Call to Wandering Souls

Call to Wandering Souls

According to ancient Vietnamese beliefs, the souls of all those having suffered a tragic death and of those having died without leaving children to worship their memory, were condemned to lead a wandering life in the World of Shadows. A ceremony for their salvation is held every year on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.

The content of Funeral Oration
The content of Funeral Oration

Nguyen Du’s “Call to Wandering Souls” is a “Van te” (Funeral oration), written for such an occasion. By its pathos, its profound humanism and the thoughts it contains on the vanity of this world, it is to some extent akin to two famous pieces of English literature, although inspired by a totally different conception of the world: the visit by Hamlet and Horatio to the cemetery at Elsinor, by Shakespeare, and the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray.
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Call to Wandering Souls in Vietnam
Call to Wandering Souls in Vietnam

As always in the seventh moon rain falls like a ceaseless weeping,
Cold wind bites into the bare bones.
There is no sadness like the sadness of the autumn dusk,
Where the rushes wither endlessly, and one by one
Fall to earth the yellow platen leaves,
Leaves of the poplar linger, delaying the day of parting,
Pear trees scatter their tears like dew, their dew like tears
What human heart would not for pity sigh
At the sad aspect of our world of light,
How much deeper than is the sorrow of the world of shades!
In night eternal, held fast in that dark embrace
By flickering ghost-glow let their ways be known
Pity them… the souls of those lost thousands
When wandering they go forth to unknown shores,
They are those, for whom no incense burns,
Desolate, seeking, every night and all
Which among them now is lord or hind?
Who now can tell wisdom from foolishness?
As Autumn comes, on the Altar of propitiation,
The willow branch is strewn with votive drops.
That Buddha, the compassionate, may grant them salvation
Deliver them of their suffering and lead them to the promised West.

There are those among them who chose the road of glory
They dreamed to bend rivers and mountains to their will.
Why now recall their ruthless games of power,
The heart is crushed remembering the blows of fate.
Whose lighting in one instant annihilates all pomp,
The gladly would they change lots with the poor.
Who build high power and riches builds too vengeance and hate.
Their blood has flowed, their bones lie now crushed to dust.
The souls of the unloved empty and shivering range
Featureless all the long nights, haunted by sobbing of rain.
Comfortless ghosts, when will your deliverance come?

Where are they who strutted once in the palace of cinnamon,
Safe behind screen and arras with phoenix and lilies wrought
The storm came, to the throne another climbed,
Like wind-strewn leaves, they knew not where to fly.
From the pinnacles of light they fell, overwhelmed in the abyss;
The king-pin broke, the vessel cracked, their fragile fate fell too.
Where now are the gallantries, dance, laughter that was once.
Their eyes are closed, their scattered bones none cares to gather now.
No incense now burns, alas, to shrive their memory,
They stray along cold streams in mire and wilderness.
Pity their frail hands, pampered and delicate,
Dwindling and withering with the years they fade in the long nights.
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Dignitaries there once clad in stiff brocades
With the flourish of their scarlet brush, they sent men to their death.
Worthy followers of Mandarins Quan, Cat and Y and Chu
They practiced and well knew the way to rule.
But pomp and power are recompensed by fear and vengeful hate.
A host of phantoms haunt their moss-grown tombs.
A thousand teals of gold will not buy back their forfeit past.
The pavilions of their state are now laid low.
No love redeems them, no dear shade comes nigh
To offer water for their thirst or incense there.
Benighted souls tumbling by desert ways
Your Karma is a heavy load, atonement’s way is long.

… There are those who shought and strove to gain much gold.
Money took precedence of food and sleep,
No one so close as shared their inmost cares,
Now who is heir to all your wealth and name?
Whose ear has harkened to your dying vows?
As clouds your treasure will break up and fly.
In life you rolled in gold and coin,
Dead you can carry not one smallest piece, some neighbors paid perfunctory respect
A common shroud one smoking torch, and that’s the end for you.
In flooded rice-fields now you stray.
Where will be found a little incense, some kind votive drops?

