Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Han-shan: a poem

Han-shan is a classic example of China's hermit Zen/Tao poets. His poetry carries elements of both Zen Or Chan, as it was called in China, and Taoism. Just who he was is not known. His adopted name, Han-shan, means Cold Mountain, which is where the cave in which he lived was located.

His poetry was discovered, according to tradition, after he died, written on the walls of his cave and the trees, rocks, and walls in the area and near several villages. His poems, some 300 of them have been preserved, are generally short and simple. Perhaps that is why I like them. The most common themes are nature and human behavior, frequently remonstrances against pretension and greed and pleas to turn to the good or virtuous life.


The Cold Mountain Road is strange
no tracks of cart or horse
hard to recall which merging stream
or tell which piled-up ridge
a myriad plants weep with dew
the pines all sigh the same
here where the trail disappears
form asks shadow where to

-- Han-shan --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans. Red Pine

Translator's note: "The last line is also indebted to T'ao Yuan-ming's Form, Shadow, and Spirit,
in which Form and Shadow turn to Spirit for a solution to their transient existence.

In a note, Red Pine describes his visit to Han-shan's cave on Cold Mountain years ago, and it doesn't seem to be any easier to find or get to today than it was in the 8th and 9th centuries when Han-shan lived there.

The last line puzzles me for it seems almost as though a line is missing or perhaps an infinitive.

"form asks shadow where to _____"

Han-shan has a number of poems in which he describes the difficulties of reaching his shallow cave on Cold Mountain. Perhaps he's trying to discourage people from visiting him. But, his poetry really wasn't widely known until after his death, so perhaps that may be only a part of the reason. Whatever the reason, I get a clear sense of the rugged wilderness in which he lived and how easily I could get lost.

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