gaze sacred peak
岱 宗 夫 如 何
Exalt Mt. ancestor then like what
齊 魯 青 未 了
Ch’i Lu blue/green never end
造 化 鍾 神 秀
create change concentrate divine beauty
陰 楊 割 昏 曉
yin yang cleave dusk dawn
盪 胸 生 曾 雲
heaving chest birth layers cloud
決 貲 入 歸 鳥
burst eye enter return bird
會 當 凌 絕 頂
soon when reach extreme summit
一 覽 衆 山 小
one glance all mountains small
Gazing at the Sacred Peak
What is this ancestor Exalt Mountain like?
Endless greens of north and south meeting
where Changemaker distills divine beauty,
where yin and yang cleave dusk and dawn.
Chest heaving breathes out cloud, and eyes
open dusk bird-flight home. One day soon,
on the summit, peaks ranging away will be
small enough to hold, all in a single glance.
To understand who Tu Fu was, to tell the story of his life in a conventional sense, one might begin with his ancestors: his mother a great grand-daughter of the emperor who founded the T’ang Dynasty, his father a government official descended from a distinguished line of government officials. But to understand Tu in the more fundamental sense of consciousness in the open, the Cosmos open to itself, we must understand his deeper ancestors. And that is where this poem begins, an interest very possibly related to the fact that, in addition to his mother’s death when he was very young, his father had recently died—meaning his human ancestors were all lost to him now. Mountains were seen as vast and sage presences in Tu Fu’s China, deeply comforting, but how is it exactly that Exalt Mountain could be an ancestor?
This is among the earliest surviving poems by Tu Fu. He was around thirty when he wrote it, six years after failing the national examination that qualified people from China’s elite class to fulfill their primary purpose in life: to help the emperor care for the people by working in government. Tu was exceptionally brilliant and very cosmopolitan because of his extensive travels. In addition, he was nominated for the exam by the capital district, intellectual center of the nation, which meant he was among the most sophisticated and well-connected candidates, and virtually guaranteed to pass. It isn’t clear how it happened—perhaps because of political intrigue, or perhaps because he was too forthright and independent-minded in his political essays—but somehow he failed. For the next six years, he wandered. Little is known about this time, though it’s clear he continued cultivating Taoist/Ch’an insight, his most foundational cultural inheritance. That inheritance is on conspicuous display here in this poem, and it describes the remarkable dimensions of Exalt Mountain as ancestor.
Exalt was one of China’s five sacred peaks, and in its popular sense, Exalt-Mountain Ancestor refers to the mountain as a deity. But given the cosmological ways Tu Fu describes Exalt Mountain, it’s clear he sees something quite different. That mountain cosmology begins here in this poem with Changemaker, which also sounds like some kind of deity. But it is in fact Tao, that generative existence-tissue that is the maker of change. In gazing at the mountain, Tu Fu is gazing at a dramatic manifestation of the wild Taoist Cosmos: he sees Exalt as a kind of cosmological center-point where space stretches endlessly away north and south (literally, the ancient kingdoms of Ch’i and Lu from Lao Tzu’s time), where the divine beauty of all existence is condensed into a single dramatic site by Changemaker Tao. But Changemaker, the generative tissue of Tao, is not separate from the mountain. Instead, the mountain is simply a particularly dramatic intensification or distillation of that tissue, a fact emphasized when the mountain is described as a place where the dynamic interaction of yin and yang becomes visible.
Tu has in mind here the early meanings of yin and yang as the shadowy northern slopes (yin) and sunlit southern slopes (yang) of a mountain, but also their more philosophical meanings as the two fundamental elements of ch’i. Widely known as something like the cosmic breath-force, the energy giving life to the material Cosmos, ch’i is actually much more. It is another way of describing Tao, emphasizing its nature as a single living tissue: the matter and energy of the Cosmos seen together as a single dynamic and generative tissue surging through its perpetual transformations. Manifest as female and male, dark and light, cold and hot, receptive and active—yin and yang produce the cosmological process of change through their dynamic interaction. Indeed, in their most magisterial incarnations, yin and yang are earth and heaven, the interaction of which produces the ongoing transformations of the Cosmos as a whole, and mountain landscape is where that interaction was most dramatically visible for artist-intellectuals like Tu Fu: earth tipping up and churning into heaven, heaven seething down to mingle all windblown mist and sky breathing through earth.
