Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's not always Edenic

A favorite form of poetry of mine have been those created by the hermit poets in China and Japan.  Many of their poems portray the simple life of the hermit, high up in the mountains in a small hut or cave,  free of the cares of the mundane world.  However, it isn't always that Edenic as we learn from some of their poems.

Shut up among the solitary peaks,
I sadly contemplate the driving sleet outside.
A monkey's cry echoes through the dark hills,
A frigid stream murmurs below,
And the light by the window looks frozen solid. 
My inkstone, too, is ice-cold.
No sleep tonight, I'll write poems,
Warming the brush with my breath. 
                           -- Ryokan --

In a dilapidated three-room hut
I've grown old and tired;
This winter cold is the
Worst I've suffered through.
I sip thin gruel, waiting for the
Freezing night to pass.
Can I last until spring finally arrives?
Unable to beg for rice,
How will I survive the chill?
Even meditation helps no longer;
Nothing left to do but compose poems
In memory of deceased friends.
                           -- Ryokan --

The above poems are from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf  
trans.  John Stevens 

 No. 6
The mountains are so cold
not just now but every year
crowded ridges breathe in snow
sunless forests breathe out mist
nothing grows until Grain Ears
leaves fall before Autumn  Begins
a lost traveler here
looks in vain for the sky
-- Han Shan  (Cold Mountain) --

No. 172
I'm poor alas and I'm sick
a man without friends or kin
there's no rice in my pot
and fresh dust lines the steamer
a thatched hut doesn't keep out the rain
a caved-in bed hardly holds me
no wonder I'm so haggard
all these cares wear a man down 
 -- Han Shan  (Cold Mountain) --

No. 6 and No. 172  are from 
The Collected Poems of Cold Mountain
trans. Red Pine

note: Grain Ears falls fifteen days before the
summer solstice and Autumn Begins occurs
45 days after the solstice.

The world can be a cruel place, even for enlightened ones. 


  1. Thanks for sharing, Fred. The second one by Ryokan is the one which really gets me. Brutal.

    1. madamevauquer--yes, the second one is the most brutal. I think the fourth would follow it. These two speak of their physical ailments also.

  2. if they were in the monastery, the abbot would just whack them with a stick and say "quit whining"... that's why they're hermits... anyway, after enlightenment, there is no enlightenment... nice poems...

    1. Mudpuddle--chuckle. If I remember correctly, I think Han Shan was at a monastery for some time, but he eventually left. Ryokan also, from what I just read, spent time in a monastery, but he left to become a hermit.

    2. Ryokan is one of my favorites haikuists... he loved children and gamed with them a lot; he was kind of a child himself, climbing trees and clowning around in the villages he begged in...

    3. Mudpuddle--in one poem he writes that he went to town to beg for food, but got waylaid by children and spent several hours playing with them.

      In another, he writes that he didn't go to town that day and wondered if the children were still waiting for him to show up.

  3. Life can be brutal and so difficult. These poems convey that in such an effective and unique way.

    1. Brian--yes, that's true. The very simple statements in the poems convey that to the reader.

      But, most of the poems by Han Shan and Ryokan are much more positive, even joyful. That's what draws me to these poets--I get a more complete picture of both sides of life here.

  4. Hmmm. How odd that Edenic (so Biblical and western in its deeply set roots -- no pun intended) can be an issue within the context of Asian poetry. This says so much more about the readers than the words. It gives me great pause to consider how our culture frames our perceptions. However, you (Fred et al) give me hope that cultural bridges can exist. In any case, thank you, Fred, for the posted poems.

  5. R.T.--that's my perspective anyway, certainly not Ryokan's or Han Shan's. I have frequently found in my reading of Asian poetry and fiction, ancient and modern, that we aren't so different in our roots after all.

    I find Ryokan, Han Shan, Basho, and many others to be far more understandable and sympathetic than many of my so-called fellow Americans.

    1. Mudpuddle--but I doubt if they are, and even if they were, they wouldn't believe I was talking about them. After all, they are the true murricans.

  6. These poems vividly paint their pictures very well. I feel I am participating in their cold isolation inside their craggy holes in the mountains.

    I like these kinds of poems because they are introspective and dramatic. And as you said in previous comments. The writers did not always feel that way. We all have our dark moments.

    1. Sharon--yes, the language is plain and straightforward--simple words. I get the feeling that the translators are not trying to be excessive or extravagant, but are simply trying to convey the feelings of the poet.

  7. Fred et al . . . I impose upon your blog posting to offer an apology for my sudden departure (again) from the blogging community (i.e., my blog -- Informal Inquiries -- has once again been consigned to the ashcan of blogs) . . . the reasons are not worth mentioning . . . I am determined to recapture some sanity and clarity in my life (and -- for the moment -- my blog had been interfering with that capture) . . . if time and mind permit, I will continue to visit other blogs every now and then because the conversations that can happen there are life-rings to me while I navigate the maelstrom . . . perhaps I will someday build a blog and join the community but not for the moment ... so-o-o-o I tell you all of this so that you will not think me too rude or too dead because of my blog's disappearance . . . and so it goes . . . thanks for letting me vent here, Fred.

    1. R.T.--no problems. Sorry to hear that you have to drop out, only for a while I hope. Looking forward to your comments when you stop by here every now and then.

      I find it necessary at times to cut back also. A break is helpful in sorting things out.