The Two Gates

Read a brief of Poet-Monks: The Invention of Buddhist Poetry in Late Medieval China, by Thomas J. Mazanec and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Cornell University Press.

By Thomas J. Mazanec

Constance Kassor’s review from the Spring 2024 Buddhadharma:

Between the eighth and tenth centuries in China, Buddhist monastic writers blended literary and religious traditions by writing poems infused with Buddhist practices and ideas. These “poet-monks,” as they came to be called, were initially disparaged by the Chinese literati. Their poetry was derided as unsophisticated, described as having the “stench of vegetables and bamboo shoots.” Still, these poet-monks persisted, understanding themselves as advocates for the inherent harmony between poetry and Buddhism. In Poet-Monks: The Invention of Buddhist Poetry in Late Medieval China , Thomas J. Mazanec shows that despite their marginalized status, these writers were actually “the inventors of Chinese Buddhist poetry for their time.” Mazanec presents a history and analysis of the poet-monk tradition around the fall of the Tang Dynasty, focusing in particular on two monks: Guanxiu and Qiji. In addition to analyzing individual poems for their literary and religious content, Mazanec also utilizes digital resources to analyze broader trends in Chinese Buddhist poetry more broadly. The result is an engaging, sophisticated presentation and analysis of an important period in the development of Chinese Buddhist history. [Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of Chinese characters and endnotes; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt: “The Two Gates”

The homology of poetic concentration and Buddhist meditation, suggested by Liu Yuxi and others, came to its fullest expression in the work of Qiji. Qiji was familiar with monks associated with the Wei-Yang lineage, being a native of the Chu region and having exchanged poems with Wei-Yang monks. The Wei-Yang lineage was particularly noted for its emphasis on the complementary nature of religious practice, ordinary life, and sudden enlightenment, and especially how the forms of the physical world can shed light on the mind (ji se ming xin). The Buddhist communities at Hongzhou, where Qiji, Guanxiu, and other poet-monks lived for many years, similarly stressed “non-cultivation,” the possibility of turning any everyday action into meditation. Texts associated with the Hongzhou communities often framed this in terms of meditating in any of the “four postures” in which all monastic activity is performed. As one sermon attributed to Hongzhou patriarch Mazu Daoyi put it:

All dharmas are Buddha-dharma, and all dharmas are liberation. Liberation is Thusness, and all dharmas never leave Thusness. Walking, standing, sitting, and lying—all these are inconceivable functions, which do not wait for a timely season.

Given the fact that the ultimate and the mundane are perfectly interfused, completely dependent on one another, one need not sit in silence to meditate. Activity in any posture can give one access to the “inconceivable,” that is, enlightenment which is beyond thought. The doctrine of the inseparability of principle and phenomena gave rise to the practice of non-meditation as meditation, something that came to be seen as a hallmark of Hongzhou and related Buddhist communities. Such doctrines left much room for an advanced practitioner to engage with the arts and would have been convenient justification for a poet-monk.

In poems written to Zheng Gu, Qiji further develops this relationship between poetry and meditation. One quatrain puts the two practices in parallel with each other, implying their fundamental unity.

Sent to director Zheng Gu 

I have recently come across a craftsman of poetry
in the human realm,
And I once met a mind-stamped master
beyond the birds.
There is nothing so singularly marvelous
besides these two gates—
Beneath a riverside pine,
I trace my thoughts alone.

Poetry and Buddhism are “two gates” (line 3)—that is, two approaches to the same goal. In Buddhist writings, this phrase is often used to describe two seemingly contradictory approaches that are fundamentally interrelated and conditioned on each other, such as the Lesser and Greater Vehicles, or samsara and true thusness (zhenru). Qiji, in his own poetry manual, describes poetry’s forty gates, which are various moods, attitudes, and realms—such as “satisfaction” (deyi, no. 7), “turning one’s back on the times” (beishi, no. 8), “divinity” (shenxian, no. 30), and “purity” (qingjie, no. 40)—through which the poet must enter in order to attain his couplets. They are all distinct approaches that lead to the same goal—a well-wrought poem. The gate metaphor, to Qiji, is pluralist. It stresses that there can be multiple ways to enter into something. In the quatrain to Zheng Gu, poetic composition and Buddhist meditation are two such gates. In the first couplet, they are embodied by the two guides mentioned in the first couplet, Zheng Gu (line 1) and an unspecified “mind-stamped master” who is part of an orthodox lineage (line 2). Qiji positions himself as one who, having gone through both gates, finds himself at the same realm on the other side, where he sits in absorption, no longer with any teacher, following his thoughts as they go by (line 4). That is, poetry and meditation are two ways into the same thing—stillness. Both gates lead to heightened mental concentration.

