created his own inner heaven.
Zhuangzi had written about the “transformation of things”, and this concept of metamorphosis runs throughout Taoist thought. Just as something reaches the end of the line it transforms into its opposite. This spiritual transformation allowed Su Shi to change the misfortunes of life through self-discipline. As he wrote, “A falling pot knows it will shatter.”
As one disaster after another battered his life, he transformed the misery into inner bliss. Su Shi felt that our world is a common shared place, but a person can create an inner realm through meditation and eliminating extraneous thoughts. Su Shi said metaphorically that his life was a stopover – a temporary stay. Throughout his life his goal was to return home. In his old age “home” was an illusion. He returned home by achieving his original state, and by so doing, home was within and through tranquility he found himself. Tracing the outline of the tremendous Zhong (Center) character I tried to imagine Su Shi glancing out his window at his garden before meditating.
The large six-character inscription on the other side of the stone was still legible, and it was obvious there were multiple columns of characters which had mostly been obliterated. If I had known in advance that it was there, I would have taken a rubbing of the stone. But that is the thing with unexpected discoveries, they catch you unprepared. Running my fingers over the rough surface, I imagined the artist who carved the stone and his patron. I settled for photographing this magnificent monument.
Several feet from the stone was Su Shi’s second well. This was the sweet water well he had dug for his own personal use. There was no mention in the available records that this second well was still being used at his former home site. Peering over the shadowy edges of the well, I saw myself reflected on the watery surface, and thought about the great genius smiling face as he brought water from the well.
Su Shi had written of his three pleasures in his exile to Hainan: waking late and combing his hair, napping and soaking his feet in water drawn from his own well. My wife talked to one of the local ladies tending the vegetables, who came over with a red plastic bucket on a rope. She deftly dropped the bucket into the well and drew out a half bucket of cool restorative water. We sat on several nearby stones which looked as if they had stood ready to receive company for over nine centuries. I was lost in reverie as I cooled down my aching feet at Su Shi’s doorstep. We had not only found the wells, but we were able to relax in what had once been Su Shi’s front yard. The idyllic scene is forever etched in my mind.
On the way, I had taken several photos of the small simple homes nearby. They were truly humble abodes. Nearly every city, town or village I visited in China were jammed with construction projects. The government’s urban renewal projects have transformed the entire town, and so I wanted to share a few photos of the descendants of the local Li people who honored the memory of the great poet who once was their neighbor.
Later we worked together to translate the inscription. I drew the large characters as best as I could, and my wife translated them one by one before doing some more online research. She found a local historian’s photo of the monument which he said had the commemorative poem Su Shi had written about his simple home. I believe that something, perhaps the Tao or Su Shi’s powerful spirit, guided us towards this amazingly rich experience.
My wife and I work as a team to translate and reveal the essence of a piece. The following is our informal translation in a prose poetry style of the poet written on the back of the stone at Su Shi’s home. I chose this style to give the feeling of a conversation with Su Shi – the self-proclaimed “hermit of the sugar palms”. I feel this stone inscription was meant to be more of a personal letter to his former neighbors and friends who had welcomed him during his gloomy time of exile. It is not meant to be a scholarly in-depth translation. It was here that the exiled Su Shi, Su Dongpo created his final reinvention as the “Hermit of the Sugar Palms”.
Returning from China the first time my good friend said I had an edge about me. Edginess, when I saw him again five years later I had honed that edge into the character Wheeler, which I became in China. Telling stories, making connections for students, using aphorisms, inspiration, trying to equate western things to more familiar Chinese concepts. I am a storyteller, and I adapted to the job of teaching by using aphorisms, stories from life, woven with a bit of truth and a dash of myth. Later when I was sat on a lintel stone in the happy genius’ doorway, I imagined him walking home from teaching. He wore his Li minority hat and straw sandals, scraping the cow poop off before going inside and soaking his feet. He would pour a cup of wine and meditate. In this way he transformed into the Hermit of the Sugar Palms.
Inscription for Guanglang Retreat
The whole world is one. If you have spirit you can live anywhere. Sugar palm trees, tall and straight stand like hundreds of stone poles. Sweet palm leaves are very thick like millions of roof tiles. The sky is my quilt and so grand is my bed I don’t need to cover the roof. Look up and I can see the sun and moon. The wind and rain help me sweep my yard. The winds from the ocean helps me breathe freely. No walls, no doors let snakes, rats and monsters come in or leave. Poison snakes and bees make this their habitat. They are my mates; I have trained through meditation at home. I look at the forest as my room. Being peaceful to deal with changes. I use my magic imagination to deal with reality. Getting away from the five elements helps me reach the realm behind the earthly world. If I pass away, nobody will know who I am. Even if the old me is gone. The world won’t know who I was even if I looked the same it is not me. Spirit helpers appear before my eyes and help me leave the real world. I have nothing to bother me when I live in my house, and when I die this is my tomb. Even though I worked for the government for thirty-six years. Now I am still here in this uncivilized place. Soon I will go roaming in the land of Great Concealment.