A brief introduction of Supreme Master Ching Hai: Supreme Master Ching Hai was born in Au Lac. Since Her youth, She was already gifted in poetry and literature which enabled Her to express beautiful elements of life, the upheavals of the country, the worldly attachments, the ups and downs of life, the fragile hopes, the limits of indulgence, and awakening through the flow of melodious and gentle verses.

     When She came of age, She went abroad to study and later married a German doctor. Although Her married life was a happy one, She did not forget Her determination and longing to search for the Truth. Supreme Master Ching Hai therefore left Her rich and patrician life to travel to many countries, as well as many well-known places in search of a master to teach Her the Truth. Finally during a retreat in the Himalayas, She attained the perfect enlightenment. Currently, She still continues Her travel through many countries in order to help humankind and share the Truth.

     Following are some of Thu Phong’s impressions about Supreme Master Ching Hai's poetry

     In Aulacese poetry and music, there has been a relatively large number of poems from spiritual practitioners praising the Buddha and Jesus Christ, but no one has ever read love poems by the sages. Any verses with even a hint at a love story are usually prohibited by religions.

     Supreme Master Ching Hai has stepped outside of this tradition. Recently, in the summer of 1996, She officially allowed the recital and publishing of more than 60 poems including both love and spiritual poems, which She wrote before and during Her active pursuit of spiritual practice. These poems are contained in five separate collections accompanied by five CDs, Wu Tzu I & II and Traces of Previous Lives I, II & Ill.

     For me, I can casually read spiritual poetry from a nun; however, reading love poems from a female spiritual practitioner is much more interesting. My curiosity stems from both an interest in the earthly and religious aspects. It is for this reason that I tried to enter the world created by Supreme Master Ching Hal’s poetry with a level of receptivity and solemnity which I felt was necessary. I was fearful that if I didn’t proceed gently, I could destroy the emotive ambiance imbued in each verse by Supreme Master Ching Hai, particularly that of a passionate nature.

     Just like any human being living in the secular world, Supreme Master Ching Hai traveled through the circle of love which was filled with happiness, anger, sympathy and resentment. She even burned in the fire of passion and lived within a marriage filled with love and dreams. Finally, however, Supreme Master Ching Hai turned Her back on all the mundane sweetness and bitterness to enter the world of Buddhahood. Consequently, Her poetry is a combination of conflicting emotions ranging from Her experience with worldly love to the pure Buddha-love attained through spiritual practice.

Love And Dreams

     Supreme Master Ching Hai’s love poems read like a classic love story with all the necessary qualities: resentful loneliness, nights of hopeless waiting and days of passion, et cetera. The only difference is that Supreme Master Ching Hai accepts all Her love stories under what She calls “the guiding light of enlightenment.”
Here Supreme Master Ching Hai expresses Her loneliness as She waits for Her beloved:

Lonely as I’ve never been so lonely,
Sad as I’ve never been so sad…
Tonight left are only the Muse and I,
The night’s so long and tomorrow’s far away.
I lie here with my soul hidden beneath my flowing hair,
Listening to life slipping from my shoulders.

~ “A Lonesome Night” (CD Wu Tzu I)

     Realizing Her beloved isn’t returning, the lonely poet listens to the sound of the rain and the falling leaves, dreaming of memories of the past:

Looking ahead, seeing only the past,
Hearing raindrops, thinking they were your footsteps!
Each leaf bids farewell to autumn forever
Sad fingers gather pieces of a fallen amour!

~ “Love on the Side” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     The romance ends and the dream subsides, leaving the poet to recall:

You promised to guide me from winter to summer,
To transform the cycle of life and death into paradise on earth.
You acquainted me with addictive passion and strange pleasures.
You rebuilt Eden with your wondrous fingers!

~ “The Man Who Recreated Eden” (CD Traces of Previous Lives I)

     Even with the “guiding light of enlightenment,” the poet couldn’t forget the days of love and passion:

Taking each other to the eternal shore,
Thousands of words halted at our lips!
A warm embrace filled with deep affection,
Sweetly fragrant breath perfumed Earth and Heaven.

~ “An Unexpected Day” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     Although I knew that Traces of Previous Lives was a collection of romantic poems written by a person before she pursued spiritual practice, I was still a little surprised with the verses. Rather than merely satisfying my artistic curiosity, these poems touched me to the point where I felt sympathy for the poet. I treasured them as a dear friend’s unfinished love story.

