Li Bai (李白) (701 – 762)—often spelled “Li Bo” in the West—is considered one of the greatest poets of the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Living in a time of prosperity and peace, he wrote poems that typically focused on his travels, friendships, moments of solitude, and wine. His most celebrated poem, Quiet Night Thoughts, is standard curriculum for modern schoolchildren in China, most all of whom can recite it from memory. As is typical of Chinese classical poetry, the text expresses multitudinous emotions without ever explicitly stating any.
Roughly three hundred years later, Master Shen Zhao Ben Ru (神照本如) (981 – 1050) composed Poem of Enlightenment. Shen Zhao Ben Ru was a Buddhist Chanmaster of the Tiantai – Shanjia school who spoke this poem to his teacher, Siming Zhili Chanmaster (960 – 1028), upon attaining enlightenment. It seems to answer the deep feeling of Li Bai’s poem with a question: “why dwell there upon?”
As the first poem romanticizes sentimental attachments espoused by traditional Confucian values, the second poem refutes that sentimental inclination by drawing on Buddhist concepts of non-duality and karma. Non- duality refers to a belief in false dichotomies such as “I” and “other” or “home” and “away.” Karma refers to the natural law of cause and effect that determines one’s destiny.
In this musical dramaticization, the choir and soloists juxtapose an initial, melodic pining for home with subsequent outbursts of unemotional detachment. The expression of these two contrasting states of mind mirrors internal struggle typically experienced in Buddhist practice and cultivation.