ESSAY | by John Frew
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.
Han Shan - date unknown, possibly 7th century
A poem turns a single experience into a universal idea. ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And Heaven in a Wild Flower’: the mysticism of poetry allows one moment to represent the whole of human life, one tiny object to stand for the whole cosmos. Gary Snyder, the American poet, essayist and environmentalist whose translation of Han Shan’s poem is quoted above, defined poetry as a way of embodying ‘rare and powerful states of mind that are in immediate origin personal to the singer, but at deep levels common to all who listen.’
One of the ways poetry does this is to blur the lines between persons. It’s certainly not the only art form that invites the audience to identify with the artist, but it may be the one where this effect is most complete. When the ‘I’ of a love poem addresses the beloved ‘you’ or ‘thee’, it’s usually the ‘I’ that the reader relates to more closely. Poets invite us to share their hearts, to look upon the world with their eyes; this fusion of selves, this powerful sympathy that can reach out across continents and centuries, is one of the things that turns a mere document into a work of art.
But we shouldn’t get carried away. I might identify with the poet, and I might learn something in that moment of connection: but I am still myself, and I still have my own life to live. So there’s a refreshing bluntness about a poem that won’t let us get away with wallowing about in a soup of indistinct persons. ‘I, you, him, her, them, whatever…’: Han Shan is having none of it.
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.
My heart—mine—is not the same as yours. Take a good look at me, Han Shan tells the reader, and then take a look at yourself. You’ve got a long way to go.
I was thinking about Han Shan recently in the course of a few days’ walking in Wales. A legendary figure whose dates and identity remain shrouded in mystery, Han Shan (‘Cold Mountain’—the name he shared with the place he made his home) was a poet and hermit living in southeastern China in probably either the Sui or early Tang Dynasty. Over 300 short poems survive in a collection said to have been assembled from verses he had left written on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and the walls of people’s houses. They tell of blissful seclusion, of hardship cheerfully endured, a simple life in the harsh wilderness; of indifference to the mockery of his fellow men, and the cares of wealth and worldly status long renounced.
‘There are old people who knew him,’ says an introduction to an early anthology of his poems: ‘they say he was a poor man, a crazy character.’ He would turn up occasionally at the nearest monastery to collect food pilfered for him by a friend who worked in the kitchens; then he marched off shouting and laughing to himself. When the monks caught him and beat him or insulted him, he clapped his hands and laughed uproariously, then walked away. When an important official tried to send him presents, he saw the messenger approaching and yelled, ‘Thief! Thief!’ and retreated into his cave. A final shout: ‘I tell you man, strive hard!’ and the cave seals itself behind him; with those words, echoing the last words of the Buddha himself, Han Shan disappears altogether.
He’s a good poet to go walking with. Another of Gary Snyder’s translations:
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?’
After months confined to the city, it’s easy to see why Han Shan had struck a chord with me. In poem after poem, the rugged, unpeopled landscape of Cold Mountain is summoned with extraordinary clarity and economy. In translations by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt,
Dark mountain streams run bright and pure,
high pines rustle in the chilly winds
The long valley is stacked with boulders,
its shoreline wet with lush grass.
Sacred grasses spread across valleys
Old pines pillow against high rugged stone
I’ve never seen Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang Province, where Han Shan lived, but walking by ‘rivers through deep green grass’ or among ‘jumbled cliffs—unbelievably rugged’, where ‘white clouds gather and billow’, or looking over ‘the dark forest spewing up mist’, the Welsh mountains offer no shortage of reminders of the Cold Mountain poems, and wherever I went there seemed to be a Han Shan line to match my surroundings.
The landscapes of Cold Mountain reveal more than just the beauty of nature. Han Shan’s solitude on the mountain is the setting for an extraordinary spiritual achievement: a life lived in accordance with the ideas that were then developing in China from the fusion of recently arrived Mahayana Buddhism with the long-established Daoist tradition, and which would eventually come to be best known to the West by the Japanese name of Zen. Alone in his cave or his bare hut, the Han Shan we meet in the poems has arrived at complete detachment from the unnecessary hang-ups and materialistic trappings of society; though ordinary people think him eccentric to the point of craziness, he is at one with himself and his emotions, spontaneous, aware of himself and his surroundings, perfectly free.
All of this makes him all the more appealing as a companion for hill-walking and mountain-climbing. Armed with a few of the Cold Mountain poems, a recreational activity becomes a spiritual journey. ‘No matter how high you climb Cold Mountain road / the way to Cold Mountain never ends. … Who can go beyond the entangled world / to sit with me in the midst of white clouds?’ If I can tap into a bit of Han Shan, something that might otherwise just be a hobby is adorned with grand delusions of a greater purpose, a purifying ascent to new heights of consciousness.
