Behind a Buddhist Retreat – Chang Jian

At break of day in the old temple,
When sunlight first climbs over the tree-tops,
My winding path has come to this still place
Of flowers and trees and a Zen retreat.

Here the birds come alive in the sunlit mountain,
And the mind finds peace in a pool of fish
When no other sound can be heard
But the piercing tone of the temple-bell.
Chang Jian: On Broken Mountain Zen Retreat

Thoughts on Chang Jian’s poem

题破山寺后禅院, the title translates literally as “Subject, Po Mountain (Broken Mountain), behind the temple of a Buddhist retreat. 破山, Po or Broken Mountain can not be identified as a place name. Neither is the 禅院, Chányuàn, Buddhist retreat named.

Our poet, Chan Jian, has found his way at first light through a winding wooded path to a 禅房 chánfáng, meditation abode, Zen retreat. As the sun rises over the trees, he stops to reflect on the scene. The birds are illuminated by the sunlight. The fish stir in the pool. Suddenly, the sound of a bell is heard and all is still, but for the all encompassing sound of the bell.

Among other things, in Zen and Buddhism, bells are a meditation enhancer, focusing attention for the practitioner on the present moment. The sound of the meditation bell instills a sense of peace and calmness.

An alternate translation

In the pureness of morning, near the old temple,

Where the first sunlight tops the trees,

My winding path, through a sheltered hollow

Of boughs and flowers, brings me to a Buddhist retreat.

Here, birds come alive in the mountain light,

And the mind of man finds peace in a pool of fish,

And a thousand sounds are stilled

By the sound of the temple-bell.

Original Chinese characters




Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照


Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

Deer Park

Deer Enclosure
Deep in the mountain forest, not a soul to be seen

Yet I hear a sound stirring, a voice
And as the setting sun looks back at the deep forest
Shining back at me reflecting off the green moss

Version Two

No one is seen in the empty mountains, and yet
A voice is heard, no more.
In these deep dark woods, setting sunlight
Shines on green moss, rising up at me.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei’s life spanned the years 699–759 AD.

He must be included in anyone’s list of superstar poets of the Tang Dynasty. He was also an accomplished painter and musician.

Wang Wei’s poem Deer Park  (Deer Enclosure, Deer Hermitage…) stands on its own as a poem of nature’s beauty, but it has an underlying story. Most scholars agree that 鹿柴, Lù Zhài, Lu Chai, is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, where Buddha first preached.  Beneath the famous Bodhi Tree, Gautama Buddha became enlightened, an event that took place in the 6th century BC.


tree in a forest

Interpretation of Deer Park

Buddha taught the four noble truths: that we crave and cling to impermanent things, that these things are incapable of satisfying us, that this suffering ends with the freedom from these wants, that freedom is achieved through the right way.

Line 1, Wang Wei’s setting, 空山 translates literally as empty mountains, its literary meaning is serene mountains. 空 which is generally translated as empty may also mean: hollow, in vain, sky, air, or free, another allusion to Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths.

Line 4, the light of the sun that shines back at us is a mere glimmer of complete understanding. It is nevertheless, something, and like the will o’the wisp, as we approach it, it fades, ever receding from our grasp.


Original Chinese and Pinyin

空 山 不 見 人
Kōngshān bùjiàn rén
但 聞 人 語 響
Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng
返 景 入 深 林
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
復 照 青 苔 上
fù zhào qīngtái shàng

French Translation of Deer Park by Wang Wei

Nul n’est vu dans les montagnes serenes, mais
Une voix est entendue, et pas plus.
Les bois sombres profonds, la lumière du soleil
Brille sur la mousse verte, se lève sur moi.


This poem is an endless source of study for scholars and translators. Here is one such study of thousands. Lichtung and Luchai, by Toming Jun Liu. Enjoy.