Cold Mountain (Hanshan) was a legendary master of Hermetic poetry and Zen practice, although there are few records about his life in the history. Yet his poems, more than three hundred pieces, miraculously survived. He lived in southeastern China during the Tang dynasty, approximately 1300 years ago. People said that Hanshan was the incarnation of Manjushri Bodhisattva. His poems are full of inner realization wisdom. I am really surprised that there are many English versions of his poems. There are even some podcasts to narrate the poems for the audience. I do hope that different cultures can learn from each other, adapting the good parts from each other. Let us work together to make the world a better place for all beings.
Based on the hundreds of poems he wrote on the walls of the cave where he made his home after leaving behind what he called “the dusty world” of getting, spending and delusion, so he could spend his life in the natural world with his heart and mind uninterrupted by such distractions, as his poem said : “with nothing to do I write poems on rock walls/trusting the current like an unmoored boat.” Hanshan found that he was often able to put an end to what he called “useless mixed-up thinking” and enjoy a good measure of peace and tranquility as a “person of nondoing” who wandered in the mountains, idly read a copy of an ancient sage, or played his humble lute on the precipice outside his cave.
Living a life unhindered by worldly concerns, much of Hanshan’s beautifully imagined poetry is filled with compassionate discernment, profound tranquility, and a quiet but compelling purity of unexpected insight. But that is not all. The hermit-poet known as Hanshan discovered that it is not as easy to leave the world behind as one might think. Decades of solitude and wandering brought forward other elements from the full depth of his humanity, and so his poems also express his loneliness, longing for a companion of the way, sorrow at the loss of friends, as well as an occasional biting critique of the many ways his fellow human beings created harm in the world, though it must be said that even in these poems there is a compassion that reveals Hanshan’s deepest longing for others to know the wholeness, serenity and peace he experienced within his tender and all too human heart.
Here are some poems translated by Gary Snyder
Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.
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?
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.
I can’t stand these bird songs
Now I’ll go rest in my straw shack.
The cherry flowers are scarlet
The willow shoots up feathery.
Morning sun drives over blue peaks
Bright clouds wash green ponds.
Who knows that I’m out of the dusty world
Climbing the southern slope of Cold Mountain?
There’s a naked bug at Cold Mountain
With a white body and a black head.
His hand holds two book scrolls,
One the Way and one its Power.
His shack’s got no pots or oven,
He goes for a long walk with his shirt and pants askew.
But he always carries the sword of wisdom:
He means to cut down senseless craving.
Cold Mountain is a house
Without beams or walls.
The six doors left and right are open
The hall is sky blue.
The rooms all vacant and vague
The east wall beats on the west wall
At the center nothing.
Borrowers don’t bother me
In the cold I build a little fire
When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.
I’ve got no use for the kulak
With his big barn and pasture –
He just sets up a prison for himself.
Once in he can’t get out.
Think it over –
You know it might happen to you.
If I hide out at Cold Mountain
Living off mountain plants and berries –
All my lifetime, why worry?
One follows his karma through.
Days and months slip by like water,
Time is like sparks knocked off flint.
Go ahead and let the world change –
I’m happy to sit among these cliffs.
My home was at Cold Mountain from the start,
Rambling among the hills, far from trouble.
Gone, and a million things leave no trace
Loosed, and it flows through galaxies
A fountain of light, into the very mind –
Not a thing, and yet it appears before me:
Now I know the pearl of the Buddha nature
Know its use: a boundless perfect sphere.