In Search of A/The Point of Life

REVERIES OF A SOLITARY RUNNER II: flights with Qu Yuan and his beautiful suicide lament (3BCE)

We seek not immortality - not even longevity (what for?), but a life lived to its fullest, every lifetime, each time we live it.

Qu Yuan’s description of his passage to death and beyond (3BCE) is simply one of the most beautiful passages we have ever encountered – the juxtapositions of internal turmoil with external journey, the spiritual and the tangible, the political and the personal, the metaphysical with the physical, the melancholic and the ecstatic, the extreme feeling of isolation and liberation, the unliving with being most alive – are so skillfully presented that the reader can not but feel happy (for the narrator) and heartbroken (for us, for there will be no more beautiful verses from him) at the same time. (Any experience that evokes 2 opposing emotions simultaneously – that the sublime embodies perfectly, with the interplay of the fearful and the awe-inspiring – is the most powerful experience for us). While we certainly cannot say that we fully agree with or understand it (with the multiple references to the religious/spiritual), Qu Yuan’s song hits us. According to Livia Kohn in her delightful The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, Later Printing (State University of New York Press, 1993), Qu Yuan’s The Far-Off Journey (Yuanyou) is ‘most classical of all ecstatic journeys in Chinese religion and literature’. In this song, the poet and official describes ‘a visionary journey that takes him from the sorrows bad afflictions of his unhappy life on earth through various physical practices and concentration efforts to the realm of the gods and immortals.’ Qu Yuan is of course renowned for eventually having thrown himself in sorrow into the Miluo River as a protest to the corruption of his government, the reason for many Chinese to mark the annual Dragon Boat Festival by throwing rice dumplings into the river from dragon boats in the futile wish that the fish would eat the dumplings instead of the tormented poet. Sensible 21st century beings that we are, we respect and enjoy the lovely story/legend/myth that makes Qu Yuan heroic and poetic, as much as we take it with a pinch of salt (as we wolf down the rice dumplings). At the same time, trans-dimensional runners that we are, we have 1 foot on the ground, and the other in cuckoo land, in blue skies; grounded and earth-bound as we are, we travel the world(s) (in spirit – whatever that might be? With more bags of salt? How heavy is that!?!) with the doomed anti-hero-fantasist-travellers, ala Don Quixote (Cervantes’ and Kathy Acker’s), Fitzcarraldo and Orlando. While Qu Yuan flies (and at some point of the song, GALLOP!!), we run, trans-dimensionally; while he seeks union / re-union with an ineffable force (the Tao), we dispel the notion of the existence of any convenient, centralised thing/being/institution; while he is disembodied, leaving his physical body behind, we run, embodied, burdened, with us, our physical, corporeal beings – which is the point, which is also the problem, the problem of our 1000-day troublesome endeavour, but the problem is very much the point. And, unlike Qu Yuan, we seek neither longevity nor immortality (as if one lifetime is not more than enough!?!). Yet, like Qu Yuan, and like Rousseau, we know, and we do, want to move on. Here, we reproduce Qu Yuan’s Far-off Journey (Yuanyou) from Kohn’s anthology (p. 251 – 257). Qu Yuan’s astral journey reminds us of that of the ancient Egyptian as we learnt at the British Museum at the wonderful Book of the Dead show, as well as the hauntingly beautiful paintings of Marc Chagall (so much so that we are compelled to pick up the brush and paint and canvas to paint [again]- although the production of paintings, of things, is is direct contradiction to our desire/purpose of wanting to not attach, to be free from burden, in our earthly travels and beyond…). The process of transcribing the translated text help us move closer to Qu Yuan’s mind, as he traverses the worlds, as every word comes off the page to the screen, from the poet to paper, from text in one language to another via the translator, from the translator to us, from us to you.

Saddened by the hardships of the common world,

How I wish to rise up and travel ways far-off!
My own strength is feeble; there is no support –
What could I stride on to float up and away?

Encountering nothing but foulness and defilement,
I am alone and miserable – who could I talk to?
At night I lie restless, never sleeping,
My soul roving about till the approach of dawn.

Thinking of the infinity of heaven and of earth,
I cry with the eternal toil of human life.
People of the past I cannot reach;
People of the future I will never know.

