Grandfather and the Waterhens of Spring

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When I was very young, my maternal grandfather was already 72.  I thought him quite old back then.  To be honest, I still think so, even though he passed away many decades ago.  He had white hair and a white beard, and his skin sagged because…well, he was old.

He taught me a poem that I still remember to this very day, but sadly I could only remember two lines of it, and of those two lines, I could only remembered a few words.  The waterhen cry (something something) spring (something something).

Amaurornis phoenicurus: the waterhen

Of course, at that age, I had no idea what the heck the words meant.  Grandfather told me it had to do with a bird crying because spring time was fading.  I thought it sounded pretty so I tucked it into long-term memory.

Fast forward many decades later and I still have those few words stuck in my head, although to be honest, I had no idea who the author of the poem was, and I didn’t know if it was a poem or a song or just something he made up to entertain a little kid like me.  The chance of finding anything was slim to zip, but I kept trying, year after year, always hopeful because it was the only thing I had left that he gave to me.

Still, this one stumped me for the longest time.  Try as I might, I could never figure out the remainder of the words…until a few days ago, I suddenly got a bright idea!  The idea came from a dream I had, which made me realize that I needed to think outside the box if I was going to solve this puzzle.

Let me tell you about the dream that cracked the mystery for me.

The Dream

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I remember distinctly, in a lucid, vivid dream, I was an ancient girl, in an ancient dress, holding an ancient scroll with some ancient Chinese characters on them.  In my dream, I could read it all quite easily.  I don’t remember what was on the scroll, but I knew that I could read Chinese.

At that time inside my dream, it was benign in its boring banality.  It would be as if I was walking down the street today reading lolcats from my iphone.  I mean…how much more banal could that be?  But upon awakening, my first thought was how strange it felt for me to be able to just look at the Chinese characters and as if by magic, the shapes meant something, and I was able to form words from them.  Truly amazing really, and I still can’t quite get over how odd that feels.

My second thought, after thinking about how strange it was, I had the sudden idea that the poem my grandfather taught me could have been a very old one, that may have existed in a different form.  Could it have been originally written in Chinese characters?

I decided to try google search again for the three words I knew for sure I still remembered:  waterhen, cry, and spring, but this time, I changed it a bit.  I used google translate and changed the words to Chinese characters.  I put the hanzi back into google search and BOOM!  Out came a match.

The Poem


But I still didn’t know if this was the correct one, because of course…in this lifetime—I CAN’T READ CHINESE!!!  So I used good ole google translate yet again, going from Chinese, back to Vietnamese, and this is what I got.

Thân tuỳ hô hấp tị trung khí
Thế tự phong hành lĩnh ngoại vân
Đỗ quyên đề đoạn nguyệt như trú
Bất thị tầm thường không quá xuân

OK, let me tell you something.  I’m Vietnamese with a pretty solid Việt vocabulary, but the only two words I recognized in that poem were quyên and xuân–and those were the words that I used to pull this poem from the chaos of the internet.  This is because the poem was written in ancient Hán-Nôm!  OMG!!!  No wonder I couldn’t find it!

How did I know that it was the same poem my grandfather taught me?  That was the strangest coincidence!

The name of the poem is Sùng Nghiêm, and the author’s name was Trần Nhân Tông.  It was through and through, a Vietnamese poem, written by a Vietnamese man.  Once I was able to get a translation however, I knew I could use my handy dandy Han Viet dictionary and figure out the meaning of this poem.

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Allow me parse it out in modern language so I can share this poem with you.

Thân như hơi thở qua buồng phổi
Kiếp tựa mây luồn đỉnh núi xa
Chim quyên kêu rã bao ngày tháng
Đâu phải mùa xuân dễ luống qua


The body is like chi, passing through the lungs
A lifetime passes like clouds floating amidst the distant mountains
The waterhen cries throughout the days
It is not easy to realize that spring has passed by

Once I read the modern version of the poem, all the pieces clicked into place and just like that, my memory was restored.  This was the poem my grandfather had taught me, the one that I could only remember portions of.  I am not trying to make excuses for my poor retention, but I was five years old when he taught me this poem, and after having experienced the trauma of the war, and then having to adjust to a new land and a new language, it was amazing that I even remembered any of it at all.

The Meaning

The poem talks about the fleeting passage of human life, like a breath of air going into the body, and then is exhaled again.  Each cycle of breathing in and breathing out is how quickly each of our incarnated life lasts.  If all we do is cry and warble throughout the day, like the waterhen, then we will have wasted our springtime, and will have done nothing of worth with the time that we have been given.

Now that I had the poem, I could then do a real google search for the details, and what I found out shocked me to the core.  My grandfather had taught me a poem that was written by a Vietnamese king-turned-Buddhist monk, who wrote it in Hán-Nôm, the language used in the courts back then.  The poem dated back to 1304!

The poem is also part of a large body of Vietnamese Buddhist scripture that is written in poetry format, most likely for ease of memorization and usage in chants and other such activities.  It also happens to be a very beautiful poem.


Coincidentally, this monk king was the same monk king who I wrote about a few months back, when I was doing a translation of a song called Lý Qua Đèo:  Princess Huyền Trân.

The princess was his daughter.

The coincidence is astounding, considering the fact that we Viets have more kings in the thousands of years of our history than I could ever be able to mention, even in passing, and yet, my grandfather had taught me a poem all those decades ago, that this very king had written over 700 years ago.

What are the odds that I could have found it again, let alone the fact that I had written about him only a short time before.

The Chance Occurrences

I freely admit, I go through life not quite understanding the various chance occurrences that happen to me, but if there is anything that I have learned throughout my years studying the Tao, it’s that sometimes things that happen seem as if they are chance happenings, but are really not that random.  I just think it’s random because the first instance of that non-random action may be separated from the second instance by many years (decades even), but they are definitely connected.

catgirlheadphonesThey are connected because WE are connected.  That ancient king was connected to me in some way because I was able to receive his teachings, even as far removed as we are, through space and time.

There is also the bloodline.  If we go back far enough, that king and I probably have a common ancestor.

Heck, with my luck, it may even be that HE is one of my direct ancestors, and I’m not just saying this to be a braggart.

It’s pretty common to claim kings as ancestors since we Viets are all supposed to be one huge family anyway, but more than that, my family has a history of a long unbroken line connected to many dynasties of kings, so this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

Chance just seems chancy because we lack the oversight to be able to connect the wide, far-flung dots, but just because we are unaware that these connections exist does not mean they don’t exist.  Chance then, is the tool that is used by the Tao to answer questions and to allow us to make sense of the life we live, regardless whether we are aware of it or not.

So thank you, grandfather, for the lesson you tried to teach me as a very young child.  And thank you, ancestor King, for resending this poem back to me at a point in my life when I could actually utilize it.  This one, I finally received and am still in the process of learning.



3 thoughts on “Grandfather and the Waterhens of Spring

Add yours

  1. That’s some nice detective work and a wonderful discovery. I don’t even know where to begin on non random connections except that I agree with you about it.


  2. Beautiful story and a wonderful poem. Thank you for sharing! I appreciate the work you put into your posts and the way that you tie your thoughts together with the larger picture of your detective work and the context that brought them about.


  3. Hey TB! Stumbled across your site this morning after a quick Google search for resources/references of Vietnamese magic.
    I’ve been reading through your posts for the last couple hours and have been thoroughly intrigued by them, especially the ones about more esoteric things. Delighted to have found your blog and thankful for the opportunity to learn through you about our ancestors, their past, and the multitude of other topics you touch on ❤


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