A Poem of Farewell

Vietnamese Zen Master Mãn Giác (1052-1096) wrote a farewell poem, Cáo Tật Thị Chúng, (Announcing an Illness) to announce his impending death. It is said that after he read out the poem to his close friends, including the king, he passed out of this life.

Below is my translation, followed by the original in Sino-Vietnamese and then one of the many Vietnamese translations. Though I couldn’t do it with same syllable count (first two couplets, five syllables per line; last couplet, seven syllables per line), I’ve tried to keep the same feeling of rhythm.

There are various interpretations of these three couplets, all revolving around reincarnation. Rather than recount them here, I’m leaving it to the reader’s imagination.

Announcing an Illness

Spring goes, a hundred flowers fall
Spring comes, a hundred flowers smile
Before the eyes, life passes by
On my head, age has settled
Don’t think when spring ends, all the flowers fall
Last night in the courtyard, an apricot blossomed
(translation by Chris Galvin)

In this video, NSƯT Hồng Ngát sings the original version, then the Vietnamese version of Cáo Tật Thị Chúng:

The original poem in Sino-Vietnamese:

Cáo Tật Thị Chúng

Xuân khứ bách hoa lạc
Xuân đáo bách hoa khai
Sự trục nhãn tiền quá
Lão tùng đầu thượng lai
Mạc vị xuân tàn hoa lạc tận
Ðình tiền tạc dạ nhất chi mai
-Thiền Sư Mãn Giác

Vietnamese translation:

Cáo Tật Thị Chúng
(Có Bệnh Bảo Mọi Người)

Xuân đi trăm hoa rụng,
Xuân đến trăm hoa cười.
Trước mắt việc đi mãi,
Trên đầu già đến rồi.
Đừng tưởng xuân tàn hoa rụng hết,
Đêm qua, sân trước, một cành mai.

Posted for dVerse Poets Open Link Night

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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18 Responses to A Poem of Farewell

  1. brian miller says:

    nice chris…this is a cool poem…and a cool story to go with it…to me it speaks of appreciating life right up to that last moment…

  2. Beautiful poem all on it’s own, and the story behind it is amazing. I feel the rhythm of coming and going in your translation. Thank you.

  3. Joseph Hesch says:

    What a lovely and important piece of art for “a man of a certain age,” such as me. Too true, but the lesson isn’t lost on me. I have found new blooms each day to cultivate in my heart, my mind and notebook. Thanks, Chris!
    ~ j

  4. ayala says:

    Beautiful, Chris. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. Pat Hatt says:

    Great background and story you give and your verse just backs it up and vice versa.

  6. Susan says:

    Beautiful, beautiful . . . perhaps the illness is fatal, but one might survive. Or is it that as I leave at my great age, another is born? I do not read the Vietnamese, but yours I love. hat a way to announce illness and fit it in to the natural churning of nature.

  7. claudia says:

    Don’t think when spring ends, all the flowers fall
    Last night in the courtyard, an apricot blossomed…love the hope in this…what an image…

  8. Having tried my hand at adapting poems from another language – translation is even more difficult! – I can appreciate the immensity of choices facing you with every word. Wonderful!

  9. ManicDdaily says:

    Just beautiful. I feel so privileged to have read this. It’s really lovely. k.

  10. marousia says:

    Wow love this – so pleased you translated it – the poem is sublime

  11. Quirina says:

    It is difficult to translate poetry, there is so much freedom (poetic license) and so many choices that have to be made, the imagery, the lyrical quality, and the essence. Without knowing any Vietnamese, I sense that Buddhist thought of impermanence, and the acceptance of the karmic journey of this man, so beautifully captured in your translation. I really enjoyed this poem, and also the video where the young woman sings this poem with the same emotion that your translation evoked.

    • chris says:

      I would have liked to maintain the same syllable counts too, but then I would have lost those other elements you mention, which I felt were more important. Also, we tend to use more words in English than in Vietnamese. I’m happy with my translation, but I’m sure a scholar could have done better. Glad you enjoyed the video too.

  12. “Death poetry” is a sublime art. Many thanks for sharing this poem.

  13. ayala says:

    Lovely to revisit this.

  14. rmp says:

    I don’t know what the original said, but your transformation of it is quite beautiful and touching. there’s something very peaceful here in this image.

  15. Pingback: Announcing an Illness – Man Giac – Suiseki

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