Qiji expands on this idea of mental concentration in another poem to Zheng Gu. Here he draws on the kuyin aesthetic to invert the normal way it conceives of absorption. Instead of being a means to achieve two different ends (religious insight and poetic creation), absorption becomes an end in itself, something attainable through either literary or religious training. Monasticism is not just a model for poetic pursuits—both meditation and poetry composition are forms of ascetic devotion that may lead one into an absorptive trance.

Sent to Director Zheng Gu 

How could your poetry mind be passed on? 
What you have realized is naturally the same as meditation. 
Seeking a couplet is like searching for a tiger; 
Finding understanding is like reaching a transcendent. 
Your spirit is pure, antiquity resides therein; 
Your words lovely, filled with the Elegantiae and Airs. 
You were once praised as a purified starry gentleman, 
But were embarrassed that this was too ostentatious. 

The language of Buddhist practice pervades these lines, even as it draws on classical discourse. Zheng Gu’s poetry is imbued with “antiquity” (taigu) and the moral purity of the Book of Odes (lines 5–6). But Zheng Gu also has a “poetry mind” (shixin) that can be “passed on” (chuan ) to his followers, just like the mind of a Chan patriarch (line 1). This implies not only a sense of lineage but also a sense that poetry is itself a practice implying a certain view of reality, like meditation, that leads to higher insights. One can cultivate one’s inherent poetry mind, just as one can cultivate one’s Buddha mind (foxin). It is on this basis that Qiji gives Zheng Gu the highest possible compliment he can think of: he has proven the deep homology between poetry and meditation (line 2). Their fundamental root is not only theoretical but also something that Qiji has witnessed in the work of Zheng Gu. He has proven that one with a deeply cultivated poetry-mind can reach the same insights as one who has cultivated the Buddha-mind. The verb Qiji uses here, zheng  (“realized”), is used throughout texts on the nascent Chan lineages to describe both the attainment of enlightenment and the proof of it that one gives to others. As in the quatrain written to Zheng Gu, Qiji again asserts that poetry and meditation are two gates to the same goal…

Qiji elaborated this equation between poetry and meditation not only in poems written to Zheng Gu. If that were the case, one may think that he is simply adopting the terms of his interlocutor for the sake of instruction, a form of upāya. Instead, even in poems describing his own meditation practice, he makes the same claim:

Sitting in Stillness 

Sitting, lying, walking, and standing
I enter meditation, still intoning out. 
Over long days and months, this will
Wear down my body and mind. 
Few things resemble silent communication;
Huangmei’s address was profound. 
On the path of old pines before my gate, 
Sometimes I get up to walk in the cool shade. 

The boldest claim here is the opening: poetry and meditation may be performed simultaneously. That is, the “non-cultivation” advocated in several late medieval Buddhist communities is limited not only to the four postures of sitting, lying, walking, and standing; it extends even to the composition of poetry itself. Qiji proceeds using the same logic as the previous poem, drawing on the rhetoric of kuyin. The activity he is describing—whether that is taken to be meditation, poetry composition, or a hybrid of the two—takes a physical toll on his body.

The third couplet then draws on the technical language of late medieval Buddhism to emphasize the complementarity of language and silence. In line 5, the rare teachings of a master are transferred to a disciple without using words—thus using silence to convey something normally understood through language. In line 6, the patriarch Hongren (here called Huangmei) wrote treatises on quiet meditation—thus using language to convey something normally understood through silence. The poem concludes with the speaker rising from his meditation to stroll through a path of old pines and, presumably, write a poem about them. That is, taking his own equation of meditation and poetry writing seriously, the speaker goes out to put it into practice.

Elsewhere Qiji uses the dialectical tension of parallelism to assert a fundamental identity between poetic and meditative practice, drawing again on the language of hardship.

Meeting a Poet-Monk 

Meditation’s mysteries—they cannot be equaled,
Poetry’s marvels—how can they be critiqued? 
You suffer in five or seven characters
And are purified after hundreds or thousands of years. 
Though hard to find, you arrive at principle, 
When you “do not wither,” you’ll make a name.
We cherish and value seeing each other often, 
Forgetting plans and talking of these things.

In each of the first three couplets, Qiji focuses on meditation in the first line and poetry in the second. The opening presents us with a paradox: things that cannot be “equaled” or “critiqued” are beyond human comprehension, yet they are precisely the poet-monk’s area of expertise. The word used at the end of line 1 for “equaled” (bing ) more literally means “place side by side, in parallel with,” so Qiji is saying that nothing can be put in parallel with the fruits of meditation. Yet he spends the rest of the poem doing just that: he matches poetry and meditation in parallel couplets. Thus the paradox at the heart of the poem: Qiji does what he claims cannot be done.