The Struggle Between Heaven And Earth

     This may be the first time that Aulacese cultural observers witness this revolutionary approach to poetry by a spiritual practitioner. The journey from ignorance to enlightenment, which the poet Supreme Master Ching Hai embarked on, depicts the often bitter, enduring and dramatic struggles between the alluring, yet ephemeral, worldly temptations and spiritual devotion that any Eastern woman would have to deal with if she wishes to reach the shore of enlightenment:

I wanted to believe like one faithful, yet so far from Your sight.
I wanted to be devout, yet kept on with my sinful plights.

~ Like the Clouds up in the Sky (CD Wu Tzu II)

     I was very inspired to be able to follow this spiritual practitioner to the deepest and most private corners of Her being. The reader finds Her in love and passionate, in despair as well as in happiness, when the spirit gloriously shines to when the mind is engulfed by the fire of passion. I could feel the seemingly endless and dramatic inner struggle between ignorance and enlightenment, between the upward struggle of righteousness and the downward pull of enticement.

     I no longer see the model of spiritual asceticism that leaves one desiccated due to abstinence as being correct for spiritual practitioners. On the contrary, I have seen clearly a refreshingly new image which is bright, innocent, and full of life. The poet refers to matters that are normally seen as prohibited in a carefree manner; mentions former love with tranquillity; talks of passion with a pure heart; recalls all the sadness with a heart that is no longer sad; and talks of past despair with a heart full of hope. This positive, relaxed and uninhibited attitude surely can only exist when a spiritual practitioner has reached the pinnacle of enlightenment.

     No reader can avoid the heart-wrenching emotion when reading about the poet’s uncertainty as She faces the struggle between staying with Her husband and renouncing the world:

I remain here with you
Because the wind is cold outside.
And where else can I go?
Life ‘s a long, lonely road, besides.

It’s just the human lot
Like birds that must live in pairs
Like animals that must have their lairs,
I too need a mate.

~ “Acceptance” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     Sometimes the poet just wanted to give up because She felt bound by the monotonous daily activities of our ephemeral existence:

Life is a jail cell
Food and clothes are debts
Human intimacy is a drug
I'm a person not fully awake!

~ “Powerless” (CD Traces of Previous Lives III)

     Sometimes She thought that She was progressing toward enlightenment, but She also knew that the journey to the Buddha Land is not an easy one, as She often experienced:

One step forward, we retreat to the Original Abode,
One step backward, we return to this world of illusion!

~ “Existence and Nothingness” (CD Wu Tzu I)

     She admitted to Herself that the main obstacles for spiritual practice were worldly love and the basic survival needs:

Worldly love sprang its web, and daily needs, their trap.
The more I struggled, the more I became entangled!

~ “Like the Clouds up in the Sky” (CD Wu Tzu II)

     Mundane obligations often grieved the poet and almost destroyed Her dream of renunciation:

There were times the sun would not rise;
I prayed in vain for the future to arrive…

~ “Untitled 1” (CD Traces of Previous Lives I)

Leaving the Ephemeral World to Enter the Buddha Land

     But finally, the blessing came. Thanks to the “guiding light of enlightenment,” the poet untied all bindings to the ephemeral world and stepped into the Buddha Land. Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poetry from this point on is full of life and is enormously attractive:

Don’t think about, ask for, or even deny
The lonely corners of our lives.
The world continues to turn, rainfall or sunshine,
Viewing life’s vicissitudes as but a game!

~ “Still Forever” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     On the day She solemnly took the oath of spiritual devotion, unconcerned if the heavens shed tears, the heart of this spiritual practitioner rejoiced:

The day I cut my hair to enter the nunhood,
Loving tears rained from the heavens,
And the Earth vowed to offer protection!
My heart rejoiced with the Enlightening Festivity,
Inviting Buddhas everywhere to come witness this phenomenon.

From now on, all desires will cease:
Black hair fallen,
Avichi transformed into a blooming Garden!

~ “Nunhood” (CD Wu Tzu I)

     In reality, the soul of a spiritual practitioner is not naturally carefree, so what touches the reader is the humanistic essence of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poetry. Studying the following verses we can feel Her uneasiness; we know how much Her loving memories mean to her; and even sense a touch of remorse when She leaves Her beloved husband to pledge Her devotion to the Buddha:

Please lift your heart out of the blue web,
So my mind will also be lightened when we are apart.
Praised be the Buddha whose light guides my way,
And protects the one who stays behind!

