A Story About Tang Poet Bai Juyi

During the time when Bai Juyi was a Qian Tang Jiang (in Hangzhou) government official (it was the latter part of his officialdom career), one day he passed by the Green Creek Bridge and saw a crowd gathering before a Buddhist monk and hearing him talk. He thought it strange that people would come to such a remote countryside to listen to a monk. The monk must be very learned, he reckoned. So he rode his horse in the direction of the crowd.

When Bai came face to face with the monk, he said: "Master, the place where you are seated is quite dangerous." The Buddhist monk was the famous Bird’s Nest Monk. Just one glance at Bai, he knew that this man was an arrogant and conceited elitist. So Bird’s Nest said to him, "It is your position that is in danger."

Bai was quite thrown off by this remark and said, "My position is one that is rooted in the country. How can it be in danger?" The monk replied, "Worries and pressures alternate with each other and the conscience is put to an unending test. Neither the body nor the soul can get any rest. Isn’t that dangerous?"

Then Bai asked Bird’s Nest, "Please tell me, Master, what is the essence of Buddhism?" Bird’s Nest decided to let him learn a moral lesson: "Do no evil deed and engage in deeds of kindness." Bai, who knew a little about Buddhism, immediately retorted, "I’ve known this for a long time. Not only I know it, even a three-year old child knows it."

Seeing Bai disparaging Buddhist teachings, Bird’s Nest said to him, "A three-year old child may well know the Way. But an eighty-year old man may no longer have the energy to practice it."

When Bai heard that, he could read between the lines and knew that Bird’s Nest was right. He felt ashamed of himself. Then he said to Bird’s Nest, "You’ve opened my mind. I hope to learn more about Buddhism from you. One day I will come again to be your follower." And he left.

Bird’s Nest knew that Bai had a receptive heart towards Buddhism. But after almost a year, Bai still did not turn up for his lectures. So one day Bird’s Nest paid a visit to Bai’s residence but found that Bai was out on an appointment. He took a pen-brush and wrote down this poem for Bai:

As a courtier, you have penned your dossier for forty years;

To what end, but flounder in endless grievances;

One family prospers while thousands are trodden down;

Fame is yours to take, yet woe be yours too, for eternity.

筆刀為官四十年

是是非非有萬千

一家飽暖千家怨

半世功名百世冤

When he finished writing the poem, he left Bai’s place.

When Bai came home and saw the poem written on the wall, a strong sentiment suddenly took hold of him. It dawned on him that all these years he had always wished to take up Buddhism, but somehow never got to doing it as he was so bogged down by the daily affairs and the hubbub of social gossip and he was constantly drowned in a pool of unending conflicts. The poem awakened him to his cherished wish and so he decided to quit his job to become a secular follower of Bird’s Nest.

- End of Story -

Bai Juyi was one of the most loved poets of the Tang dynasty because of his integrity and sense of justice while he held official posts and because of his compassion and kindness as a human being.

When he was sixteen years old, he wrote a poem as a submission piece in a scholars’ examination, which brought him immediate fame and honor and later led to a successful career in the officialdom. He could never have imagined at the time that the poem could remain famous for over a thousand years after his death.

The poem is called "Farewell on the Ancient Grassland" (賦得古原草送別):-

['賦得' refers to the specific format in which the poem must be written in the exam.]

There sprouts a lush plain of grass;

Circle of life goes round and round, year in, year out.

Wild fires can never wipe it all out,

As spring breezes help it thrive after death.

Its scent, sailing from afar to fill the ancient path,

The green life stretches to meet the deserted town.

Many a farewell are said on this grass land,

Weeping travelers soaked in sadness.

離離原上草 , 一歲一枯榮

野火燒不盡 , 春風吹又生

遼芳侵古道 , 晴翠接荒城

又送王孫去 , 萋萋滿別情

The line "野火燒不盡 , 春風吹又生" has become an often-used adage to give encouragement to the oppressed and the downtrodden (like grass), bidding them never to give in when faced with adversity and dire circumstances (like wild fires) in their strife for survival or quest for justice, as their tenacity and perseverance, as well as help from the heavens (like spring breezes), will ultimately bring them victory.

[P.S. I've just learned that 150,000 people attended the June 4th vigil - I'm proud of you, Hong Kong! As blogger Doctor Fat said in his blog, the high turnout was not due to Szeto Wah's promotional efforts - it is the perverse comments by perverse people that spurred Hong Kongers to come out. Doctor Fat also remarked that this year's vigil was organized through the internet, blogging, HK Golden Forum and Facebook and more than two-thirds of those attending belong to the younger generation. Bai Juyi was right on: "野火燒不盡, 春風吹又生"!]