Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

Gary Snyder himself wrote, in 2000, on Project Muse:

As the poem here makes adequately clear, though, Han-shan was not exactly a “nature poet.” He was a person who left his old self behind to walk in the world of jijimuge (“fact-fact-no-obstruction”), which is, in the philosophy of Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) and in the practice of Zen, just this very world. The recurrent image of Cold Mountain and its roughness is the narrow gate through which Han-shan tried to force his perception of a whole world, and this helps to explain his poetry’s calm intensity.

In some ways, our contemporary idea of Han-shan is the creation of the Zen tradition and the Chinese delight in eccentrics. His poems are much loved in Japan, and formal Zen lectures are given on his work. The mountains and caves that are associated with him are still there: people visit them regularly. According to traditional scholarship, Han-shan lived from a.d. 627 to 650. The scholar Hu Shih places him circa A.D. 700 to 750.

In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place–
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here — how many years–
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”

More than 300 of his poems survive. However until recently, only a portion of them were available in English translations. The full canon has only be made available in English in the last two decades.

Arthur Waley had translated 27 Han Shan poems back in 1954, but I didn’t find his versions until much later, after I had read Snyder’s. However I did discover his anthology of Chinese poetry (which I still have, although it has no Han Shan in it).

In 1970, Columbia University Press re-released Burton Watson’s Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan. I still have my original copy of this, as well. And I opened it for perhaps the first time in a decade or more, last week, to remember. Like the scent of wet leaves in autumn, or the smell of newly-cut grass in summer, it brought back a flood of memories. It rekindled my interest in reading old Han Shan, to sit with him on Cold Mountain.

This week, I received J. P Seaton’s translations in his collection, Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih Te and Wang Fan-chih (Shambala Publications, Boston, 2009). His anthology has 95 of Han Shan’s poems, not all the same as those chosen by Waley.

I am waiting for a copy of the 1990 Hendricks’ translation with the full canon of his poems, as well as the 2000 collection by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter). Both have been well-reviewed and analysed online. In fact it is thanks to the internet that interest in Han Shan’s poems has revived and a new audience has developed.

Translating poetry to another language is always rife with complexity. Translating terse ancient Chinese Ch’an poetry triply so. Each version is coloured by the nuances of the translator’s own beliefs, education and experiences. Each may see in the words different meaning, different patterns and different word order. Like with many of my translations, I have several versions so I can compare them and try to get a fuller sense of the author’s intent.

It’s a little difficult to match poems for comparison because not all translators chose the same poems, and in some cases they have been numbered differently. However, I have a few to examine. Here, for example, is one of the poems as translated by Hendricks:

Father and mother left me plenty of books,
Fields and gardens – I long for nothing more.

My wife works the shuttle – her loom goes creak!
Our son is at play – his mouth babbles wa! wa!

Clapping my hands, I urge the flowers to dance;
Propping my chin, I listen to the birds sing.

Who can come and admire (this scene)?
The woodcutters always pass by.

The Poetry of Han-shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain, ed. by Robert G. Hendricks, 1990, State University of New York Press, Albany

Here is Arthur Waley’s 1954 translation (found at several sites online):

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.
They clap their hands to make the flowers dance ;
Then chin on palm listen to the birds’ song.
Does anyone ever come to pay his respects?
Yes, there is a woodcutter who often comes this way.

And this somewhat later one by Blyth:

My mother and father left me enough to live on,
I have no need to grudge others their lands and fields.
My wife works at the loom; creak! creak! it goes.
My children prattle and play;
Clapping their hands, they dance with the flowers,
Rhey listen to the song of the birds, chin on hand.
Who comes to pay his respects?
A woodcutter, occasionally.
R. H. Blyth, Zen and Zen Classics , Volume 2: History of Zen. The Hokuseido Press, 1964.

George Mertens translated that verse from the German into English:

Father and mother left a good heritage
here in the country they don’t know envy
my wife is working; the weaving loom click clack
the children playing, the mouths chatter and chatter
A clap in the hands starts the flower dance
resting on my chin I listen to the bird songs
Who comes to give me the honour?
The woodcutter calls sometimes past
translated from German with added notes by Georg Mertens 1998 (revised 2002)

Seaton’s recent translation:

My father and mother were frugal, hard workers.
The grain fields, the vegetable plots
they left me are as good as any man’s.
My wife keeps the loom click-clacking,
and my boy can goo-goo with the best.
I just clap time for the flowers as they dance,
or sit chin in hand and listen to the birds sing.
And who should come by from time to time
to sigh their admiration? The woodcutters
quite often do!
Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih Te and Wang Fan-chih, Shambala Publications, Boston, 2009

It’s interesting that only Hendricks mentions books. And then there’s the difference between admiration, honour and respect in the second last line. What’s also interesting is that the romantic poet, John Keats, wrote similarly in his poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance:

Counting his woe-worn minutes, by the strokes
Of the lone woodcutter; and listening still,
Hour after hour, to each lush-leav’d rill.
Now he is sitting by a shady spring,
And elbow-deep with feverous fingering
Stems the upbursting cold a wild rose tree
Pavilions him in bloom, and he doth see
A bud which snares his fancy lo! but now
He plucks it, dips its stalk in the water how!