Pacing with restlessness, I yearn to get away,
Confused and close to madness, I long for the eternal.
My mind goes wild, strays off without control;
My heart melancholy, I am ever sadder.

Then suddenly my spirit, off, never to come back.
My body, like a withered tree, left behind alone.

I look within, try to get back my grip,
To find the place where life’s energy arises:
All vastly empty and tranquil, there is serenity.
Quietly in non-action, spontaneous truth is found.

I hear how Master Redpine cleansed the world’s defilements
And wish to follow the model he has left.

Honoring the blessed virtue of the perfected,
I admire all who in the past have become immortal.
Taking off in a transformation, they were never seen,
While still their name and nature continue on and on.

Oh, how Fu Yue went to live among the stars!
How Han Zhong Succeeded to realize the One!
Oh, for the body to slowly fade off in the distance –
To leave the human crowd behind, to vanish so completely!

Oh, to follow the flow of energy, rising ever upward –
Swift as the spirit, wondrous as a ghost!
To see thaw rolled get hazy, look back from far-off –
All dazzling essence, flashing back and forth!

Oh, to go away from all the dust to greater purity –
Never to turn back to old home!
To escape all the afflictions and never fear again –
None in the world knows how this truly is!

And here I am, afraid of the passing of the seasons,
With every rising of the sun on its westward move.
A subtle frost descends, sinking ever downward,
I fear my fragrant freshness will fade all too soon.

Oh, to leave it all for free and easy journey
Through years eternal that will never end!
Here, who would enjoy with me my remaining fragrance,
Walk, through the country air and share my depth with me?

Gaoyang, my hero, is removed ever farther,
Where will this life, so lonely, lead me to?

Then again, as spring and autumn hurry,
How can I always stay in my old home?
The Yellow Emperor cannot become my model,
But I can follow Jumping Wang to please myself.

So I eat the six energies and drink the nightly dew,
Rinse my mouth with yang itself and swallow morning light.
Guarding the purity of the spirit light within,
I absorb essence and energy, drive out all that’s coarse.

Wandering in the wake of the gentle wind,
I reach the Southern Nest without a single stop.
I meet with Master Wang and pause to speak to him,
Inquire about the harmony and virtue of the One.

‘The Tao can only be received,’ he says,
‘It never can be given.
‘So small that has no within,
‘So big it has no bounds.

‘No twists at all inside your soul,
‘And it will come spontaneously.
‘Focus on energy and open up to spirit –
‘Let them grow in you at the midnight hour.

‘Wait for the Tao in emptiness,
‘Clear even of non-action.
‘All living species rise from this,
‘It is the Gate of Virtue.’

Thinking of my dear old friends in my imagination.
I heave a heavy sigh and brush the tears away.
Slowly again I float, rising ever farther:
Suppressing now my will, keeping myself controlled.

I point to the God of Fire and gallop straight to him,
Wishing to journey to the world’s southern end.
I gaze on wilderness beyond all known directions,
Float on and on over watery expanse.

The Blessed Melter of the South stops me on the way,
So I go back by phoenix and visit the River Consorts.
They play the ‘Pool of Heaven’ and sing me ‘To the Clouds’;
Both ladies then perform the Nine Songs of Shao.

Asking the Xiang goddesses to play their zithers for me,
I bid the Sea God dance with the River God.
They pull up water monsters ti step forward with them,
Their bodies coiling and writhing in ever swaying motion!

Gracefully the Lady Rainbow circles all around them;
The Phoenixes soar up, stay hovering above –
The music swells ever higher, into infinity.

At this point I leave to wander yet again;
With my entourage, I gallop far away.

At the world’s far end at the Gate of Coldness,
I race the rushing wind to Clarity Springs.
I follow Zhuanxu of the North over piled-up ice,
Turn from my path to pass through Mystery Darkness.

Striding on cosmic mainstays, I look back behind me,
Summon Qian Lei the Creator to appear,
To go in front of me on the level way.

Thus I tour all four outlands,
Traverse all the six regions,
Up to the crakes of Heaven,
Down to the Great Abyss.

Below just lofty openess, there is no more earth;
Above just empty vastness, there is no more heaven.

I look but my vision blurs, nothing to be seen;
I listen but my ears are numb, nothing to be heard.

Going beyond non-action, I reach the Clarity,
Become a neighbour of the Great Beginning.

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