Han Shan

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?

-Han Shan (Cold Mountain)

In 1954, in a scene he described in his book, “The Dharma Bums,” (pp 18-21) Jack Kerouac visited the Berkley shack of his new friend and Ur-Dharma Bum, Gary Snyder and found him translating the poems of an obscure Chinese poet named Han Shan, or Cold Mountain. Snyder told Kerouac about this “Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains”, writing poems on rocks and bamboo and the sides of cliffs. Kerouac became so enthralled with Cold mountain that he dedicated The Dharma Bums to him when it was published in 1958. Read just a few of the 300 poems found written down on the bamboo and rocks and boulders of the mountain where he made his home, and it is not difficult to see how Cold Mountain would appeal to these two bhiku wanderers. Scenes abound of frustrations with the modern world, loneliness, leaving the manic world behind for mountaintop solitudes; wind blowing through pine trees; clouds touching mountain and tree tops; clear running streams flowing into jade colored lakes. Strong Buddhist and Taoist themes run through the poems of Han Shan, and unlike many Chinese poets of his time who often used just Buddhism as and embellishment in their work, Cold Mountain’s poems show a deep understanding of both Buddhism and Taoism. Both Buddhists and Taoists often try to claim Cold Mountain as their own, but in his poems, he often delighted in poking fun at the pretensions of both traditions and seems to have considered himself a layman at best, a man of independent spirituality.

Biographical details of Cold Mountain are few and far between. Any details about his life must be gathered from his poems and the few mythic stories surrounding his existence. Chinese scholar and Cold Mountain translator Red Pine estimates Cold Mountain lived from 730-850 during the Tang Dynasty. He was born into some level of privilege and may have been a gentleman farmer and some sort of minor official in the grand bureaucracy of imperial China. At some point he was married. Eventually he became disaffected with society and left the world at 30 to make his home in the Tien-Tai Mountains at a place called Cold Cliff. He may or may not have become a monk. His physical appearance in drawings make him look like a template for the Zen lunatic or hobo-saint: wild hair, birch bark hat, patched robe, big wooden clogs, gnarled staff and an unconventional manner interpreted by others as craziness. He had two companions; Big Stick (Feng-Kan) and Pick-Up (Shih-Teh). Big Stick was something of a renegade monk at Kuoching Temple, which Cold Mountain would often visit near his home at Cold Cliff. According to legend, Big Stick showed up one day at the temple gate on the back of a tiger, took up residence in the temple library, refused to shave his head, and came and went as he liked. Whenever he was asked about Buddhism, he would answer ?Whatever.? One day when he was out walking, Big Stick heard someone crying. He found a 10-year-old boy in the bushes who said he had been left their by his parents, so Big Stick picked him up and took him back to the temple. The monks tried to locate his parents but no one came forward to claim him, so he was named Pickup and placed in the care of the temple?s chief custodian in the temple hall and later in the kitchen, where he would often leave out food for Cold Mountain. Pickup and Cold Mountain became close companions and are often shown together, their pictures hanging in Chinese households a symbol of marital harmony.

These few things seem to be the only sure things about Cold Mountain. There are different stories as to how his poems, originally written down on bamboo, rocks, boulders and the walls of people?s houses came to be collected. The most popular one is this:

Lu-Ch?iu Yin, a prefect in Tan-Ch-iu, had a bad headache and after visiting a doctor it turned worse. He met Big Stick and Big Stick told him that sickness comes from illusion and he needed pure water to cure it. Someone brought the water to Big Stick and he spat it on Lu-Ch?iu Yin, who was instantly cured. He was impressed with Big Stick’s wisdom and asked Big Stick if there were any wise men he could look upon as Master and Big Stick directed him to Kuoching. He told him that there he would find two men who look like poor fellows and act like madmen. They came and went and they worked in the kitchen, tending the fire. Lu-Chiu Yin journeyed to Kuoching and inquired about the two madmen. He was directed to the kitchen where he found Cold Mountain and Pickup. He bowed to them and Cold Mountain laughed and said “Big Stick-loose tongued. You don?t recognize Amitabha, why be courteous to us?” before he and Pickup ran out the temple gate. Lu-Ch’iu Yin was determined to see these to men properly taken care of, so after he returned home, he sent clean clothes, incense and food back, but when Cold mountain saw the packer approaching, he yelled “Thief! Thief!” and ran into a mountain cave which closed behind him and that was that last anyone saw of him. Hearing this, Lu-Chiu ordered the monks to find all the poems Cold Mountain had written and to collect them to be made into a book, and those poems are perhaps the best way to get to know the elusive figure of Cold Mountain.

Whoever has Cold Mountain?s poems
is better off with those than with sutras
write them up on your screen
and read them from time to time

-Han Shan (Cold Mountain)

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