Saya Zawgyi’s Two Philosophical Poems Composed Nearly Fifty Years Apart

Zawgyi (Alchemist) a puppet flying through the air. Redrawn by UKT from an unknown source.
Zawgyi (Alchemist) a puppet flying through the air. Redrawn by UKT from an unknown source.

By Dr. Myint Zan

The late poet Saya (teacher) Zawgyi’s poetic, literary skills and his very significant contributions to Burmese / Myanmar literature is well known. He is also known as a ‘philosophical poet’. On the occasion of World Philosophy Day (21 November), I would reproduce in the original vernacular and a translation and commentary of two of Zawgyi’s poems written almost 50 years apart.

The Beauty of Nature and the Dignity of the Grass Cutter in ‘The Grass Cutter’ Poem
The first poem was composed by Saya Zawgyi perhaps in the mid to late 1930s when he was (age) in his late twenties ‘The Grass Cutter’ မြက်ရိတ်သမား

ရေးသူ ဇော်ဂျီ

လူ့ဘုံလောက နိုးခါစတည့်
ချိုးကသံရှည် တောဘွဲ့သီ၍
ဤမှာမြေပြင် မြစိမ်းဆင်လျက်
ကောင်းကင်မိုးဝယ် နီလာခြယ်နှင့်
အိုဘယ်လူသား နှစ်ရောင်ကြားဝယ်
ခန့်ညားပေစွ ခန့်ပေစွ။

The Grass Cutter
By Zaw Gyi
Translation by Myint Zan

basking under the rays of the Sun
the human abode is just awakening
the dove sings a paean to
the beauties of the forest
here the Earth is emerald green
there the sky’s sapphire blue:
Among the two colours
O Man!
how magnificent, how majestic
you look

In the original poem, the word ခန့် is repeated twice: first as ခန့်ညားပေစွ and then as ခန့် ပေစွ . The translator taking only ‘a little poetic license’ has used two different words ‘magnificent’ and ‘majestic’ to denote the depiction, the praise and almost the awe the poet felt in either witnessing or visualizing perhaps a solitary grass-cutter doing his job.
‘The Grass cutter’ (using the historic present tense) is, in a sense, beautifying the Earth and his task is depicted by the poet with appreciation and admiration. The dignity indeed the majesty of the grass cutter ‘at work’ under the rising Sun and between the green Earth and the blue Sky can be visualized. And the vision indeed the humanistic theme of the poem is inspiring.
I might add that Saya Zawgyi’s poem is not only or merely in praise of the grass cutter ‘stretching somewhat’. Incidentally, though it would be a bit far-fetched, the grass cutter could also be a woman.
Saya Zawgyi’s poem is not only based on humanistic themes but is also praise of Nature and perhaps about eighty years after its composition- environmental protection themes can be extrapolated or projected. In one of the above paragraphs, the phrase ‘green Earth’ is used. During the time Saya Zawgyi composed the poem around eighty years ago some areas of the Earth including what was then Burma were certainly more ‘green’ than now. The environmental protection theme(s) are the spill-over thoughts that occurs to the writer as he writes the appreciation of a poem.

The Poet fears that the Zaw Gyi May Lose His Mind in Zaw Gyi and Shein-Hsa-Yar Poem
Fast forward from the mid-1930s to the next almost fifty years to October 1984. At an elderly literati homage ceremony, Saya Zawgyi distributed a poem to the persons who gathered to pay homage to him.
The writer came across the poem below and its attendant explanations of the significance of the poem in Saya MaungTha Noe’s essay ဇော်ဂျီရဲ့ အနတ္တ ကဗျာ (‘Zaw Gyi’s Poem of Non-Self’) in the collection of Essays published in tribute to Saya Zawgyi, ဆရာဇော်ဂျီ အမှတ်တရ စာစုများ
In the poem reproduced below the term Zaw Gyi (written in italics and in two words to distinguish the terms from the pseudonym of the poet) is a reference not to the poet Zawgyi (without italics) (U Thein Han) but to either the puppet Zaw Gyi or the metaphysical and the (Buddhist) irreligious (not religious but irreligious, see below) aspects of the concept of Zaw Gyi.
ဇော်ဂျီနှင့် ရှိန်းဆာယာ
ရေးသူ ဇော်ဂျီ
ရုပ်သေးစင်ပေါ် ဇော်ဂျီနှင့် တောင်ဝှေး အခုန်အပျံတွေနှင့် သူ့ဟန်ကို သည်ဖေ ကြည့် မောမိတယ်လေ:

ရှိန်းဆာယာ သည်ဖေကြောက်
၁၉၈၄ အောက်တိုဘာ(လ)

Zaw Gyi and

By Zawgyi
Translated by Myint Zan

on the puppet stage
the Zaw Gyi with his magic wand
jumping and flying about
watching his antics
the watcher feels anxious

with overflowing, rambunctious, shein-hsar-yar

[the Zaw Gyi] has the power
to make his body disappear

what is feared is that
the shein-hsar-yar would
also make the Zaw Gyi’ s mind
as well to disappear
(Composed by the poet Zawgyi in October 1984)