Han Shan took on great significance, too, for Gary Snyder, the poet whose translations I have been quoting, and for several other writers of the Beat Generation. In Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical 1959 novel The Dharma Bums, Snyder appears (under the name Japhy Ryder) as a central character. And Han Shan himself, whose work ‘Ryder’ is busy translating in the course of the book, is present throughout as a kind of patron saint of the narrator’s circle of young, rebellious, heavy-drinking, mountain-climbing, insatiably free-loving American Buddhists.
Han Shan references abound during a chaotic, haiku-freestyling ascent of Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada. And when Kerouac’s narrator, Ray Smith, ends the book with a two-month stint as a solitary fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades, he is consciously emulating the hermit of Cold Mountain, who by now has become so strongly identified with the Gary Snyder / Japhy Ryder character that they are almost one and the same. The narrator even has a vision of Han Shan, out by the outhouse: appearing at a latrine suits the earthy style of the Chinese Zen patriarchs (‘What is Buddha?’, runs a famous koan: ‘A dried shit-stick.’) In the vision, Han Shan fuses into a version of Ryder:
And suddenly it seemed I saw that unimaginable little Chinese bum standing there, in the fog, with that expressionless humor on his steamed face. It wasn’t the real-life Japhy of rucksacks and Buddhism studies and big mad parties at Corte Madera, it was the realer-than-life Japhy of my dreams, and he stood there saying nothin. ‘Go away, thieves of the mind!’ he cried down the hollows of the unbelievable cascades.
The simple life, in harmony with nature, stepping off the treadmill of ever-increasing production and consumption: these were values that Snyder, a child of rural Oregon and Washington, fused with the dropout instincts of the Beat movement and the growing counterculture to create an enduring philosophy. ‘Go tell families with silverware and cars’: the modern props (Tanahashi and Levitt render them as ‘cauldrons and chimes’) aren’t just a stylistic choice. In Snyder’s translations, Han Shan is speaking directly to modern America.
Mountain settings appear constantly in Snyder’s own poetry too, and like Han Shan, while he does include explicit Buddhist references in his work, he’s often at his most powerful when he leaves things unsaid. This, from his first published collection of his own poems:
Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
Or this, decades later, with even greater brevity, recalling perhaps that youthful haiku-dropping ascent with Kerouac:
On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-one Years
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
4.X.40086, On the summit
As an antidote to anxious, self-obsessed urban life, filled with complications and stress and craving and overconsumption, both mountain poets have an enduring appeal.
I had read that if I spent the night on the slopes of Cadair Idris, I would wake up either a madman or a poet. Making camp by a mountain lake lying just below the summit, I wondered which it was to be: or whether I might end up like Han Shan, who was to all intents and purposes both.
The Cadair Idris legend doesn’t say how the outcome is determined, but often we make our own luck. By the time I emerged from a dip in the lake, the temperature was falling fast under a clear sky, and I began to worry I might have loaded the dice unfavourably by forgetting my sleeping bag. A few hours later, as gusts of winds whipped cold spray from the rippling waters of the lake, and the poncho I had strung up as a shelter blew away for the third time, I huddled into a ball, losing track of time and place in a vaguely hallucinatory half-sleep, and I could only assume that the Muse of Poetry was watching the game slip away from her.
In a 1990 essay, Snyder wrote that ‘The etiquette of the wild world requires not only generosity but a good-humoured toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort,’ or in Han Shan’s words:
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
It started to become clear to me then how deceptive the simplicity of the Han Shan poems could be. ‘The blue sky makes a good quilt’: the assertion is so disarmingly straightforward that you’re almost convinced. It’s only when you bed down on the mountain without a sleeping bag that you really understand what Han Shan is telling us. For most of us, on a cold night, the sky makes a pretty shitty quilt, and being happy with a stone underhead is much easier said than done.
That is to say: you don’t become as rugged and indestructible as Han Shan just by reading one of his poems, and to realise this—not just in the intellect, but in shivering limbs and chilled bones—is to learn one of the things that the early Zen masters were at pains to teach. There are no short cuts on the spiritual journey either.
Kerouac found much the same thing, climbing mountains with Gary Snyder. In the thinly fictionalised account of their Sierra Matterhorn ascent in The Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder makes it to the top, but Ray Smith, Kerouac’s alter ego, loses his nerve just below the summit and ends up huddled on a ledge yelling at Japhy over and over again, ‘“This is too high!”’
