As a Monk Plays His Flute

Play On

A beautiful day in autumn, golden chimes sounding in the wind, a monk playing a reed pipe with his ten fingers, all this makes for a peaceful Zen moment. A courtesan, Xue Tao, clears her mind and composes this poem.

Play on.

Hearing a Monk Play Reed Flute

Cicadas sob at dawn, warblers mourn at dusk.
Spellbound, as ten fingers speak.
Stop chanting scriptures and chatting
Golden chimes scattering confusion in a clear autumn.



Tīng sēng chuī lú guǎn

Xiǎo chán míng yān mù yīng chóu 。
Yán yǔ yīn qín shí zhǐ tóu 。
Bà yuè fàn shū láo yī nòng 。
Sàn suí jīn qìng ní qīng qiū 。

Xue Tao 薛涛 Xuē Tāo (c. 770–832)

Scattered Thoughts

If music be the food of love, play on,” is William Shakespeare’s opening line from Twelfth Night. Music is language on another level. “Music to soothe the savage beast.” And in Xue Tao’ poem, music to clear the scattered thoughts from the mind, to simplify.

Notes on Translation

The luguan mentioned in the title is a reed pipe played introduced into China by the western Hu. Xue Tao was a famous courtesan and poet of the late Tang dynasty.

Last Line

My translation misses Xue’s sense in the last line, but that itself is Zen. One cannot express in words the beautiful sound of a flute, the chime of bells in the wind, the clearness of autumn.

Sàn (scatter, come loose); suí (wit, comply with, let) jīnqìng (golden chimes, the sound of the bells in a Buddhist temple); ní (mud, mire, a metaphor for muddy thoughts); qīngqiū clear autumn, a metaphor for mindfulness and peace of mind.

luguan, 芦管, a wooden flute

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