Cold Mountain Poems
Han-shan and his friend Shih-te were Chinese Zen recluses who lived at a place called Cold Mountain in the T’ien-t’ai range that stretches along the coast of Chekiang Province, south of the Bay of Hangchow, in the late eighth or early ninth century. What we know of them comes from the preface, written by a T’ang Dynasty official named Lu-ch’iu Yin, for Han-shan’s Cold Mountain Poems:
“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 the 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.”
Lu-ch’iu Yin sent clean clothes and incense to Kuo-ch’ing Temple, near Cold Mountain, asking that the gifts be delivered to Han-shan and Shih-te. But on the approach of the messenger, Han-shan disappeared inside a mountain cave. Shih-te vanished too. Lu-ch’iu Yin then asked the monks “to hunt up the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs—and also to collect those written on the walls of people’s houses. There were more than three hundred.”
I have two books containing various Cold Mountain Poems. Here’s one of my favorites, in two translations. (The washing of one’s ears refers to the recluse Hsu Yu who, when asked to take over the throne by the Emperor Yao, ran away and washed his ears to cleanse them of the suggestion.)
This translation is by Burton Watson:
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 one by Gary Snyder:
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.