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Taoist Poetry – Classical Poems of Tao

Li Bai

Also Known as Li Po or Li Bo (701-762)

Li Bai was part of the group of Chinese scholars called the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” in a poem by fellow poet Du Fu. Li Bai is often regarded, along with Du Fu, as one of the two greatest poets in China’s literary history.

Drinking Alone by Moonlight

A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
I drink alone, for no friend is near.
Raising my cup, I beckon the bright moon,
For her, with my shadow, will make three men.
The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;

Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
In the dance, I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
While we were sober, three shared the fun;

Now we are drunk; each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.

Sitting Alone on Jingting Shan Hill

A flock of birds is flying high in the distance,
A lonely cloud drifts idly on its own.
We gaze at each other, neither growing tired,
There is only Jingting Shan.

Visiting the Taoist Priest Dai Tianshan But Not Finding Him

A dog’s bark amid the water’s sound,
Peach blossom that’s made thicker by the rain.
Deep in the trees, I sometimes see a deer,
And at the stream, I hear no noonday bell.
Wild bamboo divides the green mist,
A flying spring hangs from the jasper peak.
No-one knows the place to which he’s gone,
Sadly, I lean on two or three pines.

Question and Answer on the Mountain

You ask for what reason I stay on the green mountain,
I smile but do not answer, my heart is at leisure.
Peach blossom is carried far off by flowing water,
Apart, I have heaven and earth in the human world.

Blue Mountain

Why dwell in the Blue Mountain
I laugh without answering
The silence of water and blossoming flowers
A world beyond the red dust of living

Spring Night in Lo-yang Hearing a Flute

Phoenixes played here once, so this place was named for them,
Have abandoned it now to this desolated river;
The paths of Wu Palace are crooked with weeds;
The garments of China are ancient dust.
…Like this green horizon halving the Three Peaks,
Like this Island of White Egrets dividing the river,
A cloud has risen between the Light of Heaven and me,
To hide the city from my melancholy heart.

Mount Lu

I climbed west on Incense Cloud Peak.
South I saw the spray-filled falls
Dropping for ten thousand feet
Sounding in a hundred gorges,
Suddenly as if lightning shone,
Strange as if light-wet rainbows lifted.
I thought the Milky Way had shattered,
Scattering stars through the clouds, downwards.

Looking up an even greater force.
Nature’s powers are so intense.
The Cosmic Wind blows there without stop.
The river’s moon echoes back the light
Into vortices where waters rush.
On both sides, the clear walls were washed,
By streams of pearl broken into mist,
By clouds of foam whitening over rock.

Let me reach those Sublime Hills
Where peace comes to the quiet heart.
No more need to find the magic cup.
I’ll wash the dust, there, from my face,
And live in those regions that I love,
Separated from the Human World.

Tao Qian

Also Known as  T’ao Ch’ien or T’ao Yuan-ming (365-427)

Tao Qian ( A Taoist poet) His writing connects deeply to nature, helping to open the way for the later Chinese nature poets. He grew up poor and never had any high posts in the imperial government. Infighting of the Jin Court prompted his resignation, convincing him that life was too short to compromise on his principles; as he put it himself, “I shall not break my back for five bushels of grain” (The term “five bushels of grain” is often used to describe officialdom). He lived as a farmer for the rest of his life.

Success and failure? No known address.

Success and failure? No known address.
This or that goes on, depending on the other.
And who can say
if Milord Shao was happier
ruling a city, or sacked, his excellent melon patch?

Hot, cold, summer, winter: don’t they alternate?
May not a man’s way wander on just so?
Yes, those who “get there” know their opportunities…
have learned to untie the knots of knowledge.
But was it the notable or the notorious that our Sage spoke of?
The latter he called opportunists.
Those who get there, doubtless, know doubt nor care no more. Yet, doubt you not,
nor do dead generals,
who plotted carefully at what seemed opportune,
knowing naught, right or wrong.
If, of a sudden,
you’re offered fine wine,
let the sun sink.
Enjoying it.


Autumn chrysanthemums of Beautiful color.

Autumn chrysanthemums of beautiful color,
With dew in my clothes I pluck these flowers.
I float within wine to forget my sorrow,
To leave far behind thoughts of the world.
Alone, I pour myself a goblet of wine;
When the cup is empty, the pot pours for itself.
As the sun sets, all activities cease;
Homing birds, they hurry to the woods singing.
Haughtily, I whistle below the eastern balcony
I’ve found again the meaning of life.


