Poems from Cold Mountain

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 vain search for life everlasting,
I read books, I sang songs of history.
Today I’ve come home to Cold Mountain.
I sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

The first time I read the poems of Han-shan was in the beginning of the 1970s. During this period of my life, I lived for a couple of years in the Himalayas. I often went trekking high up in the mountains, sometimes for months. The poems evoked pictures I could relate to immediately. They were in tune not only with the outer world in the mountains but also with the inner. In a sense, the poems build a bridge between the outer and the inner, making the two worlds merge and become one.

The poems have been with me ever since and are still the clearest and most inspiring poetry I know of.

Not much is known of Han-shan other than what you can read in his poems. Therefore, nobody knows where he came from, except that he was a poor eccentric scholar who retired to the mountains. The only existing description of Han-shan comes from the late 9th century, from an official in the T’ang Dynasty by the name of Lü-ch’iu Yin. He describes his meeting with Han-shan and his friend Shih-te.

Shih-te, who was also a poet, worked in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery. He often gave Han-shan food when he came down from his cave on Cold Mountain. The monks in the monastery regarded the two friends as more or less mad. The story goes that Han-shan could roam the corridors of the monastery for hours, laughing and singing to himself all the while. If the monks wanted to give him something to do or tried to chase him away, he stood still, laughed out loud and clapped his hands, and disappeared.

The official who had heard that the two impoverished friends were really incarnations of bodhisattvas, brought gifts for them. He even bowed to them, which greatly surprised the monks of the monastery. When Han-shan saw Lü-ch’iu and his retinue approaching with the gifts, which consisted of medicine and clothing, he shouted: “Thieves! Thieves!” He then ran into a cave in the mountain that closed after him and they never saw him again. Lü-ch’iu then ordered his men to collect Han-shans poems which were written on the walls of the cave he lived in. They also found poems scribbled on pieces of bark and on the trees near the cave.

In that way, the poems have been preserved for posterity and today they are part of the literary treasure of China. In Japan, the poems are also greatly appreciated. There, the great poet is called Kanzan.

The poems cover many subjects. From poems that show a deep spiritual insight to poems of a more secular nature. From satire on society and the vanity of human nature, to sorrow at the transience of life and the sufferings it causes.

Man, living in the dust
is like a bug trapped in a bowl.
All day he scrabbles round and round,
but never escapes the bowl that holds him.
The immortals are beyond his reach,
his craving has no end,
while months and years flow by like a river
until in an instant he has grown old.

The real masterpieces you find in the poems from and about Cold Mountain.

According to the poems, Han-shan retired to a cave high up in the mountains after living an ordinary life for approximately thirty years.

At first glance, the poems describe nature and the mountains, but they are as much parables of meditative states and spiritual awakening.

The name Han-shan is often translated as “the master of Cold Mountain” or simply as Cold Mountain. In that sense, Cold Mountain is Han-shan himself. However, when I read the poems, I don’t experience Cold Mountain as being only Han-shan but as a metaphor for the Self. That is the strength of the poems – they give you a direct experience when you read them.

Han-shan often describes how he returns to Cold Mountain – returns to himself. The poems, in many cases, resemble the meditative process where you are also in search of the self.

I climb the road to Cold Mountain,
the road to Cold Mountain that never ends.
The valleys are long and strewn with stones,
the streams broad and banked with thick grass.
Moss is slippery, though no rain has fallen;
pines sigh, but it isn’t the wind.
Who can break from the snares of the world
and sit with me among white clouds?

Occasionally, Han-shan is referred to as a Zen poet, though there are so many references to the classical Taoist text Tao Te Ching in his poems that it would probably be more correct to call him a Taoist poet.

The kinship with Tantra is also apparent in many of the poems:

All my life I’ve been lazy,
hating anything solemn,
finding light matters more congenial.
Others may study how to make a profit,
I have my single roll of scripture.
I don’t bother to fit it with a roller or case,
or trouble to carry it here or there.
Like a doctor prescribing a medicine for each disease,
I use what remedy is at hand to save the world.
Only when the mind is free of care
can the light of understanding shine in every corner.

I use what remedy is at hand to save the world. This is exactly the Tantric approach. You use what is here and now. In the Yoga poses, you work with the body. The body as it is – soft or rigid, young or old.

In meditation, you make use of that which is happening in the mind during the meditation. You don’t try to avoid it. In this way, you transform the energy. You have, like Han-shan, saved your world. You have done that with the remedies at hand in the meditation. In the next meditation, you repeat the process, with the means you have at your disposal then. You return to Cold Mountain.

The birds and their chatter overwhelm me with feeling;
At times like this I lie down in my hut.
Cherries shine with crimson fire;
willows trail their slender boughs.
The morning sun pops from the jaws of blue peaks;
bright clouds are washed in green pond.
Who ever thought I would leave the dusty world
and come bounding up the southern slope of Cold Mountain.