Wang Wei, poet of Buddhist emptiness

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Wang Wei (699-751 AD) has often been called “the Buddha of the poets”. Sparse invocations of empty mountains, reflected light and echoes of voices permeate his poetry, which focuses almost exclusively on nature. According to Rafal Stepien, an expert on Chinese literature and philosophy, Wei’s poetic impulse arose out of a deep engagement with Buddhist ideas, especially the concept of emptiness.

Emptiness arises from “Buddha’s observation that there is no inherent, immutable and independent self.” In other words, the ego is empty in the sense that it is entirely conditioned by outside forces. There’s no you Where me in the void. Wei’s own school of Buddhism, known as Chan (or Zen, as it is more commonly known in the West), extended this notion beyond the self, to also contain the perceptible world in its entirety. In this view, all the phenomena that take place in reality – from flowing water and sunlight to the chirping of birds – are empty.

How did Wei transfigure this religio-philosophical belief into poetry? The answer is in silence. Stepien explains that the Chan school “has its origins in the Buddha’s ‘flower sermon’ on Mount Vulture Peak, in which the Buddha, rather than speaking, would simply hold up a flower. In response to this gesture, one of his disciples smiled, “thus acknowledging his understanding of this teaching outside the realm of speech.” Language independence has thus become a centerpiece of Chan Buddhism.

Stepien quotes critic Wai-lim Yip as aptly calling Wei “the quietest poet in China and perhaps in all literary history.” Rather than engaging in self-expression and verbosity, Wei opts for absence and scarcity. In this way, his use of natural imagery encourages a “silence of the self.” Consider a translation of “Deer Enclosure,” written in the 8th century:

Empty mountain, no man is seen.
Only the echoes of men’s speeches are heard.
Reflected light penetrates deep wood
And shines again on the blue-green moss.

As Stepien points out, the poem expresses an ego which is “present only in the sense that it bears disinterested witness to the manifestation of the equally empty phenomena which surround it”. Unlike Western philosophy which, according to Stepien, was marked “from the start by the disjunction” between the mundane and the transcendent, Chan Buddhism “synthesis of equivalent notions (respectively of Samsara and Nirvana)” allows a marriage of the self and the natural world – through “the very notion of emptiness”.

The relationship between Chan Buddhism and poetry in Wei’s work illustrates the powerful interplay of philosophy, religion, and literature during the Tang Dynasty. Its reverberations would extend far beyond China. From modernist Ezra Pound to writer Beat Kenneth Rexroth and environmentalist Gary Snyder, Wei’s paradox of silence has influenced the way other poets see and write about the natural world.


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By: Rafal Stepien

Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, vol. 16, n ° 2 (2014), p. 207-238

Penn State University Press


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