The middle couplets present the path that the poet-monk must tread in similar terms. The goals, given in lines 5–6, are different: in poetry, one seeks to establish a reputation; in meditation, one strives for ultimate truth. Yet both promise a kind of transcendence beyond normal human life. A poet’s words live on after death, and insight into Buddhist reality leads to the attainment of nirvana. Both require long journeys of intense striving (lines 3–4), be it in the crafting of pentametric and heptametric lines or the countless rebirths on the bodhisattva path. Qiji stresses their similarity through a playful switch of words. “Suffering” (ku , line 3) can be understood as a technical Buddhist term (duhkha) for the misery of life in saṃsāra, the First Noble Truth, but here it is used to describe poetic practice, drawing on the rhetoric of kuyin. “Purified” (qing , line 4), on the other hand, is frequently used to describe austere, dignified descriptions of landscapes in poetry, but here it is used to describe the fruits of Buddhist—not poetic—practice. In this way, Qiji writes an underlying unity of literary and meditative practices into his poem, even as he denies its possibility in the first two lines. This is what poet-monks do, according to Qiji: live in the tension between the two truths of mundane and ultimate reality, use words to point to practice, practice to broach transcendent principle. The poet-monk he meets understands this as well, and the two become so absorbed in the conversation that they lose track of their plans (line 8).

This idea of the poet-monk as the one who understands and performs the underlying unity between poetry and meditation reaches its apex in a poem about Qiji. The audacious opening unfolds into an embodiment of its claim.

Reading the Venerable Qiji’s Collection

[Your] poems are meditation for Confucians, 
Their form is truly transcendent. 
Ancient and elegant like the Hymns of Zhou, 
Pure and harmonious as the strains of Shun. 
Ice forms: your couplet on hearing the cascade. 
A fragrance wafts: your piece on early plums. 
Contemplating them, I intone them until night, 
And your literary star lights up the heavens of Chu. 

The opening line states that poetry and meditation are fully identical at their roots: the only difference is that one is primarily the task of a Confucian scholar, the other the task of a Buddhist monk. And a poet-monk is someone who translates one into the other. The practices of meditation and of writing poetry are basically the same, even if their outward manifestations are different. Both poetry and meditation involve a heightened sense of perception, a knack for ordering thoughts and objects, countless hours of hard striving toward a suddenly realized goal, and a final achievement of supramundane insight. This sense of identity is reinforced by lines 3–4, which praise Qiji’s work as being modern epigones of the most ancient, most orthodox (guya) poetry. The Hymns of Zhou are the oldest layer of the Book of Odes, and the strains of Shun are the perfect songs of the most righteous sage-king in history. Qiji’s work is poetry personified.

Furthermore, the very structure of the poem demonstrates the perceptual awareness that one cultivates in meditation, the powers of observation for which Sun Guangxian praised Guanxiu in the preface to Qiji’s works. It proceeds through the six sense fields (Ch. liujing, Skt. sad visayah) systematically. After line 1 states the process of meditation, line 2 begins with shape or form 色 (the field of sight), focusing on the poems’ “structure” or “grid.” Lines 3–4 attend to hearing , comparing Qiji’s works to exemplary classics of music. Line 5 proceeds to touch , as some of Qiji’s best lines are said to have the coldness of ice, while still linking back to the sound emphasized in the previous couplet. Line 6 stresses smell  and taste , alluding to a poem that seems to exude the sweet smell and taste of the plums it describes: we must remember that “fragrant”  was applied as often to delicious food as it was to pleasing fragrances. Line 7 concludes with thought , the sensory field that integrates the other five, corresponding to the mind. Line 8 circles back to sight, as the speaker imagines Qiji lighting up the skies. Together, these six senses make up the totality of human experience. In this way, it mirrors some of the practices described in earlier meditation manuals translated from Indic languages, those forming the basis for later practices. The Suramgama Sutra (which Guanxiu referred to as the “marrow of meditation”) proceeds through the six sense faculties in the same way. As Qichan methodically proceeds through all six senses in the course of meditation in his own poem, he enacts the claim of line 1 that “poetry is meditation for Confucians.”

In these works, Qiji and Qichan bring to its fullest expression the assertion of a deep homology between religious and poetic practice. If one takes for granted the interfusion of ultimate and mundane reality, if one believes that enlightenment is the realization of this interfusion, and if one assumes that one may therefore practice meditation in the midst of any other activity, then their assertions make perfect sense. It is a small step to go from saying “Wearing clothes, eating food, talking and responding, making use of the six senses—all these activities are dharma-nature” to saying that poetry may serve a soteriological purpose. Qiji is merely bringing well-established practices into his own favored realm of activity, the writing of poetry. But this is not just a casual act of mindfulness; it is an act of asceticism. Both poetry and meditation require intense concentration that may lead to physical suffering, but the fruit of both is a profound, salvific insight into the very nature of reality. From this perspective, the term “religious poetry” is redundant, for religion and poetry are different paths to the same goal.

From Poet-Monks: The Invention of Buddhist Poetry in Late Medieval China, by Thomas J. Mazanec. We thank Cornell University Press for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Thomas J. Mazanec

Thomas J. Mazanec is an Associate Professor of Premodern Chinese and Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara.