The Emptiness of Wang Wei

Karen recently gave me 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.  This small book is a compilation of 19 translations of Wang Wei’s (7th century Chinese poet) poem, Deer Park,  alongside an essay by Eliot Weinberger, and a concluding essay by Octavio Paz.  This helped deepen my appreciation for Wang, and motivated me to attempt to transduce the poem myself.

Transduce seems a better word than translation for what I’m doing. It is an attempt to transform a distant literary energy to a local one. It follows in the footsteps of Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems.  As Paz points out, referring to a TS Eliot remark, Ezra Pound invented Chinese poetry in English.  He did this without in fact knowing any Chinese, but working from, as I am here, literal translations.

Here are the literal and poetic translations from Chinese Poems.

Deer Enclosure

Empty hill not see person
Yet hear person voice sound
Return scene enter deep forest
Duplicate light green moss on

Hills are empty, no man is seen,
Yet the sound of people’s voices is  heard.
Light is cast into the deep forest,
And shines again on green moss.

The literal translation of the title’s second word is fence or enclosure, which Chinese Poems uses. The title is most often rendered in English as Deer Park.  Weinberger says this is probably a reference to the site of Buddha’s enlightenment.   Robert Okaji titles his version of the poem Deer Sanctuary, which I think is the best version if one decides the poem is not primarily a Buddhist one.

However, I think it clearly is.  As I noted in a previous post, Wang closely associated himself with the Vimalakirti Sutra, which discusses Emptiness with the bodhisattva Manjushri .  Wang also studied Buddhism for 10 years with the Chan master Daoguang.

chinese_symbols_for_empty_8521_2_0[1]

Chinese symbol for “empty”

Then we get to the first line.  How are we to understand empty?  It seems an odd word choice on its own.  Do we retain it?  Most trans(lators)(ducers) do keep it or render it as some version of lonely, or uninhabited.  I have to wonder if Wang meant something like either of those why didn’t he just say so?

This suggests to me that Wang’s emptiness might be just what I mean when discussing Buddhist Emptiness.  On the other hand, contemporary use of emptiness for sunyata may just be an artifact of translation choices of early translators of Buddhist texts to English.

Without too much effort I found these passages.

The word kong is among Wang Wei’s favorite descriptive word and frequently occurs in his nature poems.  It is also the standard Chinese translation for one of the key concepts of Mahayana Buddhism -” emptiness” (Skt. sunyata).

The Chan Interpretation of Wang Wei’s Poetry: A Critical Review by Jingqing Yang

And

What is an empty mountain?  Clearly it is not barren as we are informed there  is a “deep forest” there. Kong is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term sunyata.  Primarily the term is a negation – a denial that phenomenon have self existence – that is permanence independent of causes and conditions.

How To Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology edited by Zong-qi Cai  (C10.6 Recent Style Shi Poetry. The Deer Fence Wang Wei) by Charles Egan

So in my transduction, I sought to covey a sense of this Buddhist Emptiness in the first line.  To do so in the economical style of the poem is quite a challenge.  I don’t think I quite succeeded but it’s a start.

The other part of the poem that trans(lators)(ducers) have difficultly with is the last line.  Weinberger’s literal translation provides more nuance than the Chinese Poetry’s bare bones approach.

To return/Again  to shine/to reflect  green/blue/black  moss/lichen above/on (top of)/top

As I see the scene, sunlight re-illuminates the forest floor generally, and the moss specifically, which reflects in a figurative sense the brightly lit forest canopy above.  I have not encountered quite this interpretation of the last line in my reading so far.

I plan to keep at this.  I’m take the following as my first version, the start of a path, a variation on my ongoing practice of Emptiness Yoga.

Deer Park

Contingent mountain, unseen people,
Voices like an echo.
Again sun lights the forest floor,
The green moss, the canopy above.

Amphibian Digitism

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Salamander

Amphibian Digitism (Click pic to enlarge)

the object has a similar interiority and a different physicality, and this I call animism….

the object is devoid of interiority but possesses a similar kind of physicality, and this I call naturalism.

Phillipe Descola – Beyond Nature and Culture

If I describe my first shamanic journey on my own behalf, not Coleen’s journeying for me, mediating an entourage of power animals and beings, not her extractions of misplaced energies, not her soul retrieval journeys, but my own journey, not with the powerful bear, or the gregarious wolf or the insightful owl, but with beings I won’t name and with salamander then there’s only this:

Salamander vibrates between animism and naturalism and so even before the Manhattan Project, before digital computers, salamander was and is digital.

Salamander collapses subject and object, figure and ground, living not just in the ground and the water but of ground and water like pouring water into water.

The object has a similar interiority and a similar physicality and this I call digitism.

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Vallyey – Part 3

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Part 2 asserts that from  the Uncanny Valley’s forest floor, the drone seems both an uncanny robot and a living nonhuman species.  Of course neither is true.

The drone is a remote appendage of a cyborg. The parts of this entity includes a human at a control panel and all the technological infrastructure the drone needs to complete its mission. Distributed across the world, it is a functional human/machine hybrid, just as a human immersed in an electronic device, or in union with a pacemaker is.

Looking down at the Valley’s forest floor for a moment, perhaps distracted by a sound, or just overwhelmed by the vigilance of looking at the sky, I see this:

atomic angel

Destroying Angels (a group of closely related Amanita species around the world) are among the most deadly mushrooms there are.  Humans eating the various species of Destroying Angel (or the closely related the Death Cap) result in up to 95% of mushroom deaths.

These visible mushrooms though are only a projectile of the underground organism, the mycelium.  This part of a fungus can be huge.  Depending on the criteria one uses, a fungus in Oregon is the largest living organism on earth.

