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Three Women Taoist Poets

Li Qingzhao, Chou Xuanjing & Cui Shaoxuan

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A real treat here, thanks to Jane Hirschfield’s Women In Praise Of The Sacred: a glimpse into the literary lives of three women Taoist adepts. Not much is known of their historical circumstances, save that all three were from China, all three pursued an interest in Taoist practice, and all three wrote beautiful poetry. From the poems themselves we can known a bit about their process as Taoist yoginis -- their traversing of the Way -- as it was unfolding at the moment of the poem’s writing. But of course even that is mere conjecture. Nevertheless, it’s good to have them here, if only in this rhythm/tone/meaning sort of way ....

Li Qingzhao (Li Ch’ing-chao) - (1084-1151 CE)

Li Qingzhao is considered by many to be China’s greatest woman poet. In a way that was almost unheard of at the time, her father and his numerous literary friends, as well as her husband, supported and encouraged her interest in poetry, painting and calligraphy.

The following poem -- which stands out as unique among all others that she wrote -- clearly reflects engagement with Taoist practice. The American poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth suggested that the “inner bird” of this poem symbolizes the autonomic nervous system; the “boat” is the kundalini or “serpent power”; and the “Immortal Islands” refers to the so-called thousand-petaled lotus (subtle-body energy as it emerges at the crown chakra) of spiritual realization.

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Written to the Tune Of “The Fisherman’s Honor”

The sky becomes one with its clouds,
the waves with the mist.
In Heaven’s starry river, a thousand sails dance.
As if dreaming, I return to the place
where the Highest lives,
and hear a voice from the heavens:
Where am I going?
I answer, “The road is long,”
and sigh; soon the sun will be setting.
Hard to find words in poems to carry amazement:
on its ninety-thousand-mile wind,
the huge inner bird is soaring.
O wind, do not stop --
My little boat of raspberry wood
has not yet reached the Immortal Islands.

~ * ~

Zhou Xuanjing (Chou Hsuan-ching) (12th century)

As it is told, Zhou Xuanjing’s interest in Taoist practice first awakened when she dreamed -- just before the birth of her son -- of being enveloped in a scarlet mist (a very auspicious symbol, in Taoist practice). Her son went on to become a well-known Taoist teacher. When he first entered his training on the Way, she became a student of the same teacher.

I find this poem to be truly astonishing ...

Meditating at midnight,
Meditating at noon,
A mind like autumn
Comes to the Way’s deep heart.
Under motionless waves,
Fish and dragons freely leap.
In the sky without limits,
Only the moonlight stays.

~ * ~

Cui Shaoxuan (Ts’ui Shao-hsuan) (birth/death dates unknown)

Other than her being a teacher of Taoism, nothing is known of Cui Shaoxuan’s historical life. Traditionally, apricot blossoms signify the opening of innate awakened mind, after the stillness and cold of a state of deep concentration -- for without a good winter chill, fruit trees do not bear their fruit. Japanese Zen Master Dogen utilizes a similar metaphor when he writes: “It is out of bone-freezing winter that the plum blossoms bloom -- spring rubs hard at the nostrils.”

Black hair and red cheeks: for how long?
One moment, and the silver threads run through.
Open the blinds: the first apricot blossoms have opened --
Hurry! The spring days are now!

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