Poems of Bai Juyi
A Brand-New Cotton Robe
Cassia cotton, white as snow.
Jiangsu cotton, soft as clouds.
Heavy cloth, soft and thick,
Makes a robe with extra warmth.
Embrace the dawn and sit till dusk.
Night returns and sleep till dawn.
Those who know hard winter moons
Sustain their body in warmth like spring.
All evening long, neglect to study.
In this warm robe, hesistate to rise.
True Man, your grasp helps me cross over.
Years of solitude make us perfect and whole.
Calm inside this infinite robe,
Swaddled here, encompassing four directions.
Warm and settled, everyone is me.
Under Heaven, no cold men.
It is 813 as Bai Juyi writes this and a quick glance at the last poems's feihua will tell you what he's up to now. Here he is sitting in literary-rustic pseudo-simplicity and practicing his Sitting Forgetting.
Cassia cotton (桂布) is used to stuff quilts. Jiangsu cotton was famous for its warmth. As usual, Bai Juyi's immediate surroundings jumpstart his poetry. We know from the last poem that he is spending the harshest winter months along the Wei River, with a nice fire and a rough silk quilt and a fur coat. Now we can add a warm cotton comforter and heavy cotton clothes to his inventory.
His "embrace the dawn and sit till dusk" is almost certainly an idealized span of sitting. Such a span of sitting would qualify as a severe sesshin in any Zen monastery. And we don't have any evidence that Bai was that rugged a guy. Maybe he was. But I'm skeptical. I also think that his sitting here is Dao-oriented and not Chan-oriented. There is no tradition of warmth-generation in Chan (Zen) Buddhism. One just stoically deals with the cold. But in Dao's dazuo (打坐), the first goal is to get the fire of the heart to descend into the water of the kidneys and generate warmth as a result. Chinese alchemy aside, there is plenty of evidence that daoshi are able to generate such warmth, even in the present day, often among very traditional Chinese boxers. One of Bai Juyi's friends, whose name I managed not to write down, was known for this skill in the cold. Although, I think he came along much later than 813.
The next hint of Dao, as opposed to Chan, is zhangfu (丈夫). One of the obscure uses (obscure in our time, not necessarily in his) of this bigram is "true man" which is also, perhaps only later, written zhenren (真人). The true man is an ideal of the Dao throughout even the earliest writings. To be fair, Linchi Yixuan (临济义玄 or Rinzai) was Bai Juyi's contemporary and his writings use the idea of "true man." So as usual, everything I say may be wrong. The "years of solitude" is also an idealized view of Bai Juyi's self as his solitude tended more towards days and weeks than anything longer. But to be fair, this is true of all but the most extreme hermits. I'm just saying Bai Juyi was never more than a marginal hermit with plenty of society and a fair amount of drinking parties at all times. His spiritual pursuits may spring from a constancy. But he never goes further into the mountains than you can go in nice shoes.
In the last verse, we have one more hint of the Dao, which I translate as "encompassing four directions." A stricter translation would be "encircling the four limits" which in turn implies "passing beyond all limits." Zhuangzi (庄子 or Chuang Tzu) is full of this passing beyond all limits, often as a riding-on-clouds thing. I think this last verse's final lines are sweet. I mean this without irony. We only recognize the reality of things when we recognize that they are already true, have always been true, for everyone. If Bai Juyi is warm, then everyone is warm. Whether he actually realizes this or simply knows that it is to be realized is something we cannot know. But we can know that he expresses himself unselfishly here and that is some real goodness realized by any measure.