Here is a poem by a Chinese courtesan, Yu Xuanji (843-868), who became a Taoist adept and teacher. She had attempted to change her life by studying the Way, but, unable to support herself, returned to her previous occupation. At the age of twenty-five, she was executed on what is universally described as a false charge of having murdered her maid. Her poem depicts a Taoist paradise, located in the “Summer Mountains” of the Taoist Immortals. In this place where the hidden treasure is made manifest, there is nowhere to go that is not also welcoming, also home; yet even here, glimpsed as if from the corner of the eye, another path leads on, further into the hidden—for the sacred is not a destination, but an unfolding, an unscrolling, a blossoming without end.
I’ve come to the house of the Immortals:
In every corner, wildflowers bloom.
In the front garden, trees
Offer their branches for drying clothes;
Where I eat, a wine glass can float
In the springwater’s chill.
From the portico, a hidden path
Leads to the bamboo’s darkened groves.
Cool in a summer dress, I choose
From among the heaped piles of books.
Reciting poems in the moonlight, riding a painted boat…
Every place the wind carries me is home.
—Yu Xuanji. Taken from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (New York: Harper Collins, 1994); all poems are in English versions by Jane Hirschfield.
An excerpt from Gazing on the Truth by Jane Hirschfield, Parabola Volume 19, No. 4, “Hidden Treasure,” Winter 1994. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.