Snowflakes, Blossoms: Friends of the Way
by Marjorie Merryman
Texts: poems by 17th-century Buddhist Chan/Zen nuns: Two song-lyrics of Shang Jinglan, and Guxu’s “Paying a Visit to Huang Jieling and Not Finding Her In”;
Premiered fall 2015, Scripps College, and recorded fall 2016, at Manhattan School of Music.
Recorded for Volume 2, Voices of the Pearl, June 2018.
All three texts express the experience of distance and absence between 17th-century Buddhist Chan/Zen nuns. Displaced by war and political upheaval, they have turned to a life of material simplicity, contemplation, scholarship and poetry. Their muted expressions of longing suggest deep emotion, but ultimately they arrive at a heightened acceptance, spirituality and oneness with the natural world.
This is a work for two sopranos (or soprano/mezzo soprano), flute or Chinese flute, harp and percussion (Chinese and or western), with a duration of 12-15 minutes.
Texts and Translations:
(translations used with permission by Dr. Beata Grant)
1. Parting from Master Guxu in the Snow (from “Two Song-lyrics of Shang Jinglan” )
The slender twigs of willows tussle in the wind
Tussle in the wind.
Space: the roads are distant;
Time: like an arrow it flies.
Night moon in the inner quarters, frozen light in the hall,
A perverse wind shreds the goose-feather snowflakes,
The goose-feather snowflakes
Swirling ceaselessly about:
When will we meet again?
— Shang Jinglan (1602-1676)
2. Telling of my Sorrows (from “Two Song-lyrics of Shang Jinglan”)
I stand awhile for no reason by the latticed window;
The shadows of swirling catkins join the sky,
Piled up on the meditation mat, three feet of snow —
How much Chan has she been able to penetrate?
Blossoms about to burst open,
The crows are still cold:
Who feels for them?
Songs flutter in the white snow,
Reeds turn into bamboo flowers,
Frost tinges the hair at one’s temples.
— Shang Jinglan
3. Paying a Visit to Huang Jieling and Not Finding Her In
From afar I hear this distinguished guest has come;
Her boat’s double oars cutting through the river wind.
Friends in the Way are bound together from the start;
Hearts set on the Chan – to whom can one speak of this?
Clouds shift: shadows are cast on chilled sleeves;
Blossoms fall: the little pond is tinged with red.
When I do not see your solitary skiff returning,
Shall I entrust my melancholy to the colors of dusk?
— Guxu (mid 17th century)