… Some there are who gave their years to gain honors in books
Spent roving years training from town to town,
Quitting their home hearth many Autumns past.
But life and destiny… should these be given to books?
Beaten at last by elements, stranded on the strange bed of an inn,
far severed from the care of wife and child.
Strangers have buried you in careless haste,
No loved ones near, no friend, no proper rites;
Far is that grave from the ancestral earth,
Many are the dead crowding that burial place.
Strangers, indifferent among them you lie
And under the wan moon no kindly smoke of incense wreathes for you.

… There are those who were great voyagers on waters, rivers, and seas.
The good East wind from the horizon filled their sails.
But dread typhoon on the high-running seas ran wild.
The waves engulfed them, they now are meat for sharks.

And there are those who trudged the road to trade,
Scarring their shoulders with the weighted pole,
There came a day when sun and wind tried them too far.
Their souls upon the unknown roads now wander lost.

There are those who taken by main force
Were for the mandarin obliged to leave their home and friends,
Kept living by a draught of water, a few grains of rice,
Turned to a thousand shifts in filth and dust,
In war a man’s life counts no more than dung,
An offering to caprice of lead and steel,
Oh brief marsh-light flickering with weird lament,
How the heart groans for you in this black night!

…There are those who threw their life away
They sold the smiles and charms of their life’s spring.
And when age came for them they were alone, disfigured, spent.
Where would they find a man, a child for comfort now,
In life these drank the full cup of bitterness,
In death they come to sip the fig-tree leaves.
The lives of women are all tragedy.
This is their destiny… Who dares ask why?

There are those who all year round wandered.
Sleeping on earth, or for shelter under a bridge,
Men like the rest, alas, they lived hand to mouth Begging alms.
They die in dust beside an unknown road.

And those, rotting in cells, who perished wretchedly in jails,
A rag of grass-mat covered their wasted frames.
Their bones, free at the last, were cast beyond the walls…
From this iniquity how shall a man be cleansed?

Here are babes born under ill-omened stars
At the hour of birth, Death ravished them from human arms.
Who now cradles them, watches for their first steps?
Their feeble cries… how they would tear the mother’s heart!

And there are those drowned suddenly or fallen
From high places, those entombed in gulfs
Those seized by rage of water or of fire,
Devoured by jungle beasts or ocean
Victims of attack by wolves or elephants,
Women gave birth to children bereft of life,
What sorrow for the mothers of lives miscarried doomed or lost.

Destiny has stricken them in the long road
One and all they must cross the bridge of Resignation
To each the task of Karma, all meet their destiny.
Their souls at last scatter to all the winds,
Seeking some rest by bank or bushes verge
In streams or in the passing trails of mist,
That clings to earth, or in the shade of groves
Lingering below the thatch of inns, under a bridge,
In temples and pagodas they may hide
Or in the corner of some market-place, seeking asylum by a river’s bank.
They stray in any desolate lands and trail
Among the mounds of ancient villages, hiding in bamboos and reeds,
Many were the miseries of their lives, their body’s pains,
Now lifeless remnants, dried and twisted by the cold
Of passing years, exposed to wind and rain,
Cast on the naked earth from out the mist they cry
And at first cock-crow fly to hide themselves
As the sun dips, to rise again at dusk,
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They pass in hosts, some children in their arms, the ancients following,
Hither and thither passing with steps unsure,
Earth shivers with their lamentable cry.
Spirits in suffering, listen, we pray for you.
From the cycle of Being let Buddha deliver you,
Let him send light to clear away your dark,
May his peace reign on the four seas and continents,
All sadness be washed away all hate annihilated.
May Buddha’s power and the enacting of his law
Liberate the Triple Universe, the Ten Cardinal Points.
Our life dwindles as a little foam. As it is said
The multiplicity of forms is but as nothing.
The blessedness of Buddha in your hearts
Will save you from the round of life renewed.
On 1he altar of compassion, under our Master’s sign,
We offer now a meager drink, a little incense here,
Some clothing for the soul in flight to peace,
These our adieu that you may find the way.
And you who come stay here a little while
Do not despise these offerings from our heart,
Grace will enrich them many hundred-fold,
To all creatures grace and compassion flow.
From all ills Buddha can bring wholeness of soul,
Fear no more the powers of being and non-being
Praise be to Buddha, to his laws and his disciples!