The end of the book draws on the two months Kerouac spent alone as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, at Snyder’s urging, and even here enlightenment doesn’t come easily. A poem from the notebook he kept that summer:
I called Hanshan
in the mountains
—there was no answer
‘If your heart was like mine, you’d get it and be right here.’ Kerouac, I suspect, had some discouraging insights of his own into the implacable separation between two persons, and two hearts.
Perhaps, though, the idea of reaching a state of perfection and staying there is not quite the example we should be taking from Han Shan. True, Buddhist teachings in some lineages seem to present enlightenment as a stable, established way of being: once you reach it, job done. Others, particularly in Zen Buddhism, don’t quite see it that way: although exactly what they do mean tends to defy ordinary description, which is part of the point. On the way up Matterhorn Peak, Smith remembers with horror the Zen dictum, ‘When you reach the top of the mountain, keep on climbing.’ In the course of the book, he does have moments of great clarity, but his attempts to bottle them up are bound to fail: and for all of us, Buddhist or not, whatever state of mind we are trying to reach, the chances are that it won’t just lock into place. You can climb a mountain but you won’t stay on the summit forever. You might have moments when you seem to see everything perfectly, but you’ll still have to get up the next morning, and the morning after that, and try to make the best of each day, each moment, one at a time.
That was certainly Kerouac’s experience. The Dharma Bums tells the story of his Buddhist perspective taking shape, but like any number of literary characters, it’s not about him deciding what to believe: it’s about him trying to live those beliefs, which is much harder.
As adherents of a religion still completely unfamiliar to most people in North America in the fifties, Kerouac / Smith and Snyder / Ryder understand themselves as pioneers, living on an ethical frontier, moving into unfamiliar territory and trying to build their lives there. This same sense of possibility—an attempt to live life by your own principles, in defiance of social convention—is present even in the mayhem of Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road, as he and his friends tear across America, drunk and high, leaving chaos wherever they go.
You could almost imagine the Beats as characters in nineteenth-century Russian novels: offending hostesses at literary salons and giving away their vast estates to the peasants, or else wandering Petersburg streets in threadbare overcoats, drinking vodka by the pint, experiencing gutter epiphanies and throwing themselves at the feet of baffled prostitutes. For all their flaws and self-indulgence, these are characters who come to morality as a place of possibility and struggle: they have ideals; they’re trying to live the lives they have chosen in defiance of social convention and their own weakness. Alienated by the hypocrisy of society, they are trying to break free and live by the creed they have chosen, whether it’s Christianity, or Buddhism, or just a kind of messianic selfishness.
Either way, it’s hard work. They might find a way, or find a compromise, or they might come to grief. In The Dharma Bums Kerouac describes moments of sublime spiritual awakening, but 12 years after writing it he was dead of cirrhosis, compounded by injuries sustained in a recent bar fight.
Even Kerouac’s mentor and the object of his hero-worship, has his failings. The character of Japhy Ryder combines in one person the frontiersman of the mind and the frontiersman of the actual, physical West. He’s ‘scholarly and wise’, with his ‘serious head’ bent over his Chinese texts, or meditating on his rolled-up sleeping bag; but he is also the rugged, experienced mountaineer, self-sufficient, at home in the wild, one with the natural world. In both realms he is fearless, possessed of an awe-inspiring certainty about what should be done. At times, like Han Shan, he represents what seems to be an almost impossibly perfect fulfilment of a spiritual ideal.
But though he is never daunted by the mountains, there are cracks in the facade of his spiritual perfection. At one point, Smith finds him depressed and crabby, on the verge of giving up. He’s ‘gettin tired of battin around like this’, has realised that poverty isn’t much fun, and is thinking of marrying and getting rich and living in a big house. It takes the innocent enthusiasm of his protege to dig him out of his hole and get him back on course.
Much worse for the reader, if not perhaps for the writer, is the otherwise saintly Japhy’s approach to sex. For the most part, the orgies appear to be entirely consenting if a little selective in their adherence to Buddhist teaching, but then we read of one of his relationships: ‘he had a hard time convincing her to make love he had to get her drunk, once she got drinking she couldn’t stop’. Later in the book, after she’s held out on him for months, the same girl finally agrees to ‘give him what he wants’ in the cabin of his ship, where he’s about to set sail for a long sojourn studying Zen in Japan. Afterwards she doesn’t want to go back to shore, and he comes out with her in his arms and physically throws her off the boat: ‘he was strong enough to throw a girl ten feet, right on the pier, where Sean helped catch her.’
Even Kerouac’s narrator notices that this might not be quite in keeping with the ideal of compassion. We are left