A Poem by Han Shan

I’ve been entertaining myself over the last few days translating some poems by Han Shan; and just for the hell of it, I thought I’d post one translation here. I don’t write much poetry of my own (although I used to), so I’m enjoying the experience of taking a break from writing prose, and tinkering with translations.

If you want a bit more background to this fabulous poet, to this particular poem, and to the challenges of translation, you can read Tony Barnstone’s excellent article here. But this poem will probably appeal to Buddhish visitors to this blog.


Self and No-self

There is a self,
       there is no self;

this is me,
       or then again not me.

This is how
       I turn it over in my mind,

dragging out the hours
       sat by the cliff.

Between my feet
       the green grass sprouts,

above my head
       the red dust falls,

and seeing me there,
       the common folk

surround my bed
       with funeral wine and flowers.


The article linked to above has three alternative translations, as well as the original, so you can have fun comparing, and finding objections to my version. That last line is a bit tricky, incidentally…

Radio Leicester

For those in the East Midlands, I’ll be on Radio Leicester tomorrow (Saturday 20th April 2013), on the Ed Stagg show talking about whether—and perhaps how—books can change your life, as well as all kinds of other things. Catch me between 12pm and 2pm for a couple of hours of music and chat with the other guests. According to the blurb, on the show “The best minds in Leicestershire and Rutland unravel life’s little mysteries.” So I’m looking forward to a bit of unravelling.

Two Tales of Horse-Training

Lately, I’ve been thinking about training horses. Admittedly, this has been more of an abstract and philosophical concern than a practical one: generally I don’t have much to do with horses, and horses don’t have much to do with me, even though I sometimes go down to the meadows out of town and admire the beasts from afar. So whilst I haven’t been planning to pack in all the writing and the academic stuff and so on, to take up the mantle of a horse trainer, I have been thinking about is the notion of horse-training as a metaphor for training more broadly.

It was a long time ago now that I first came across the Pāli text, the Bhaddāli sutta, and was charmed—or perhaps taken in—by its account of the virtues of horse training. Bhaddāli, according to the text, is a monk who is unwilling to subject himself to the monastic discipline, on account—the text tells us usefully—of being “like a fool, confused and blundering.” The Buddha then turns to him and asks the confused monk if he remembers a parable that he once told him about horse-training; and because Bhaddāli is a blundering fool (the kind of blundering fool for whom I have a natural sympathy), he has forgotten the parable, so the Buddha repeats it. Here’s an extract, in the translation by [amazon_link id=”086171072X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bhikkhu Bodhi[/amazon_link]. Read more

Heading Home

I’ve come to the end of my fortnight of Albigensian Goat Wrestling; and so this morning I was up early to catch the train back to Lille, and then from Lille back to London, and then from London back to Leicester, where I’ll arrive some time late in the evening. And I’m pleased to say that it’s been a success in that I’m returning with a substantially revised manuscript of Goat Music (as well as a couple of bottles of good local Gaillac wine…).

I’m writing this from Toulouse station on my iPad, as my laptop this morning has decided that enough is enough, and has stopped working. It was decidedly thoughtful of it to wait until the book was finished before doing so. I’ve not yet got the hang of writing on the iPad, but it has a demonic auto-correct that turns half of what I write into gibberish, so apologies for the scrappiness of this post.

Of course, “finished” is a relative, rather than an absolute, term. I’m going to be passing the manuscript to a few friends to read, and reading through myself to make a few changes. But all being well, Goat Music should be seeing the light of day next year.

There’s not a great deal else to say. but I thought it worth posting an update if nothing else than for the sake of the lovely little 19th century Russian print of a goat and a bear that adorns this post. As my last book was about bears coming and going over the mountain, at least figuratively, and as this one is about goats, it seemed fitting.

Legacy: Mythology and Authenticity in the Humanities!

I’m delighted to say that I’m taking part in the keynote round-table for the De Montfort University Legacy: Mythology and Authenticity in the Humanities conference, which will be held in June of this year. The conference aims to explore the cultural legacies and mythologies at play within humanities research, and I’ll be sharing the panel with DMU Vice-Chancellor, Dominic Shellard, and architect and theorist Sam Causer.

It should be a fun event, and there’s still just about time to respond to the call for papers (deadline 16th April) here.

Some Ceremonial Questions

I have a knack of being out of circulation for the deaths of major public figures. When Princess Diana died, I was on a Buddhist retreat in Norfolk, and by the time I returned home, the whole thing was over. And I heard about the death of Margaret Thatcher whilst down here in southwest France, where I’m spending a couple of weeks rewriting my next novel. So I have been a little set apart from all of the debate and discussion and rhetoric. I will, however, be back in the UK in time for the funeral, which we are told will be a Ceremonial, but not a State funeral; and whilst mulling over this, I found myself wondering something really rather simple. What is a Ceremonial funeral, and who decides who gets to have one? Read more

The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China

For visitors to this blog who are not yet familiar with it, the Sino-Platonic Papers website is a repository of freely-available PDF richness and wonder that should not be overlooked. The purpose of SPP, which is edited by Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations is  “to make available to specialists and the interested public the results of research that, because of its unconventional or controversial nature, might otherwise go unpublished”; and new on SPP is an extended essay called “The Evolution of the Concept of De 德 in Early China” by Scott Barnwell of the admirable Bao Pu blog. Scott’s essay is top of my “to read” pile. I’m particularly interested in the idea of “forgetting” the good that one does, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. However, it’s a long paper, so it will be a month or so before I get round to it (must get this manuscript finished first…); but you can get your own copy of the paper here, and I’ll write about it when I have the time and leisure to give it my proper attention.

Not At All Strange

If I’ve been relatively quiet over the past week or so, the main reason for this is that I’ve had my head down, seated here at my desk in Albi, France, and I’ve been editing like crazy, working on what I hope is the penultimate draft of my novel Goat Music. I’m here for two weeks, and so I’m more or less half way through; and it’s been a productive stay so far—I’m on track, I think, to have the draft done by the time I catch the train home next Saturday, which means that I can get an early copy to my publisher some time soon after.

I thought I’d say a bit more about the book here. The novel arose out of a fascination with the story of the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas that began back when I was an art student. Set in mythological Greece, it plays on the story of the satyr’s competition with the god. The myth, in brief, goes like this: Marsyas challenges Apollo to a contest in music; Apollo wins by means of tactics that are not entirely fair; and then, having won, he flays the satyr alive for his presumption in challenging the gods.

My unease with this story lies in the fact that, for much of European history—although Apollo wins the contest by what could be called unfair means, and then exacts the most horrible punishment by flaying satyr alive—the tendency amongst commentators has been to side with Apollo, to see Marsyas as a fool who was justly defeated, and to proclaim Apollo’s brutality as a victory for all that is good. Read more


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