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.

Spring Night (After Wang Wei, After Robert Okaji)

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountains[1]Yesterday, I got a “like” from the poet Robert Okaji for my post Cyborg Sky Burial.   Taking the link back to him, I found a blog including both his poems and his discussion of his sources and process. In his post Spring Night (After Wang Wei) he describes some of what he considered going from a transliteration of Wang Wei’s poem to his own version.

First, the transliteration from

Person idle osmanthus flower fall
Night quiet spring hill empty
Moon out startle hill birds
Constant call spring ravine in

Mr Okaji lives in Texas, and a species of osmanthus, the devilwood, grows there.  So in his version he specifies that.  Here’s his version:

Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Among falling devilwood blossoms, I lie
on an empty hill this calm spring night.
The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds,
but they’re never quiet in this spring canyon.

I found this all very interesting and offered a tweak to his version.  This prompted me to try my own hand at the exercise.  Not knowing anything about Wang Wei, I first looked him up on Wikipedia.

Wang Wei is especially known as a poet and painter of nature. Of his poems some four hundred survive: these were first collected and originally edited into a corpus by his next-youngest brother, Wang Jin, by imperial command. Of his paintings, no authenticated specimens survive, although there is evidence of his work through influences on later paintings and descriptive accounts of his paintings.

So the painting featured in this post is not one by Wang Wei, but by Wang Shimin titled After Wang Wei’s Snow Over Rivers and Mountains.

I also read in the article that Wang chose his courtesy name as a reference to Vimalakirti of the eponymous Vimalakirti Sutra, who discusses Emptiness with the bodhisattva Manjushri in the presence of numerous arhats and bodhisattvas.  The article states this discussion “then culminates with the wordless teaching of silence”.

This seemed apt in terms of my posts about Emptiness (Sunyata).  So in my version I try to reflect this.

Here in upstate NY no osmanthi grow but the lilac does.  It’s in the same family (Oleaceae ie olive family) and like osmanthus, is known for its strong fragrance.  So in my version osmanthus/devilwood becomes lilac.

Another issue Mr Okaji  identifies is whether to use the collective “birds” or specify a kind of bird.  As I noted to him, I generally prefer the specific, but the poem is so tight that the sound of the bird’s name becomes important, and possibly distracting.

All of this reminded me of a poem I previously posted.

Mind Only Poem #1

anesthetized tree
raucous pilgrim birds
naked dawning sky

So this is my version:

Spring Night (after Wang Wei, After Robert Okaji)

Who sits among the falling lilacs?
Night. No one on this springtime hill.
The moon all-at-once agitates the crows.
In springtime they never stop cawing in the ravine.