Here’s another example of Han Shan’s work, some from the same sources listed above. First Blyth’s version:

Beams with a thatch over them, – a wild man’s dwelling!
Before my gate pass horses and carts seldom enough;
The lonely woods gather birds;
The broad valley stream harbours fish;
With my children I pluck the wild fruits of the trees;
My wife and I hoe the rice field;
What is there in my house?
A single case of books.

Then Red Pine’s:

A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books

Again some subtleties. in how the translators approached the original A shelf full of “nothing but books” versus a “single case of books.” The former seems to demean the books (a metaphor for formal education?). The latter suggests it is a treasured asset. Both evocative, but in almost contrasting ways.

Red Pine offers us this translation of another poem:

is there a self or not
is this me or not
this is what I ponder
still seated against the cliff
while between my feet green grass grows
and on my head red dust settles
I’ve even seen members of the laity
leave fruit and wine by the bier

While Burton Watson gives puts it this way:

Have I a body or have I none?
Am I who I am or am I not?
Pondering these questions,
I sit leaning against the cliff while the years go by,
till the green grass grows between my feet
and the red dust settles on my head,
and the men of the world, thinking me dead,
come with offerings of wine and fruit to lay by my corpse.

Tony Barnstone, another translator, wrote about these versions, and offered his own translation:

I admire Red Pine’s terseness and occasional attempts to slip in a slant rhyme as a gesture towards traditional Chinese form, and I admire the narrative clarity of Burton Watson’s versions. They represent the extremes of concision and expansion, and at their best they do amazing work… I chose a slightly different path. Here is the version I did with Chou Ping:

Do I have a body or not?
Am I my body or not?
Brooding on this,
I let things pass, sitting against a cliff
till green grass spills between my feet,
red dust cakes my head,
and common men, thinking me dead,
leave wine and fruit by my bed.

Body versus self, laity, common men and men of the world: all very different approaches. You can see how the various translators shift the meaning, the rhythm and the sense.

Similarly, here’s a comparison between Watson’s and Snyder’s styles in this poem:

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.
This translation is by Burton Watson.

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.
This one by Gary Snyder,

Here’s one of Han Shan’s poems, translated by Watson, that could have resonance in the current municipal election campaign, or perhaps aimed gently at abusive, local bloggers, yet with warm words for their victims:

When I see a fellow abusing others,
I think of a man with a basketful of water.
As fast as he can, he runs with it home,
but when he gets there, what’s left in the basket?
When I see a man being abused by others,
I think of the leek growing in the garden.
Day after day men pull off the leaves,
but the heart it was born with remains the same.
Tran. Burton Watson

Various translations of Han Shan’s poems can be found online, including several here.

Cold Mountain appears in the lyrics of Mountains Of The Moon, a Grateful Dead song from their 1969 studio album, Aoxomoxoa:

Cold Mountain water
the jade merchant’s daughter
Mountains of the Moon, Bow and bend to me
Hi ho the Carrion Crow
Hi Ho the Carrion Crow
Bow and bend to me
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia

There is an ancient Buddhist temple and monastery in Suzhou, now named after Han Shan who lived nearby. Tang dynasty poet Zhang Ji wrote about it:

The old moon is going down
And the crows make a ruckus
The world is covered with frost
There are maples on the riverbank
And the lights of fishing boats
Drift with the current
I fall into a sad sleep
from the monastery on Cold Mountain
The sound of the bell
Reaches the guest boat at midnight.

A park in British Columbia has a plan to adorn its trees with poems like Han Shan did. read about it here: McLellan Park Blog

The Youtube video at the top is part of a longer movie about Han Shan and Cold Mountain. This earlier Han Shan should not be confused with Han Shan Te-Ching, a 16th century Buddhist monk and also a poet.

* A.S. Kline has translated this as:

I’m on the trail to Cold Mountain.
Cold Mountain trail never ends.
Long clefts thick with rock and stones,
Wide streams buried in dense grass.
Slippery moss, but there’s been no rain,
Pine trees sigh, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s net,
Sit here in the white clouds with me?

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One comment

  1. I was recently introduced to a graphic novel about Han Shan and Shih Te, “the original Dharma Bums,” published by Shambhala and inked by Sean Michael Wilson:

    While I seldom give graphic novels a lot of attention, this one has caught my eye because of the subject, so I plan to order it soon. The Dharma Bums is, of course, a reference to the novel of that name by Jack Kerouac….

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