The words in italics Zaw Gyi ဇော်ဂျီ and shein-hsar-yar calls for a brief elaboration. The dictionary meaning of the Zaw Gyi is ‘alchemist of the forest’. The late Dr. Htin Aung (1908-1978) among others, Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of Rangoon (1946-1959) explains that ‘the sorcerer Zaw Gyi in Burmese is a survivor from pre-Buddhist Burma. The Zaw Gyi practices alchemy to attain immortal life, along with lesser attainments such as the power of flight …. The dance of the Zaw Gyi is one of the most popular portions of the puppeteers “pre play warm up”.
In the context of the poem by Saya Zawgyi it might be added that the Zaw Gyi can also make his body ‘disappear’.
In fact in the မြန်မာအဘိဓာန် (Myanmar Dictionary, 1991) the phrase shein-hsar-yar ရှိန်း ဆာယာ is defined as ‘the ability to hide and disappear one’s body’. The first part of the word (‘shein’) ရှိန်း is of Sanskrit သင်္က္ကရိုက် origin and and also the latter part ဆာယာ has Pali language elements. The late Professor F.K. Lehman (U Chit Hlaing), a linguist, anthropologist and Myanmar expert at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in the United States wrote me (in response to my query) around 2003 by electronic mail that ‘Shein’ ရှိန်း is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Shri’ သျှရီ or ရှရီ or သြှီ which in effect means ‘magical power’. Professor Lehman further stated that the second part of the term ‘hsar-yar’ means ‘shadowy’. Hence a rough (though not entirely inaccurate) exposition of the word could be ‘shadowy’ (‘dark’) forces of power’ which in effect enabled the ဇော ် Zaw to ‘disappear’ his body from the view and vision of the onlookers.
From the first line of the poem, to the onlooker-poet, the antics and performances of the Zaw Gyi jumping and flying in the air is advisedly ‘impressive’. But soon in the next few lines the poet writes about the ‘overflowing rambunctious shein-hsar-yar’ through which the Zaw Gyi has the power to make himself disappear. Of this, the poet has already indicated his ‘anxiousness’ at the Zaw Gyi’s actions. (Based on the folklores indeed the metaphysical postulates the Zaw Gyi is undoubtedly male, hence the unambiguous use of the word ‘he’ and ‘his’ above.)
It is well and good, impressive and stunning that the Zaw Gyi can make himself disappear into thin air through the non-Buddhist and un-Buddhist shein hsar yar but what if the Zaw Gyi’s mind also disappears?
In a large sense, therefore Zaw Gyi and Hsein-Hsar-Yar poem can be described as a Buddhist religious poem. Although imbued with the (dark forces) of power the Zaw Gyi (not the poet) is blind to, unaware, indeed ignorant of the Buddhist concept of non-self or Anatta အနတ္တ.
The poet (Zawgyi, U Thein Han) may have written this short in a sense enigmatic but in another sense piercing, penetrating poem with a few themes or messages in mind. It is a penetrating poem in that it ‘pierces’ through the clutch or grip in addition to the ‘veil’ of ignorance of the Zaw Gyi. In fact the message for the Zaw Gyi is also the message for the ‘worldlings’ (in Pali terms Puthuzin) ပုထုဇဉ် but especially for those whose pursuit of –from a Buddhist perspective- illusions of earthly (as well as unearthly) (dark) power which makes them metaphorically fly in the air, and made their bodies disappear. But to repeat, what if their minds also disappear?
The great American poet Robert Frost had said ‘poetry starts with delight and ends with wisdom’. Saya Zawgyi’s poem which was probably composed when he was about 77 years old ends, one respectfully submits, is about the need for wisdom: the insight to break through the fetters of ignorance which caused the (puppet) Zaw Gyi to ‘disappear’ his body and may be later to lose his mind.
In his tribute essay. Maung Thar Noe wrote that immediately after he read the poem he looked around him to discern to whom was the poem intended for. Maung Thar Noe opined that perhaps Saya Zawgyi composed the poem for himself too as a reminder ‘note’ to himself. Maung Thar Noe stated that he was never affected or moved by any other poem of Saya Zawgyi as he was by this particular poem.
When I met Maung Thar Noe around 2005 he commented that Zaw Gyi and Hsein-sar-yar in addition to its Buddhist religious connotations can also be considered as a political poem. For, in 1984 when the poet composed his poem were the days -indeed the long years- of the ancien (to use a French rather than an English word) the BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) regime. That regime has repeatedly boasted of how great it was mainly though not exclusively through its propaganda sheets. Maung Thar Noe infers obliquely in his essay and openly to me when we met that the then regime’s actions and pronouncements were not dissimilar to Zaw Gyi’s antics and his ‘dance’ of self-display, self-praise or indeed self-flaunting. I would add that the then –indeed subsequent- regimes’ actions seem to reflect the pronouncements made by the King Ozymanidas in the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
If the ‘flying in the airs’ antics of the ancien BSPP regime was intense the subsequent regimes till 2011 (metaphorically) ‘dancing’, indeed trumpeting and thundering its ‘great achievements’ (Look on my works!) was arguably worse and reached the apogee or perhaps more accurately the nadir.
From a political and religious stand point indeed from a humanistic perspective too Saya Zawgyi’s poem is a reminder of the pitfalls and the snares all of us and especially the high, the mighty and the displayers of and dancing to the dictates of shein-hsar-yar can fall into.
Sayagyi Zawgyi’s two poems written in the late 1930s and in the mid-1980s -around fifty years apart- are affecting, inspiring, grand literary achievements imbued with humanistic and philosophical significance. I humbly gave my tribute to Saya Zawgyi by offering my appreciation of Saya’s two philosophical poems composed nearly 50 years apart.
(This article hails the World Philosophy Day which falls on 21 Nov.)

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