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 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


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.


Code has provided the informational matrix for space in my recent code/space posts.  While I still have a lot of ground to cover there, I thought it would be interesting to approach the question of space from the matrix of a Buddha.

In Buddhist literature, the Matrix-Of-The-One-Gone-Thus is frequently intertwined with space.  I touched on this in a  previous post discussing Buddhist space. As with just about everything, different flavors of Buddhism treat space in somewhat different ways.  As I have in my previous Buddhist posts, I will be mainly talking about the Gelugpa school’s interpretation.

The Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom is one of the oldest of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.  In this passage, one who has in effect, directly perceived Emptiness, sees the dharma (in this context, sees the way things are) as if she were seeing space itself.

The One-Gone-Thus teaches that one who does not see forms,
Does not see feelings, does not see discriminations,
Does not see intentions, does not see
Consciousness, mind, or sentience sees the dharma.
Analyze how space is seen as in the expression
By sentient beings in words, “Space is seen.”
The One-Gone-Thus teaches that seeing the dharma is also like that.
The seeing cannot be expressed by another example.

Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Final Exposition of Wisdom works by  Tsong-Ka-Pa edited and translated by Hopkins

Emptiness is a non-affirming negation.  It establishes the inherently existing self as the object to be negated, but does not explicitly affirm anything in its place.

This approach negates inherent existence without inadvertently positing some kind of essential entity, or ground of existence.  Extending this, space then becomes a metaphor for the Mind perceiving Emptiness.  In Emptiness Yoga, Jeffrey Hopkins writes “space [is] the non-affirming negative that is the mere elimination of any obstructive tangibility”. (371)

Common usage certainly includes this alternate sense of “space”.  We could reformulate “I need my space” as “I am experiencing you as an obstruction to my optimal functioning.  Get lost.”  Buddha/space takes this non-obstructiveness as the defining characteristic of space, not as an intellectual exercise, but rather as the felt experience of the way things are.

If the mind that has voidness as its object thinks intellectually, “This is ‘noninherent existence.’ I have found ‘noninherent existence.’ This absence that is the nullification of what is to be refuted is ‘voidness,’” this is referred to as “setting voidness out at a distance.” This will not do. The mind that has voidness properly as its object is a decisive piercing of the mere nullification itself. In other words, with the understanding, from the depths of our heart, that things do not exist at all like they appeared a while back, the mind taking voidness as its object completely pierces the sphere of this mere nullification like a spear piercing a target. A mind that does that is totally absorbed on voidness which is like space.

H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra.   Online excerpt.

This lack of obstacles, space, becomes a metaphor for the spacious awareness that encounters no obstacles in its efforts to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment which is itself, spacious awareness.

See also The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)

The Whole Is Grater Than the Part (Part 2)

Cyborg Sky Burial

Two years ago I wrote briefly about the Tibetan funerary custom of sky burial.  Now, the vultures again circle my neighborhood, swooping within a few feet of my bedroom window before taking their perches in the Norway pines next door.

So I wonder, what hybrid  being can take their place for the Buddhist cyborg? What chimera  has the appetite not only for blood and tissue and organs, but plastic, wire, silicon and rare earth metals?

How can we collect the cyborg’s data, dispersed in sky obscuring clouds, and place it in the cyborg charnel ground with our animal bodies?

Machik Labdron developed the Buddhist practices of Chod in the 11th Century.  Chod is a set of Vajrayana practices that use the visualization of one’s own death, dismemberment, and the feeding of the parts to demons.  Chod is then, the spiritual equivalent to watching one’s own sky burial.  The point of the exercise was explained by Jamon Kautrul in the 19th Century:

It [Chod] is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.

Jamon Kontrol quoted in the Introduction to  Machic’s Complete Understanding translated and edited by Sarah Harding

Machik combined shamanic practices prevalent at the time with Buddhism.  What cyborg practices do we combine with Buddhism now to give us the opportunity to develop the radical compassion Machik sought to teach us?