Additionally, the fungus lives in symbiosis with the surrounding trees, fungus penetrating into tree roots cells, becoming a functional entity, becoming one thing, becoming a non-human/non-machine cyborg.

Standing on the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, the potential of death hovers above me and stands as witness at my feet.

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Valley – Part 2

In Part 1,  I wrote:

The visceral revulsion of many seems to indicate a sense that these drones have, or will assume a life of their own, that despite their clearly mechanical appearance, they inhabit the uncanny valley.

But how can this be?  A robot’s too/not enough human likeness is the core of the effect.  There are in fact quite a number of drones, with various appearances.  But  I can’t recall one with any visual appreciable human likeness at all.

Mori’s graph show the industrial robot as the least uncanny.  But the industrial robot’s environment is highly constrained and controlled.  Even the huge mining or tunneling machines exist in specific environments when doing their work.

The drone roams the greater world, our world, seemingly unconstrained or controlled.  Imagine  observing from the ground a drone hovering for days.  Then suddenly it launches a missile that strikes close by.  Even if one is uninjured it must be a breathtakingly frightening experience.

From that vantage point, the drone appears to have intelligence, agency and to be capable of highly consequential action.  I think,, for many of us, this empathetic understanding is at least as strong as a more rational and factual one.

Combined with drones not looking human, this leads us to metaphorically regard them as a different species.

Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute says one of the “families of unreliable metaphors for imagining the capability of smarter-than-human Artificial Intelligence” is

 Species metaphors: Inspired by differences of brain architecture between species. AIs  have magic.

Drones then become a magic species, capable of rainng death down on us.

Their  different brain architectures leave them though emotionless.  Human Rights Watch released its report Losing Humanity a few months ago arguing against the development of “fully autonomous weapons”.

Even if the development of fully autonomous weapons with human-like cognition became feasible, they would lack certain human qualities, such as emotion, compassion, and the ability to understand humans. As a result, the widespread adoption of such weapons would still raise troubling legal concerns and pose other threats to civilians. (p. 6)

The report received limited coverage.  Among the most substantive was the Spencer Ackerman’s article Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You The wry, ironic tone of the title was typical of the few articles that did appear.

The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much.

.Looking up from the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, through the canopy, I’m not so sure.

About Mushrooms

In a previous post,  I described the events leading up to my grandfather telling me, “You have to understand about mushrooms.”  Learning recently about Charles McIlvaine, I recognized something of my grandfather in him.  Both, I think, trusted his own experience to a degree that would ordinarily seem to result in an early death, only to have it validated.

He served in the Union Army for two years, rising to become a Captain. (Here is a point of difference between the two.  My grandfather came to America in part to avoid service in the Polish army.)

I found no account of his next 17 years.  Another similarity to my grandfather perhaps – a certain mystery about where he was and what he was doing.  At that point McIlvaine moved to West Virginia.  This is his account of what happened.

A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten. I remembered having read a short time before this inspiration seized me, a very interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1877, written by Mr. Julius A. Palmer, Jr., entitled “ Toadstool eating.” Hunting it up I studied it carefully, and soon found myself interested in a delightful study, which was not without immediate reward. Up to this time I had been living, literally, on the fat of the land – bacon; but my studies enabled me to supplement this, the staple dish of the state, with a vegetable luxury that centuries ago graced the dinners of the Caesars. So absorbing did the study become from gastronomic, culinary, and scientific points of view, that I have continued it ever since, with thorough intellectual enjoyment and much gratification of appetite as my reward. I hope to interest students in the study as I am myself interested.

For twenty years my little friends – the toadstools – have been my constant companions. They have interested me, delighted me, feed me, and I have found much pleasure in making the public acquainted with their habits, structure, lusciousness and food value.

Charles McIlvaine “ OneThousand American Fungi”

McIlvaine’s method for leaning about mushrooms included eating hundreds of species of them.  The ediblity and poisoness of many of these were not known at the time.  His nickname came to be “Ole Ironguts”.

My grandfather came to America when he was 16.  I don’t know what education he had there.  His family was well off, so I’m sure whe went to school.  But from the rough jobs he had in this country, I’m fairly sure his formal education stopped in Poland.  Maybe he began to learn the ways of the forest there.  Because of the way he talked about “the woods” I’m sure though, that his knowledge came from extensive personal obsevation and experimentaton.

If you ever drank his coffee you would know he deserved the name “Ole Ironguts” as well.

From One to Another

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As the forest canopy approaches completion, Jack in the Pulpits erupt to full size.  A few are just ripe, but most are a visibly transducent green that the canopy itself manages to copy only for a few days.

Embedded on the spadix (the Jack), thousands of tiny flowers begin to bloom as the spathe (the Pulpit) develops its purple and white striping.   Slightly foetid, the plant attracts mosquitos and gnats. As they crawl down the inside of the tube, they brush against the flowers, pollinating them.  Continuing down past them, looking for animal flesh, the darkness and shape of the spathe disorient them.  Most of the insects eventually find their way out, perhaps in a slight insect daze, but some never do, and die inside.

What could be more Cyborg like?

Plant and insect united briefly in function operating independently of any intention, one part incapable of intention, the other full of an intention that is irrelevant to the result except for the force of its delusion.

What could be less Cyborg like?

This is the ground the Cyborg contests, the idea of Nature, apart from Humanity, the idea of intention and agency being the same, that the unintentional is the same as that without agency.

Spring Light

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Ephemeral wildflowers live most of the time under the forest floor as rhizomes, bulbs or roots.

The category “ephemeral wildflowers” encompasses in fact the whole life cycle of the plants that manifest in spring, interacting only then with the space between the forest Continue reading