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 hoping that these passages in the book are among those closer to fiction than to fact. A spiritual pioneer, a self-taught sage who picks and chooses from the wisdom traditions on his own authority, claims a dangerous freedom for himself: he had better be careful that he exercises it in accordance with wisdom, and that it doesn’t come at the expense of other people.
If a single night on the mountain leaves me craving the warmth and comfort of home, and if even Japhy Ryder behaves this way, what hope is there? Is the ideal out of reach for all of us? What about Cold Mountain himself: surely he ‘made it’?
It’s hard to say for sure. Pick at the Cold Mountain legend and it begins to unravel. There are no reliable accounts of Han Shan’s life, and no contemporary references at all. The colourful story of the crazy reprobate hanging around the monastery kitchen for scraps claims to be authored by a senior government official who almost certainly never existed; it was probably made up hundreds of years later. Studies of the rhyming and content of the poems themselves suggest that there at least two distinct literary styles at work, and there might have been as many as three different poets, separated by two or three centuries, whose work was merged into a single collection under the name of Han Shan.
It doesn’t mean there never was a hermit on Cold Mountain, only that we can’t be sure of anything about his life. The original Han Shan may not even have been a Buddhist: Tanahashi thinks the earliest poems are purely Daoist in their themes, and the Zen Buddhist content was added by later imitators. Perhaps it doesn’t matter how real Han Shan was: what’s important isn’t the historical figure but the idea he represents. We’ll never know for sure if there’s anyone at the top of the mountain; not unless we get there ourselves. We keep climbing anyway.
As for me, I certainly didn’t wake on Cadair Idris filled with poetic inspiration. Perhaps not completely mad, either, but after another two days of walking I did feel my mental state beginning to shift. By then I had reached the rocky northern section of the Rhinogydd, a fairly low but unforgiving spine of hills on the western edge of Snowdonia. With the wrong map and the wrong kit and the wrong assessment of how unfit I had become over the previous year, exhaustion was setting in. Twelve hours or more on the trail every day, cold sleepless nights, constant complaints from the soles of feet grown soft and tender, all these things took their toll, and scrambling up one of the lesser summits of Moel Ysgyfarnogod I found myself in a sort of feverish delirium.
At least in the memory, the landscape I looked out on when I reached the top has taken on an unearthly, false-colour palette, like an artist’s rendering of another planet. Gone were the muted colours of the limestone and mugwort and pine of Han Shan’s verse, and of Chinese landscape painting. What I remember instead is a shattered chaos of toxic purples and hideous acid greens, and dark slime oozing over cold metallic rock; geology turned into tormented archaeology, so that the cliffs and terraces and table-top summits seemed to be the ruins of a titanic city raised and destroyed by unfathomable powers, and concentric curves of stone below me on the plateau were an arena for some horrible ancient combat. Distances became distorted; the Aztec ziggurat that was the sister peak of Foel Pendau, a mile and half away, seemed close enough to touch, while ditches yawned into ravines a quarter-mile across, and rock terraces that looked a few feet high reared up far above my head when I approached them. The mountains were no longer mountains; they had become terrible and strange. On another day I might have been struck with the beauty of the place: instead, it had taken on the dimension of a nightmare. But just the other side of that unsettled state lay an unusual clarity.
Slowly, painfully, I found a way across the trackless jumble of rock and bog, and reached a lake just below the main summit of the mountain. In the shallows, a sheep floated dead on its side, its eye bloated shut, just one tufted ear and a dome of clean white fleece rising clear of the water. I felt an unexpected urge to go and touch it. I approached, and looked down on it from the steep bank. There was something very peaceful about the ripples lapping gently at the soaked wool, a few minnows below the surface darting at it experimentally. I looked up to see the setting sun framed by a narrow gap in the rocks to the north-west. A ewe was making her own way along the lakeside track away from me; her lamb trotted beside her. The wind had dropped, and I heard a lone bird singing. I had no visions of Han Shan, but as I left that place and the cloud closed over me, I had a different visitation. Above me, a black plastic bag was tumbling in the empty sky. It found me, alone on the vast shoulder of the mountain, danced in the air for me a while, and when I reached out it came to rest on my outstretched hand.
It’s a city-dweller’s mistake to think of ‘nature’ as being only the pristine, pretty bits. As Snyder has written, ‘Science and some sorts of mysticism rightly propose that everything is natural. By these lights there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy, and nothing—by definition—that we do or experience in life is “unnatural”.’ Elsewhere he proposes: ‘Life in the wild is not just eating berries in the sunlight. I like to imagine a “depth ecology” that would go to the dark side of nature—the ball of crunched bones in a scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable appetite. … [T]here is a world of nature on the decay side, a world of beings who do rot and decay in the shade. Human beings have made much of purity and are repelled by blood, pollution, putrefaction. The other side of the “sacred” is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.’ I had stood on a mountaintop, looked out at what must have been a magnificent view, and could only see the world as alien and threatening, could only feel pain and the cold wind. It was the carcass of a drowned sheep and a piece of wind-tossed litter that brought me back to a grateful appreciation of the world around me.
The state of mind wouldn’t last, but I had a brief sense that everything was, on some very deep and important level, all right, and I felt that at that moment I knew something it was a privilege to know. These moments, when we have them, are transient, but even when life has moved on, the memory of them can serve as a reminder of something less changeable. My heart’s not the same as yours: but the specific images of a poem can stand for a universal idea; one moment can stand for a lifetime; one crazy hermit can stand for the whole of humanity.
A final ascent of Foel Pendau, a long slog down over heather as night fell, and on the pasture land below I brushed aside the sheep droppings—‘Thin grass does for a mattress’—to bed down in the lee of a drystone wall. I boiled up some noodles, brushed uselessly at the biting clouds of midges, and fell into exhausted sleep. The next morning I felt feverish again; I knew I couldn’t go much further. My insides were churning, too; I had pressing needs, no chance of reaching a toilet, no trowel even to dig a hole with. After a moment of panic I remembered with joy the airborne thing that had come to me like a gift the night before, and a few hours later I stumbled into the nearest village clutching a bag of my own shit. If anyone had accosted me, I wonder if I would have clapped my hands and danced and laughed at them.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”
JOHN FREW now lives in South London. He is working on a memoir based on his time living and working in Myanmar, and encounters with modern and traditional Buddhist practices. Other projects include nature and travel writing, and his work featured in the anthology 'Journey Through Uncertainty' published by Ouen Press. His essay on encounters with Aldous Huxley is in issue #12.
HENRY HU (born 1995 Hong Kong) is a Sydney based emerging artist working across photography and other mediums. His practice commits to a link between the interior and the exterior. These photographs are from his series shading port, BEAMS, 2019 and were taken at Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. WEBSITE TWITTER
Han Shan translations are all Gary Snyder, from Cold Mountain Poems, reproduced in The Gary Snyder Reader, except for the couplets specifically referred to as Tanahshi/Levitt translations.
Kerouac’s haiku is No. 57 from Desolation Pops
‘The etiquette of the wild world…’ and ‘Science and some sorts of mysticism…’ from The Etiquette of the Wild
‘Life in the wild…’ from Blue Mountains Constantly Walking
Both in The Practice of the Wild 1990