The Master of Cold Mountain

Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan?
They’re better for you than scripture-reading.
Cut them out and paste them on a screen,
Then you can gaze at them from time to time.

Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan? Don’t you know Han-shan, the hermit and accidental poet, the legendary Master of Cold Mountain, the early Chinese Zen philosopher?

Well, if you don’t, it’s time you got to know him. 🙂

The Master of Cold Mountain

Han-shan [Public domain via Wikipedia]
Early Zen philosophers were usually named after the place of their abode; and many liked to abide on godforsaken mountain tops. Among them is the subject of today’s post, Han-shan, who lived in 9th century China, during the time of the Tang dynasty. His name means Cold Mountain, which was the name of the godforsaken mountain top he chose for his abode when living as a hermit.

I came across him while reading The History of Zen by Thomas Hoover¹ who dedicated him an entire chapter – mostly on literary merit, although he tried hard to convince his readers of Han-shan’s fundamental Zen mindedness. I’m sure that Han-shan had many valuable thoughts on how to think nothing – an important goal of Zen Buddhism – while sitting atop Cold Mountain, but we’re more concerned with his poetry here…

A poetry that smoothly weaves together landscape and philosophy.

I spur my horse past ruins;
ruins move a traveller’s heart.
The old parapets high and low,
the ancient graves great and small,
the shuddering shadow of a tumbleweed,
the steady sound of giant trees.
But what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals.

Tell me you can’t relate to these lines written twelve hundred years ago! Indeed, the more you read Han-shan, the more you feel that he couldn’t possibly lived that long ago, nor in such a faraway country. He’s that approachable.

Rock Poetry

(Not Bob Dylan’s.)

Legend has it that Han-shan wrote his  poems (some six hundred) on the rocks of Cold Mountain…

                                         …from where they were copied and published by an admirer of his, a certain high official – whose name cannot be found in the generally meticulous Chinese records and whose foreword to the collection of poems therefore nobody gives credit to².

The Story of My Life, by Han-shan

Much of Han-shan’s poetry is autobiographically inspired, allowing you, if you are so minded, to piece together his entire life story:

Thirty years ago I was born into the world.
A thousand, ten thousand miles I’ve roamed,
By rivers where the green grass lies thick,
Beyond the border where the red sands fly.
I brewed potions in a vain search for life everlasting.
I read books, I sang songs of history,
And today I’ve come home to Cold Mountain
To pillow my head on the stream and wash my ears.

From my father and mother I inherited land enough
And need not envy others’ orchards and fields
Creak, creak goes the sound of my wife’s loom;
Back and forth my children prattle at their play.

The mountain fruits child in hand I pluck;
My paddy field along with my wife I hoe.
And what have I got inside my house?
Nothing at all but one stand of books.

Then people began to talk;
Even my wife turned against me.
Now I’ve broken my ties with the world of red dust;
I spend my time wandering and read all I want.
Who will lend a dipper of water
To save a fish in a carriage rut?

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease –
No more tangled, hung-up mind,
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

A thousand clouds, ten thousand streams,
Here I live, an idle man,
Roaming green peaks by day,
Back to sleep by cliffs at night.
One by one, springs and autumns go,
Free of heat and dust, my mind.
Sweet to know there’s nothing I need,
Silent as the autumn river’s flood.

I look far off at T’ienTsai’s summit,
Alone and high above the crowding peaks.
Pines and bamboos sing in the wind that sways them
Sea tides wash beneath the shining moon.
I gaze at the mountain’s green borders below
And discuss philosophy with the white clouds.
In the wilderness, mountains and seas are all right
But I wish I had a companion in my search for the Way.

When men see Han-shan,
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at –
Dressed in rags and hides,
They don’t get what I say
If I don’t talk their language,
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”

“Try and Make it to Cold Mountain”: Han-shan, the Zen Philosopher

Ever since the time when I hid in the Cold Mountain
I have kept alive by eating the mountain fruits.
From day to day what is there to trouble me?
This my life follows a destined course.
The days and months flow ceaseless as a stream;
Our time is brief as the flash struck on a stone.
If Heaven and Earth shift, then let them shift:
I shall be sitting happy among the rocks.

Here in the west, we think of Zen more as a philosophy than a religion. Zen to me mostly means a state of tranquility achieved through meditation and the contemplation of precariously balanced round rocks on top of each other in the middle of sandy courtyards carefully raked in geometric patterns. (Last year I read an angry review on Trip Advisor about a famous Zen temple in Japan by a western tourist who felt cheated that having paid the entrance fee he only found a raked garden with some rocks to look at. You have to ask: What else did he expect to find?)

High, high, the summit peak,
Boundless the world to sight!
No one knows I am here,
Lone moon in the freezing stream.
In the stream, where’s the moon?
The moon’s always in the sky.
I write this poem: and yet,
In this poem there is no Zen.

Strictly speaking, Zen is a religion; a form of Buddhism which seeks enlightenment by achieving non-thought and non-attachment to the world. Zen teaching is often passed on from master to disciple via the means of koans, these unfathomable (at least to me) educational tales³, typically containing exchanges between masters and disciples who lived over a thousand years ago. From what I learned of him, I’d say that it’s debatable whether Han-shan was a true Zen philosopher (he might just as well be called a Taoist); but if he was, he was content merely living his philosophy and carving it into the rocks in the form of poems.

Eat a full meal.
Don’t tire your feet.
The day when weeds are sprouting through your skull,
You will regret what you have been.

Well, it’s as Zen as you’re ever going to get from him.


¹ Well, it was free. Why not?
² His name was Lu Jiuyin and you can read more about him and his preface to Han-shan's poems on Wikipedia.
³ See if you can figure out the meaning of the koan Nansen and the Cat. (Which was, incidentally, mentioned in novel The Temple of Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima.) Do let me know if you can make sense of it!

You might also like:
⇒ More of Han-shan's poetry.
⇒ My review of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima.
⇒ Japanese haikus: Four Seasons in Japan - With Matsuo Basho.


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