Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.                       
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana? Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

Footnotes

  1. Balaban’s translation, with its image of the “bell” that “tolls,” reminds the readers that this translation came from a Western perspective. John Donne’s famous poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Hemmingway’s novel of the same title has become a part of the popular imagination when picturing church bells. In using these specific words, Balaban conjures these cultural touchstones and brings Western conceptions of life and death into Ho’s critique of Eastern religions.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. It is more likely that the final line represents a playful, ironic jab at Buddhist thought, a common theme in Ho’s work. The line makes fun of the idea of searching for nirvana at all. To the speaker, the divine is found right “here,” wherever “here” is. After all, as the sixth line suggests, the “springs of grace flow easily everywhere.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Read from an additional angle, “here” may point back to the poem itself. The suggestion then would be that the divine can be found through the poetic act. This is a common theme in poetry from numerous traditions and cultures. Poetry raises the ordinary to the extraordinary and transforms suffering into beauty and grace.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. Taken literally, the final line may claim that nirvana is nearly always found in solitude and nature, the “here” referring to the pavilion of the title. The other 10% of the time it can be found elsewhere, perhaps in society or amidst the rituals of Buddhism.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. In Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is the stated spiritual goal. It comes from a Sanskrit word which means “blown out,” as in a blown-out lamp. One who has reached nirvana has transcended the worldly cycles of desire and fear which motivate human action and cause suffering.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. In John Balaban’s translation, we can find a double—perhaps even a triple—entendre on the word “springs”: “spring” as in the natural water source; “spring” as in the season in which the poem is set; “spring” in the verb form, which injects an associative jolt of liveliness. It is important to note that this language analysis only draws meaning out of the translated poem, not Ho’s original work.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The notion that the sea “cannot be emptied” represents a reassurance against the negative effects of organized religions and their “bells.” As the speaker sees it, while traditions such as Buddhism may detract from one’s experience of the divine, the divine is nonetheless always present in full force. It “cannot be emptied.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. This line directly expresses the poem’s central conceit: the divine—expressed by Balaban as the word “Love”—as an endless body of water. The speaker’s claim is that the divine is all around, a “vast sea” for which one need not search.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. This second stanza introduces the poem’s central metaphor of the divine as water. In these lines, Ho critiques organized religion through the images of bells creating waves. In John Balaban’s translation, these waves divert the divine water, turning it into “sad puddles” that reflect “heaven upside-down.” The speaker’s claim is that following organized religion leads to a diminished and distorted encounter with the divine.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The described sound of the bell tolling introduces a sharp contrast to the “gentle” tone established in the first stanza. The tonal shift suggests that organized religion with its attendant rituals is merely a disruption to true spiritual experience. This is the poem’s main claim.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Though we cannot know whether the “echoes” of the bells appear in Ho’s original poem, Balaban’s word choice bears significance. The "echoes" evoke the repetitious quality of the bell's sound as it might reverberate in waves across a town or swath of countryside, an effect which draws the reader more deeply into the world of the poem. The word also ascribes a pervasive quality to organized religion. If the bells represent organized religion, the echoes represent the wide-reaching, nearly inescapable influence of religion.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The “bell tolls” are drawn from a common ritual practice in Buddhism: the ringing of bells represents the voice of the Buddha and reminds practitioners of the “Dharma,” the traditional laws. Buddhism—specifically Mahayana Buddhism—is the spiritual tradition which Ho most directly draws on and critiques.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Ho Xuan Huong lived during a period of civil war in Vietnam. The image of “wordly dust” brings up the additional image of marching armies kicking up “dust” across Vietnam.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The contrast between the adverbs “airily” and “worldly” establishes the poem’s central interest in spiritual experience. The contrast also underscores the speaker’s identity as an outsider, her sense of removal from the world.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The phrase “unclouded by worldly dust” shows the speaker’s abandonment of society and its material, “worldly” concerns. The metaphor constructed by the word “unclouded” suggests the spiritual clarity the speaker finds in solitude, away from the “dust” of civilization.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. In solitude, the speaker contemplates a “spring evening.” The setting is key to the poem’s central theme: the search for spiritual transcendence. While the pavilion in the poem’s title evokes a rural scene, the “spring evening” does not occur in a specific location. It “arrives/airily,” suggesting that enlightenment is portable, more contingent on a state of being than a setting.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The word “gentle” establishes a peaceful, pastoral tone. The tone is important to the speaker’s interests and purposes: spiritual enlightenment. As the poem progresses, the speaker introduces disruptions to enlightenment which also register as disruptions to the initial tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff