Saturday, May 23, 2009

Azure Waves

Over the centuries, a tradition evolved down in Suzhou. Officials who found disgust, disfavor, or disgrace at the Imperial Court, would enter genteel retirement in a scholar's garden. Today, there are many such gardens in and around Suzhou, all of them national treasures -- indeed, their beauty is such that they are truly world treasures.

Although small, none is more beautiful than the Cang Lang Ting, or Azure Wave Pavilion. The site was an Imperial flower garden during the Five Dynasties. In 1044, it was purchased for 40,000 strings of cash by the poet Su Shunqin, who ordered that a pavilion be constructed near the water. He named it "Azure Wave," after a line in the poem Fishermen, by Qu Yuan (c. 340-278BC).

Although a celebrated poet, Su Shunqin was actually a high court judge, who turned to poetry because he felt the law's hypocrisy. Perhaps he felt a kindred spirit in Qu Yuan, a former minister of state who turned to poetry before committing one of history's most commemorated suicides. He ended his life by grasping a rock and throwing himself in the river. Asia's fifth month - fifth day Dragon Boat Festival is held to commemorate his death: the boats are said to be rushing to retrieve his body before the fish can consume him.

The story is that Qu Yuan was wandering along the river bank, when he was recognized by a fisherman, who asked, "Aren't you the great minister? What has brought you down so low?" Qu Yuan answered, "All the world is muddy, and I alone am clean." The fisherman replied, "Then why not beat the muddy water and raise up azure waves?"

Maybe I have the history wrong. Probably, I have failed to grasp the subtle points. Certainly, there is more to the story.

Today, dreaming in Suzhou, stirring my own Azure Wave, I am thinking of a line from the book, Treasures from Juniper Ridge:

"To expect to attain buddhahood through the laborious striving in cultivation of a deity and recitation of mantra is to bind the Buddha by craving."

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