~ “For the One Who Stayed Behind” (CD Wu Tzu I)

     This humanistic essence, the love and sense of remembrance still prevailed at journey’s end when this spiritual practitioner left a temple to start Her spiritual mission:

My heart was like the melancholy autumn leaves,
Half wanting to stay, the other half waiting to leave.
Farewell dear pagoda, dear Master, dear friends!
Farewell to this place of so many joyful sojourns.
With reluctant footsteps, I returned to the dusty world,
Light-hearted still from memories of the celestial abode.

~ “Coming Down from the Mountain” (CD Wu Tzu I)

The Characteristics of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s Poetry

     This humanistic essence is in each of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poems. No doubt it is Her very human, very honest and simple approach that is the foundation of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poetry.

     Indeed, Supreme Master Ching Hai writes Her poems just like people write their diary. She writes whatever comes to mind – the verse and the thought arriving at the same moment, with no need for polishing. Rhyming and other elements sometimes are just secondary. Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poetry flows naturally in a very relaxed way, with no hidden meaning, for there is nothing to hide. The six-and-eight word style (where a poem consists of multiple pairs of a six-word line followed by an eight-word line) in Supreme Master Ching Hai’s compositions are as graceful and simple as those of Nguyen Binh, but are more refined and use more Buddhist terms and imagery.
The poem “An Abandoned Mansion,” written in Rappallo, Italy reveals this unique six-and-eight word style:

I came upon a deserted mansion, silent, isolated.
Cobwebs curtained the doorway, crickets chirping at its half-opened gate!
The wind whistled past a vacant chamber.
Ancient souls sighed, weary perhaps of transmigration.

~ “An Abandoned Mansion” (CD Wu Tzu I)

     Compared to Pham Thien Thu, a spiritual poet who wrote a number of poems containing well hidden meanings of romantic love over 30 years ago, Supreme Master Ching Hai’s love poems are completely different in style.
Pham Thien Thu only dared to symbolically describe a lover:

Your hair, a fragrant forest
Your slender arm, an ivory flower bud…

      In contrast, Supreme Master Ching Hai’s portrayal of Her love is very realistic:

Do you remember all the things you said:
O lips that flame like the blood in my vein!
O eyes so blue as the sky on the horizon!
O beautiful hair, priceless golden threads!

~ “The Man Who Recreated Eden” (CD Traces of Previous Lives I)

     Apart from the poems describing worldly love, Supreme Master Ching Hai writes of spiritual ideals just like Dinh Hung. The following excerpt from the poem “Eternal Beloved” represents a different style in Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poetry:

Where have you gone to on a thousand-forked road?
Remember your past? Remember my call?
A nano-second dream, the delusion opens thousands of doors.
With the body, all solemn promises are still buried in deep slumber.

I have arrived - do you not know?
Reserved, with me, always the pink lotus flower.
Awaiting you, generations have passed.
Promised to return, do you not remember?

~ “Eternal Beloved” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     The vitality and elegance as found in Vu Hoang Chuong’s poetry are also found in some verses of Supreme Master Ching Hai’s poems:

A hundred years on this meaningless stage,
Face upturned, I laugh aloud in the midst of love.
Heaven and Earth revolve eternally, just let it be!
Night or dawn, it doesn’t really matter to me...

~ “Forever Still” (CD Traces of Previous Lives II)

     Poems embellished with abstract impressions, like the above, are but a few in Supreme Master Ching Hal’s five CD albums. The majority are written in the original Supreme Master Ching Hai’s style, which is defined by spontaneity, human nature, simplicity and realism.

      In a purely cultural sense, Supreme Master Ching Hai is considered to be successful in conveying Her ideals and maintaining reader interest. Whether or not it is advisable for a spiritual practitioner to reveal her private life and innermost feelings to her disciples and the public must be left for the individual to judge.
In Buddhist circles there have been many debates on Supreme Master Ching Hai’s progressive approach, both in respect to Her spiritual practice and teaching methods. Her publishing of both love and spiritual poetry is perhaps only a minor breaking of tradition in relation to Her more significant, liberal approach toward spiritual practice.

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