Poems of Bai Juyi
Peach Blossoms at Big Forest Temple
With people, four months -- and the fragrance is gone.
But the peaches at this hill temple are just beginning to blossom.
I've worried over spring's return, over not finding my right place.
Now, somehow I've changed -- and ended up here.
It's too bad we don't know when 大林寺桃花 was written. It would be nice to say, "Look! Here he's found Zen." I'm not sure Bai Juyi ever says that. Nor does he ever say he doesn't like people. But he appreciates quiet. Chang'an, with a million or two people, would not have been quiet. Possibly louder than Beijing today. Oh well, if Bai Juyi's entrance into Chan eludes us here, we can still talk a little about what his life was like as he wrote this and how I ended up with the words I did.
When you translate, you look for an angle of approach. You have to do something with the first line. And the tack that you take with line one has to hold up, without undue distortion, all the way through to the end. Sometimes, you make it to nowhere near the end before you find yourself dumped out into the void.
The first line here is 人间 (in the midst of people) 四月 (fourth month) 芳菲 (fragrance) 尽 (exhausted). Fourth month in China is more or less May. And it did not make sense to me that the flowers were exhausted of sweetness by then. So I took the tack I did. Probably because I feel this way when I live around too many neighbors. I appreciate quiet too. The second line seemed to go along with the first by contrasting real flowers with city people-fragrance. I don't mean those people stank. But a million neighbors are too many for some of us.
In line three, he's on the move. And when Bai Juyi moved it was usually because he was changing jobs. Sometimes he got promoted and was moved up. Sometimes he got into trouble and was moved along. Sometimes, and this poem might be one of these times, his moving was a case of huanyou (宦游) or hitting the road and hoping to find an appointment based on your paperwork. Maybe he barely had money to last through the winter. So I was still good on approach with line three.
The last line is 不知 (who could know) 转 (spread, transfer, circulate, infect) 入 (enter) 此 ("this place" or "which place?") 中 (center, middle) and 来 (come or came). (In poetry, verbs can be present or past, without needing the past marker (了) which would hamper character count.) So I had these six bits and could feel the void coming on. I suspected 中来 of being a bigram but I couldn't prove it. Then I got some help by discovering that 转入 is a bigram meaning "transmitted inwards." I felt happiest with "Who could know," "transmitted inwards," "this place," "middle," "came." You can see how I ended up with the final line. All the lines seemed to fit together. And I felt I knew Bai Juyi a little better. Sometimes one gets lucky this way.
[Later] This poem was written in 818. We know that at this time Bai Juyi is sometimes practicing Sitting Forgetting. But whether his heart is more Taoist or more Buddhist, even he cannot yet say.