Poems of Bai Juyi
Cloudhome Temple's Lonely Phoenix Tree
One lone tree of Nature's slender grace,
Its thousand leaves a winding cloud of jade.
Rising upright, fifty feet or more,
Lofty desires continue without cease.
Mountain monk with ninety years of life,
Beyond illusion, still untouched by death.
Now in the clouds, it came from the hand
Which planted, long ago, a single phoenix seed.
Ascending, unhurried, from a tiny sprout,
This greatness began as almost emptiness.
All around, it rises without branching,
And, at its core, there circulates the truth.
Spread the word at once among the living:
Alone and upright is to be like this.
On the first line of 云居寺孤桐, I have used the word "Nature." It is important to keep this word from leading us into anachronism. The idea of "Nature" in the West comes from the poet Wordsworth. Our Nature is no older than the late 18th or early 19th Century and is specific to us in the West. All cultures have their own relation to the world we think of as Nature, even if some of them, for a time, adopt their own particular interpretation of a currently dominant culture's, like ours.
The Chinese "Nature" here is qing (青) and in the Chinese mind this was, and probably still is, "the color of Nature." What color is Nature? Depends on what is being described. It can be shades of green, blue, grey. Black or white. You are expected to read each poem and infer the color of that particular Nature from the context.
And so, this poem is not in praise of Western Nature. Or of trees. Or even of this particular phoenix tree. It is a poem about Man and the ideals of Mankind. In China, at least in Bai Juyi's China, there is Man, ren (人), the other things in the world beside Man, the Ten Thousand Things (万物 or wanwu), and the world beyond that, Things Outside (物外 or wuwai.) Bai Juyi appreciates wanwu but his ideals are the ideals of ren.
I think that in 808, in this poem, we are seeing explicit Buddhism, or at least Buddhist influence in Bai Juyi's poetry. We are at a Buddhist temple. The tree is used to invoke a monk, beyond illusion and originating in emptiness. At at the center of this ideal monk, runs the living truth. So while we can't know whether Bai Juyi is sitting in Chan meditation, we can see that he is beginning to idealize Chan's framework. Perhaps here, at 36, he is trying the ideas of Buddhism on for size, to see if they will help him on the journey that is his own.
While we are talking about the importance of Man (male and female), I should explain why this effort, as a whole, uses Simplified Chinese characters. It's simple: more people can read them. And I think more people should read Bai Juyi. It's not like I have a preference. I study both simplified and traditional concurrently. Clinging to either exclusively only limits one's enjoyment of Chinese as a whole. There are other reasons having to do with ease of reading when the characters are small. And digital input methods. And the limitations of Traditional Chinese character sets. But the only real reason is that I, like Bai Juyi (and Bankei and Henry David Thoreau), am a populist at heart. People are great -- the more, the merrier.