Returning to Live in the Country (I)

Young, I was always free of common feeling.
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden.
My place is hardly more than a few fields.
My house has eight or nine small rooms.
Elm-trees and Willows shade the back.
Plum-trees and Peach-trees reach the door.
Misted, misted the distant village.
Drifting, the soft swirls of smoke.
Somewhere a dog barks deep in the winding lanes.
A cockerel crows from the top of the mulberry tree.
No heat and dust behind my closed doors.
My bare rooms are filled with space and silence.
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.


Returning to Live in the Country (II)

I always loved to walk the woods and mountains,
Pleased myself, lost in fields and marshes.
Now I go out with nephews, nieces,
In the wilds, parting hazel branches,
Back and forth through the mounds and hollows,
All around us signs of ancient peoples,
Remnants of their broken hearths and well-heads,
Mulberry and bamboo groves neglected.
Stop and ask the simple woodsman,
“Where have all these people gone now?”
Turning he looks quietly and tells me,
“Nothing’s left of them, they’re finished.”
One world. Though the lives we lead are different,
In courts of power or labouring in the market,
These I know are more than empty words:
Our life’s a play of light and shade,
Returning at last to the Void.


Ninth Day, Ninth Month

Slowly autumn comes to an end.
Painfully cold a dawn wind thicks the dew.
Grass round here will not be green again,
Trees and leaves are already suffering.
The clear air is drained and purified
And the high white sky’s a mystery.
Nothing’s left of the cicada’s sound.
Flying geese break the heavens’ silence.
The Myriad Creatures rise and return.
How can life and death not be hard?
From the beginning all things have to die.
Thinking of it can bruise the heart.
What can I do to lighten my thoughts?
Solace myself drinking the last of this wine.
Who understands the next thousand years?
Let’s just make this morning last forever.


Reading the Classic of Hills and Seas

In the summer: grass and trees have grown.
Over my roof the branches meet.
Birds settle in the leaves.
I enjoy this humble place.
Ploughing’s done, the ground is sown,
Time to sit and read a book.
The narrow deeply-rutted lane
Means my friends forget to call.
Content, I pour the new Spring wine,
Go out and gather food I’ve grown.
A light rain from the East,
Blows in on a pleasant breeze.
I read the story of King Mu,
See pictures of the Hills and Seas.
One glance finds all of heaven and earth.
What pleasures can compare with these?

Tao Qian


Also Known as Han-Shan or Cold Mountain – 9th century

In history Hanshan has become a mythological figure, so not much is certain at a factual level. But what is certain is that he can definitely be dated to either the 8th or 9th century CE. After Hanshan’s disappearance, a Taoist named Xu Lingfu, a native of Hangzhou, apparently collected his poems from the various mountains, rocks, trees, and walls they were written on.

Hanshan draws heavily on Buddhist and Taoist themes. He is hard to pin down religiously. He was not a Chan monk, though Chan concepts and terminology sometimes appear in his work. He criticized the Buddhists at Tiantai, yet used many Buddhist ideas and formulations. He was not seemingly a Taoist either, as he directed criticism at them as well. But he had no problem bringing Taoist scriptural quotations, and Taoist language when describing his mountains, into his poems. He seems simply to have been himself. In that we have the core of Taoism and so I consider him to be a Taoist at heart poking holes where appropriate in Taoist doctrine. All doctrines over time gather some red dust, it’s important to realize that every teaching of man needs to be carefully looked at from your own perspective.

Poem # 204: Flowing Jade

Down to the stream to watch the jade flow
or back to the cliff to sit on a boulder
my mind like a cloud remains unattached
what do I need in the faraway world

Cold Mountain Path

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Poem 253

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.

Poem 106

The layered bloom of hills and streams
Kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds
mountain mists soak my cotton bandanna,
dew penetrates my palm-bark coat.
On my feet are traveling shoes,
my hand holds an old vine staff.
Again I gaze beyond the dusty world-
what more could I want in that land of dreams?

Poem 246

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they’d ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

Poem 26:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed?
Accepting my fate I fled to the woods,
to dwell and gaze in freedom.
No one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds.
Soft grass serves as a mattress,
my quilt is the dark blue sky.
A boulder makes a fine pillow;
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change.

Poem 29:

I spur my horse past the ruined city;
the ruined city, that wakes the traveler’s thoughts:
ancient battlements, high and low;
old grave mounds, great and small.

Where the shadow of a single tumbleweed trembles
and the voice of the great trees clings forever,
I sigh over all these common bones —
No roll of the immortals bears their names.

Sun Buer

Also Known as Sun Bu’er or Sun Pu-erh (1119 – 1182)

Many Taoists write poetry as a way to teach. From a Taoist Perspective poetry is the clearest vehicle for transmission of knowledge of the Tao. Taoism as a teaching embraces many levels of truth at once. Taoism is also always relative to one’s situation, containing many truths at once. As a result only poetry with its multiple levels of meaning can reveal the path to the Tao. Sun Buer was a Taoist Master and teacher. Much of her work reflects this style of teaching the Tao within poetry.

At the age of 51 Sun Buer took up serious study of the Tao and herself became a disciple of Wang Chongyang, and serving as a Taoist priestess. Sun Buer was a teacher with several disciples, founding the Purity and Tranquility School.

According to tradition, Wang Chongyang told Sun Bu’er that if one of his disciples traveled 1,000 miles to Luoyang, that disciple would meet an immortal there who would instruct the disciple in the ultimate secrets of the universe. Sun Bu’er resolved to go, even though it meant giving up her comfortable life. However, Wang foresaw that Sun Bu’er’s beauty would make her a target of lust-craving men if she made the journey. He explained the situation and forbade her to make the journey.

Determined to overcome the fact that her physical attractiveness would inhibit her study of the Tao, Sun Bu’er went home and burned her face with a splash of hot oil, destroying her beauty. Wang was astonished by Sun’s action. He immediately began to train her in earnest in the secrets of internal alchemy. Eventually, it is said, she did achieve immortality, ascending into heaven in broad daylight in her physical body.

Sun Buer

Refining the Spirit

The relic from before birth
Enters one’s heart one day.
Be as careful as if you were holding a full vessel,
Be as gentle as if you were caressing an infant.
The gate of earth should be shut tight,
The portals of heaven should be first opened.
Wash the yellow sprouts clean,
And atop the mountain is thunder shaking the earth.


A springlike autumn’s balmy breeze reaches afar.
The sun shines on the house of a recluse
South of the river;
They encourage the December apricots
To burst into bloom:
A simplehearted person
Faces the simplehearted flowers.

Cutting Brambles

Cut brambles long enough,
Sprout after sprout,
And the lotus will bloom
Of its own accord:
Already waiting in the clearing,
The single image of light.
The day you see this,
That day you will become it.

Art by anotherwanderer

With Time

The great forge produces mountains and waters,
Containing therein the potential of creation.
In the morning, greet the energy of the sun;
At night, inhale the vitality of the moon.
In time the elixir can be culled;
With the years, the body naturally lightens.
Where the original spirit comes and goes,
Myriad apertures emit radiant light.

Gathering the Mind

Before our body existed,
One energy was already there.
Like jade, more lustrous as it’s polished,
Like gold, brighter as it’s refined.
Sweep clear the ocean of birth and death,
Stay firm by the door of total mastery.
A particle at the point of open awareness,
The gentle firing is warm.

Spirit and energy

Spirit and energy should be clear as the night air;
In the soundless is the ultimate pleasure all along.
Where there’s reality in illusion
Is illusion in reality,
For the while playing with magical birth
In the silver bowl.

Ts’ui Po (960-1279)

Ts’ui Po excelled at painting Buddhist and Taoist subjects, figures, landscapes, flowers, and animals. He was noted for his works in the genre of birds-and-flowers.

Wang Wei

(699 – 761)

Wang Wei ( A Buddhist / Taoist Poet) is considered to be one of the three great poets of the Tang Period, along with LI Po and Tu Fu. Wang Wei was also a great painter of the era. None of his paintings still exist in modern times.

Deer Park Hermitage

No one seen amongst empty mountains
only echoes of speech resound
Sunlight’s ending reflections
reach deep through the woods
enlightening dark green moss.

This is one of the most translated Chinese poems. It makes for an excellent chance to look at how different translations change the feel of a poem.

Sometimes I’d Walk

Sometimes I’d walk,
walk far from home,
the things I’ve seen,
and I alone.


Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.

Hut in the Bamboos

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo;
I thrum my zither and whistle lingering notes.
In the secrecy of the wood, no one can hear
Except the clear moon shining on me.

A Song of an Autumn Night.

Under the crescent moon a light autumn dew
Has chilled the robe she will not change
And she touches a silver lute all night,
Afraid to go back to her empty room.

Xiang Ji Temple

Xiang Ji Temple is…
God knows how far up that cloudy peak.
Those old trees harbor no human path,
But the deep mountains keep, somewhere, a bell.
Spring’s rustling swallowed up by jagged stones,
The sun’s fire frozen on the evergreens,
Hollow twilight drains the pool of song,
And quiet Zen quells the dragon’s venom.

A Song of Peach-Blossom River

A fisherman is drifting, enjoying spring mountains,
Peach-trees on both banks
Leading one to an ancient source.
Watching fresh-colored trees, never thinking of distance
Coming to the end of the blue stream
-suddenly- strange men!
To a cave-with a mouth so narrow
forcing him to crawl through;
But then it opens wide again on a broad and level path —
Far beyond clouds crowning a reach of trees,
Thousands of homes shadowed round
with flowers and bamboos…
Woodsmen tell him their names in the ancient speech of Han;
Clothes of the Qin Dynasty are worn by all these people
Living on the uplands, above the Wuling River,
On farms and in gardens that are like a world apart,
Their dwellings at peace under pines in the clear moon,
Until sunrise fills the low sky with crowing and barking.
At news of a stranger the people all assemble,
Each of them invites him in to ask him of home
Alleys and paths are cleared for him of petals in the morning,
Fishermen and farmers bring him their loads at dusk.
They had left the world long ago,
having come here seeking refuge;
They have lived as angels ever since, blessedly far away,
No one in the cave knowing anything outside,
Outsiders viewing only empty mountains and thick clouds.
…The fisherman, unaware of his great good fortune,
Begins to think of the country, of home, of worldly ties,
Finds his way out of the cave, past mountains, past rivers,
Intending to return, when after telling kin.
He studies every step taken, fixes it deeply in mind,
Forgetting cliffs and peaks may vary their appearance.
…It’s certain that to enter through the deepness of the mountain,
A green river leads you, into a misty wood
But now, after spring-floods everywhere
leaving floating peach petals —
Which is the way to go, to find that hidden source?

Art by Wang Shimin: Inspired by Wang Wei

Loy Ching-Yuen

(1873 – 1960)

Loy Ching-Yuen was one of China’s best known Taoist tai chi masters of the early 20th century.

To know Tao

To know Tao
and still the mind.
Knowledge comes with perseverance.

The Way is neither full nor empty;
a modest and quiet nature understands this.
The empty vessel, the uncarved block;
nothing is more mysterious.

When enlightenment arrives
don’t talk too much about it;
just live it in your own way.
With humility and depth, rewards come naturally.

The fragrance of blossoms soon passes;
the ripeness of fruit is gone in a twinkling.
Our time in this world is so short,
better to avoid regret:
Miss no opportunity to savor the ineffable.

Like a golden beacon signaling on a moonless night,
Tao guides our passage through this transitory realm.
In moments of darkness and pain
remember all is cyclical.
Sit quietly behind your wooden door:
Spring will come again.


We can hold back
neither the coming of the flowers
nor the downward rush of the stream;
sooner or later,
everything comes to its fruition.

No Fretting

No use fretting over gold, beauty or fame;
Nurturing these, how can we calm our fluttering heart?
Non attachment brings deep truth,
And a truthful nature brings immortality.
Empty your heart,
Sit quietly on a mat.
In meditation we become one with All;
Tao billows like the vapors
In a mountain valley,
And its supernatural power wafts into our soul.

Quite Heart

With a quiet heart it’s good to practice Tao
Exercising power in the inner places,
The source of knowledge.
Diligence fosters the effortless flow of ch’i
Enjoins us with All,
Omnipotent Tao,
Self subsumed by non-self;
The pearl within the oyster.

Forging Self

Never forget the folly of greed;
We may as well swim against the current of the Yellow River.
Training our inner self is like forging lead;
nine times a blacksmith turns his dipper in the flame.
Yin and yang, earth and fire
find their own harmony.
Precious metals and our inner pearl are waxed
and chamoised with the pass of days.

When the mind is empty, blue flame licks the firebox.

Our Nature in Nature

Under the Moon

Speaking Out and Spoken Word

Taoist Art and the Uncarved Block

Reaching the Light

Our Nature in Nature
Random Poems
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