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顧逢《秋夜宿僧房》“Staying in a Monastery Room on an Autumnal Evening” by Gu Feng

白雲分半榻,

正在澗聲

一夜山中宿,

三生石上

聽猿推枕坐,

愛月近窗

不覺天將曉,

疏鐘度暝[1]

White clouds share half of the couch [with me],

Right next to the sound of the valley stream.

A stay in the mountain for one night;

Predestined affinity on the Rock of Three Lives.[2]

To listen to apes, [I] sit up, pushing away the pillow;

Fond of the moon, [I] sleep close to the window.

Before [I] realise it, the dawn is about to break,

[With] sparse bell [sounds] ferrying dark mist away.[3]

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] This will be explained later in the blog. [3] Du has a distinct Buddhist flavour. The Buddhist worldview speaks of transporting or ferrying one across the sea of mortality to nirvana; this action of transporting is du.

 

When I first visited Hangzhou a few years ago, I was amused by the introductory plate at the entrance of Gushan 孤山 (Lone Mountain) at the West Lake which states that it’s 38 metres above sea level. That is quite different from what I would expect of a “mountain.” One may make a distinction in English between the two words “hill” and “mountain,” but in Chinese, both ideas are most commonly expressed by the generic word shan 山 that stands for both a “hill” and a “mountain.” Although a great mountain can be called yue 嶽, it’s usually used in sobriquets, not in place names. This can sometimes lead to disappointments, as I expected something greater than what I saw near the West Lake when I first read Gu Feng’s 顧逢 (fl. 13th century) verse.

In fact, the West Lake is embraced by many small hills. The highest peak nearby is no more than 250 metres. However, we might also want to consider the wider context of a visit to the lake. Unlike today, the West Lake was not located within the city in Gu Feng’s days. Nowadays, a visit to the lake is a way to take a break from city life within the city, which is quite different from how Gu Feng must have felt as he was staying next to the lake in what was then the suburban area. The hills are now more like a big public park with a convenient bus system and nice footpaths. There are also plenty of stalls selling souvenirs, local food, etc. near the attractions. It seems that apes are no longer to be seen or heard, or perhaps one can have a different experience if one stays in one of the hostels or monasteries overnight.


As line 2 talks about the Rock of Three Lives, we know that Gu Feng was probably staying in the Fajing Temple 法鏡寺 (Dharma Mirror Temple) where the stone is located. There is a nice story - or, to be more precise, a series of stories - originating from the Tang Dynasty about the stone. It was said that the recluse Li Yuan 李源 became a good friend of Monk Yuanguan 圓觀 (or Yuanze 圓澤, in some later versions of the story). One day, they were making plans for a trip to the Shu region (present-day Sichuan) and had different opinions on which route to take. Monk Yuanguan suggested they travel via the capital Chang’an, whereas Li Yuan didn’t want to go near the centre of power that he had determined to stay away from. In the end, Yuanguan made a compromise and agreed to take the route that Li Yuan had suggested.


Before they were able to arrive in Shu, they came across a pregnant woman by a river. Yuanguan said he was actually destined to be born as her child and he was trying to avoid this encounter when he suggested the route via Chang’an. Yet now he had to die to fulfil his destiny and go to his next life. Despite Li Yuan’s surprise and regret, Yuanguan said, on the third day after his re-birth, he would smile at Li Yuan as a sign of recognising him. He also made an appointment to meet up with Li Yuan in the Tianzhu Temple 天竺寺 in Hangzhou on the Mid-Autumn Day twelve years later.


Li Yuan went to see the new born boy on the third day after his birth, and the boy smiled at him as Yuanguan promised. Twelve years later, Li Yuan went for the appointment and met a shepherd boy who again recognised his old friend and appreciated that he had come for their appointment on time.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end with the two men continuing their friendship. Instead, the shepherd boy said Li Yuan was still attached to worldly matters. He suggested Li Yuan should keep on cultivating his mind, and the day of their reunion would eventually come.[4] Because of this story, a rock at the back of the Tianzhu Temple (which is believed to be the current Fajing Temple) was named the “Rock of Three Lives” after a song sung by the shepherd boy.


In contrast to the popular belief that the rock symbolises the pre-destined bond of a romantic relationship, the original story is actually talking about friendship and the bond between soulmates. The Fajing Temple is open to the public at a very small fee. Eclipsed by the more renowned Lingying Temple 靈隱寺 nearby, the Fajing Temple is a quiet place that receives very few visitors.

I found the legendary rock at the back of the temple. When I was reading the introduction and the “Biography of Monk Yuanze” written by Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) and inscribed on the rock, I suddenly wondered what the “three lives” refer to in the story. The Buddhist context naturally brings an association with the Buddhist concept of the previous life, current life, and next life, but I suppose it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask what exactly the three lives correspond to in the story which only mentions two lives of Yuanguan explicitly (as monk and as shepherd boy).


(Left) The Rock of Three Lives

(Right) “Biography of Yuanze” inscribed on the rock


Obviously, I’m not the only person who has been curious about this. Historical writers who expounded on the basic storyline have given different answers. For instance, in the Yushi mingyan 喻世明言 version, the boy born to the pregnant woman died the evening after he smiled at Li Yuan, making the shepherd boy the third life of the monk. [5] The Xihu jiahua 西湖佳話 version, however, gives two interpretations. Firstly, the three lives refer to the lives of the two friends and that of the rock that witnessed their friendship. Secondly, in the conversation between the two friends, Li Yuan says they understand each other so well that their friendship must have started some time in a previous life, which also makes up the three lives of the monk. [6]

I’ve perhaps digressed too much. Such details may have nothing to do with Gu Feng’s poem. With reference to the rock, he might simply be appreciating the mysterious power that had brought him to the beautiful tranquillity of the mountain.


(Top) The Front Gate of the Fajing Temple

(Bottom) The current drum tower of the Fajing Temple shares the same construction with the bell tower. The bell tower is usually built to the east of the gate and the drum tower to the west. They are to be sounded at dawn and dusk, respectively. I visited the temple in the morning, when the light was better for the drum tower in the west.

[4] This is based on the Tang collection Ganzeyao 甘澤謠, see https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=en&chapter=876223. By the way, the most famous reference to this story is made in the Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone) as the plant that is reborn as one of the heroines Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. [5] For a convenient reference, see https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=199920#p16. [6] For a convenient reference, see https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=467407.

 

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