As a religious deity, Exalt-Mountain Ancestor supposedly summoned the dead to the mountain’s slopes, and “to wander Exalt Mountain” was to be among the dead. In the cosmological ways he describes Exalt Mountain, Tu Fu opens this mythological account to a more profound level, for he reveals the mountain as a grand incarnation of Tao as the generative tissue from which we are born, and to which we return in death. For Tu Fu, born of this generative tissue, the mountain could therefore only be called ancestor.
This relationship to the mountain takes on a surprising intimacy in the third couplet, where grammar becomes wildly ambiguous and spacious, weaving Tu Fu and the mountain together. The “heaving chest” sounds like it’s Tu out of breath and panting from the climb, but how could Tu’s chest give birth to layered banks of cloud? Mountain slopes might be called the mountain’s chest, and they were popularly thought to be the source of clouds, for wisps of mist and cloud are often seen rising out of valleys and canyons and forests there. This image appears often in Chinese poetry, suggesting pure mountain landscape as a place at the origin of things, at the generative heart of the Cosmos. Here, that origin-landscape is integrated with Tu Fu himself—his chest indistinguishable from the mountain’s chest breathing out mist and cloud. This also invests the mountain with the sense of being a living body. And indeed, the term meaning “chest” can also mean “heart-mind,” interfusing Tu and the mountain at an even deeper level, while at the same time investing the mountain with a kind of sentient life.
The empty-mind mirroring cultivated in Ch’an meditation appears dramatically in the second line of this couplet. There, a grammatically literal reading suggests Tu’s eyes burst so widely open by this moment of awakening to landscape that sight seems to enter the scene of birds returning through the mountain landscape at nightfall to their nests. But the grammar with all its empty space affords another reading: a grammatical inversion in which birds returning home seem to enter Tu’s eyes, as if their nesting place were within him. And combining these readings, we again find Tu’s mirror-deep mind wide-open and interfused with this mountain landscape, no distinction between subjective and objective. This integration of mirror-deep consciousness and mountain cosmology is distilled in the poem’s title, where 望 means not only “to gaze,” but also the “landscape seen,” thereby dissolving the distinction between Tu and mountain. Hence, consciousness as integral to that generative and ancestral cosmology, as belonging to it wholly. Or in other words: consciousness in the open, wild, the existence-tissue Cosmos aware of itself.
We would expect this “landscape awakening” of mirror-mind to happen after a long difficult climb, on the summit where vast views open away, but Tu’s awakening comes as he confronts day’s end and the failure of his (perhaps half-hearted) effort to reach the summit. And it deepens in his description of what he will one day find on the summit, for the last line grammatically establishes a simple equation between his “single glance” and all those small mountains—an equation at those mirrored depths of consciousness that makes little sense in the Western conceptual framework with its “soul” radically separate from earthly landscape, and is all but impossible to articulate in the structures of English grammar (which reflects that framework). Again, the poem’s empty grammar integrates subjective and objective into a single tissue, reenacting a mirror-deep identity with the ancestral mountain landscape, identity which means in Taoist/Ch’an terms that Tu’s truest self is nothing other than the generative tissue of the Cosmos. And so, the apparent content of the poem—Tu’s experience on the mountain—shapes the emptiness around it by rendering consciousness as the opening through which the Cosmos looks out at itself. Here, Tu encounters the vastness of his wild mirror-deep mind—for in its depths, horizon-wide expanses of imposing mountain peaks seem small.
Tu Fu will spend his life wandering among those ancestors, traveling thousands of miles through that cosmology of peaks his single mountaintop glance can hold. It was an impoverished life of refugee wandering. But however tangled he was in the difficulties of his life and times, Tu’s wandering was always that existence-tissue Cosmos open to itself—ancestor wandering itself and gazing into itself, thinking itself and feeling itself, lamenting itself and celebrating itself, writing poems about itself. That is how this poem animates the cosmological emptiness surrounding its words, how it voices that existence-tissue Cosmos awakened to itself: it renders wild mirror-deep consciousness itself as ancestor.