POETRY OF SHIH-TE
by James M. Hargett
is a pseudonym for an eremitic Buddhist poet who lived during the T'ang
Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). He is reputed to have lived near a place called
Han-shan(), which is located in the southern portion of modern day Chekiang()
Province. His name is often associated with two Buddhist monks named Han-shan()
and Feng-kan() with whom he was friendly, and who came from the Kuo-ch'ing
speaking, we know very little about the life of Shih-te. Only legends have
been associated with his life, and there is no preface to his collection
of poems. His poems are all untitled, and contain very little biographical
influence upon the poetry of Shih-te was overwhelming, and this is
realized as soon as one reads a few selections of his poems. He was a
follower of the Southern School of the Ch'an() sect, which placed great
emphasis upon individual effort. Many of the images and terminology one
encounters in his poetry are drawn from Buddhist sutras or the sayings of
the Southern School of Ch'an. This sect contends that the doctrine of the
Buddha is present within the hearts of all men, they need only be awakened
to its presence.
majority of Shih-te's poems are either vehement denunciations of the evils
of mortal men, or Buddhist sermons calling upon these unenlightened
mortals to mend their evil ways and awaken to the Buddha. Most of his
poems are written in the Old Style() form, usually of eight lines with
rhymes falling on the even numbered lines.
am aware of those foolish fellows,
support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
ants gnawing on a huge tree,
can they know their strength is so slight?
to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
words then become one with the Buddha.
desperately seek to confess my sins,
never again to go astray.
1Sumeru is the central peak in the Buddhist universe.
left hand clasps the Dragon Pearl,1
right hand clasps the Wisdom Sword.2
I smite an ignorant thief,
Sacred Pearl then emits a brilliant glow,
how I grieve for those foolish fellows,
long for that life' of boredom.
they fall into the Three Evil Paths,3
sense the peril of their future course.
Dragon Pearl supposedly is one which is held beneath the chin of a dragon.
A full account of this tale is related in the Chuang
Tzu, chapter entitled "Lieh Yu K'ou."
2"The Wisdom Sword is a Buddhist term which refers to a
sword which can cut
3That is, the hells, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the realm
have acquired this segmented torso,
amusing is its magnificent form.
the face is like a silver platter,
the heart it is black as lacquer.
boil swine and butcher sheep,
boast by saying they are sweet as honey.
after death when criticism falls upon you,
not call them false charges!
to see the people in the world,
suffering upon the wayward path.
unable to comprehend each thought,
actions only lead to bitter suffering.
poems are indeed poems,
people call them chants,
poems and chants are one in the same,
must only examine them carefully.
if you carefully search and inquire,
can't discover life's easiness.
similar to learning proper conduct,
it's an amusing affair!
are a myriad of different chants,
quickly recite them must surely be difficult.
you wish to be among those who know them,
need only to come to the T'ien T'ai Mountains
to sit among secluded grottoes,
theories, discussing the profound.
it happens that we do not meet,
will seem like a thousand mountains between us.
course, Han-shan is Han-shan,
Shih-te is Shih-te.
can common fools recognize us?
Feng-kan, he surely knows us.
worldlings wish to see us they can't,
looking for us where can they look?
may I ask, is the reason for all this?
because we face the Tao with the power of transcendence.
steelyard reinforced with silver stars,
handle woven with emerald silk.
crowd up to the front,
crowd back to the rear.
for others' grieving hearts,
they say is, "I'm a clever fellow."
death, you'll depart to see the Yama, 1
broom, to be placed behind your back!2
1Yama is the king of hell.
2A broom was used in preparing for funeral services.
you delight in the Three Poisonous Wines,1
you become confused, your senses lost.
use money to transact imaginary affairs,
these fantasies have become reality to you.
sufferings only lead to further sufferings,
you renounce them, there is no escape.
must quickly become awakened,
this depends on you alone!
1These are the source of all passion and delusion. They represent in
part the ideas of love, hate, and moral inertia.
are those in the secular world,
delighting in its sensual pleasures.
I see these fellows,
heart bears much concern.
why pray tell, do I grieve for them?
think of their suffering in that world!
James M. Hargett
teaches Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures,