If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike.
Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones.
Pluck the low branches, pull down the high.
Enjoy alike the spent blossoms, the tight buds.
Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822 / Vietnam)
Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong was a powerfully independent and outspoken woman living at a time when that was very rare. The energy and mastery of her poetry was so high that it helped elevate the status of Vietnamese to that of a literary language. Although her words are infused with Buddhist understandings and images, Ho Xuan Huong had a defiant, highly critical relationship with the Buddhism of her native Vietnam.
One of the tension points present in her work revolves around sex and sexuality. She was a frequent critic of the pious sounding Vietnamese monks who scoffed at women expressing themselves sexually, but then courted and slept with female devotees and concubines. In addition, she fiercely questioned the double standards of a patriarchal society where men did as they pleased when it came to romantic relationships, while women were confined to roles of dutiful quietude.
Ho Xuan Huong was anything but quiet about sexuality, as the following poem attests.
Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.
A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.
Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.
Spring games. Who hasn't known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.
Many of Ho Xuan Huong's poems read like expressions of freedom. Not longing for it, but actually living and breathing it. If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike. Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones. Literally, there's the experience of climbing up a hill or mountain. Where I'm living right now, there is a small mountain that the locals like to climb to get exercise and look out over the city in the valley below. I have climbed to the top multiple times. Every time, there has been a point where I consciously chose to be ok with having some aches and pains, and then - as if by magic - I experienced a jolt of renewed energy that helped me reach the summit. Metaphorically, the same lines of the poem can taken as a directive for life. If you want to reach your dreams, you have to let go of fretting and obsessing over every, little obstacle that appears along the way.
As many great poets do, Ho Xuan Huong captures beautifully the fleeting quality of our lives. Particularly that of high moments, and how a wrong decision while on top of the mountain can bring you tumbling down. In another poem laden with sexual images and tension, Huong offers both high level pleasure and a caution to not go too far.
I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching --
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands
Beyond pleasure, the richness of the natural world explodes from Huong's poems. Clearly in love with all the wonders of the waxing seasons, spring and summer, she readily invokes the beauty and vibrancy of each in her words.
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
Here, Huong offers a poem that appears to be passive, but actually is active and full of tension. A gentle, somewhat melancholy start paired with a fierce, declarative ending. Talk of sadness coupled with the deepest expression of love itself.
Overall, she leaves us with an overriding message pointing directly to spiritual liberation. One that isn't separated from the seemingly mundane and material world around us. The pulpy jackfruit is love. The sad puddles are love. The hike to pick flowers is love.
And love is liberation. Available to all, regardless of who we are perceived to be (or not be) in the world.