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