Hanshan – A Cold Mountain Companion

In Sensai Kaz and Peter Levitt’s book, The Complete Cold Mountain, (Shambhala, 2018), the legendary hermit poet, Hanshan, or, Cold Mountain, as he is often referred to, is an elusive character, but a true and constant companion.

Scanning the green slopes below,
I discuss the profound principle with the white cloud.
Though the feeling of the wild is in mountains and waters,
truly, I long for a companion of the way.

Peter writes in the book’s introduction, “Because of the compassionate discernment, profound tranquility, unexpected insight, and the occasional outrageous humor of his poetry, Kaz Tanahashi and I have gratefully considered Hanshan one of life’s treasured companions for fifty years.”

Hanshan longed to spend his life in the natural world with his heart and mind uninterrupted by worldly distractions:

With a bed made of thin grass
and the blue sky for my cover,
I rest my head happily on a stone pillow
and follow the changes of heaven and earth.

But Hanshan discovered that it is not as easy to leave the world behind as one might think. His choice to live as a hermit in the caves of Cold Mountain did not, as Peter says, “…preclude him from experiencing all of the other emotions and states of mind that, in part, reveal the inner truths of what a human life is.” His great compassion and tenderness for all living beings is often glimpsed in his unexpected moments of just experiencing life.

Rich people meet at a tall building
decorated with shining lamps.
When a woman without even a candle
wants to draw near,
they quickly push her away,
back into the shadows.
How does adding someone diminish the light?
I wonder, can’t they spare it?

There are over 300 poems attributed to Hanshan in this collection, and yet, “there appear to be no accurate, official records that document the life of the poet who took the name Hanshan to express both the place that he lived (in the Tiantai mountain range of southern China) and the nature of his heart and mind.” He wrote on cave walls, on stone, on paper. He is often depicted carrying a brush and a roll of paper with his companion Shide who carries a broom.

In my village there is a house,
but the house has no true master.
On the ground, one inch of weeds grows,
watered by single drops of dew.
Fire burns six thieves
while the wind blows in dark clouds and rain.
When we thoroughly look for the original person,
it’s a pearl sewn in the back of a robe.

Hanshan’s wish for obscurity is magnified by a groundbreaking discovery: Based on a textual study of the poems, the time span when the Hanshan poems were written, (200 years), and linguistic patterns and historical references, Kaz has developed the “three Hanshan Poets theory.” The poet of lore and laughter called Hanshan, may actually have been at least three people who wrote under the same name!

In Kaz’s chapter called, “A Study of the Poet,” he says, “We see at least three Hanshan poets responsible for creating the Hanshan anthology: the original one, the one who followed his rhymes and wrote Zen-influenced and possibly general Buddhist-themed poems, and a further later poet who wrote Hanshan II poems in Late Middle Chinese rhyming.”

“Traditionally, however,” writes Kaz, “Hanshan was regarded as one poet, and you may still see just one.”

Ordinary people and sages are all mixed together.
I advise you to stop being led by appearances.
My dharma is wondrous and difficult to understand,
but it is revered by heavenly dragons.

All of Hanshan’s poems were translated by Kaz Tanahashi and Peter Levitt from The Complete Cold Mountain, Shambhala, 2018.

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