Poems from the
[ by "Han Shan" (c. 750) ]
translated from German*
with added notes by Georg Mertens
1998 (revised 2002)
* German edition by Stephan Schuhmacher, published 1976 by "Diederichs Gelbe Reihe".
Contents: (click on section to forward)
Han Shan's Life
Early Years - City and Country (1) to (8)
Joys and Sorrows of the Hermit:
- The New Hermit (9) to (16)
- Looking Back (17) to (26)
- The Hermit Arrived (27) to (30)
Afterword II (2002)
Who is this incredible Han Shan?
Han Shan is a mountain (China), then it became the legendary poet this book is about, living as a hermit at the Han Shan, then it became a symbol of a lifestyle, a spiritual search.
I searched for an English translation for years, but it is nowhere available. I didn't read the poems for years because I couldn't share them with anybody. I started translating some poems in Armidale (1986/7), but translating and writing down means with my handwriting, that it needs a second translation into readable writing. So here too, the computer and printer changed things!
These poems influenced me greatly more than sophisticated books on Eastern philosophy; their impact on my life can be compared only to Dostojevski, Bach and Djuang Dsi.
A later Han Shan monk wrote:
Do you have the Han Shan poems in your house?
They are better for you than reading Sutras
Write them on a screen
And every now and then, have a good look at it
I had many looks at it. They are the writings, which combine for me normal living with being enlightened.
Why did this poet become so well known, why a symbol?
Han Shan is different than all the others. He is not perfect. Jesus was son of God, Buddha reached the ultimate, but Han Shan is one of us; not only that, he is aware of it, he doesn't hide it, he is so human that we find our own feelings in this more than a thousand years old poetry, even the feelings described we didn't want anybody to know about, the ones we feel embarrassed about; if he is a hero, he is an anti hero, the perfectly honest imperfection.
His poetry is so simple, so honest that our usual poetry seems stilted in comparison. It is direct, touches perspectives of ourselves, feelings in us, we don't dare to discover before we notice we share them with Han Shan.
For me this poetry changed my life. I had never read poetry voluntarily before I read Han Shan. I had found in traditional poetry all these rhymes and lines off putting. One week after I read Han Shan I started to write poetry and haven't stopped since! He gave me the courage to feel that it is alright to be as I am, don't need to pretend to be better; with relief I could write down what I really think and feel, without extra ado and write it in a way I like, not caring if the style is "in".
In his honesty we find incredible wisdom, and this wisdom is not a goal, something to achieve, but a present awareness of ones average feelings. The most striking I found his experience, that whatever you change, even if it is for the so called better, you will also loose something. Developing further in one direction might involve the loss of something else.
We come across the old Chinese wisdom or belief, that the perfect state is simple: the more you learn, the more you loose as well - the more you know, the more you are not open to see it in other ways (in Germany we have a word for extremely knowledgeable people in a particular field, who lack the ability to see things in a normal context, they are called "Fachidioten - specialists idiots", because they turn to laughable idiots).
Was Jesus perfect? He didn't mention it, left it up to his followers to make it up. Was Buddha perfect? The same, he left it up to his believers and searchers; of course the believers preferred a super ideal being who was constantly enlightened and not normal in many aspects, or silly or even wrong.
I remember that I was impressed with the miracles Sai Baba could demonstrate, but when I read his scripts, he didn't write about this admirable quality, and I found him philosophically plain. He was by his followers made outstanding - for performing miracles - but when he wrote, he was just average.
Krishnamurti was made up by "want to have a new Messiah people" to a new age Jesus until he got sick of it himself. It seems that people want this perfect being, that perfect ideal, which is always better than oneself, out of reach.
As if people love to suffer under their own picture of inferiority, look out for this God like being; in our century finally we find some so called Gurus pretending to be better; in their lies to themselves and others they went for the US, found enough lost souls searching for the Guru and were themselves able to satisfy their own greed for money.
Han Shan was poor. Not only that, he had once been wealthier and decided to change wealth for a spiritual path. Being poor he hated it. Why lying and pretending to love suffering? Yes, when he was wealthy he hated his job and decided to give it up. But being poor he missed having money. Being poor did not free his mind. When you are starving and freezing, you don't enjoy it; it is not deliberating, and you have to think about food, warmth and money - just what you wanted to free yourself from!
He didn't lie to himself, never pretended to be untouched. He was effected by totally vain matters, such as we don't expect holy or half holy people admit to have: He was affected by being out of fashion! He was not above others, belonged to "us sparrows" compared to the "high up eagles".
Although he knew the classics, admired their writings, he felt like us: we never reach their standard; or perhaps: the classical writers were not fully honest. How many of our historic spiritual leaders come from a wealthy house, and are later supported by disciples? It's easy for them to preach poverty, they don't suffer under it:
Jesus was born as a heir of the house of David and had promoters at the minute he was born. Bodhidarma was born as prince Siddharta and was even before his enlightenment surrounded by supporting followers. Both Jesus and Buddha never needed to beg, and were not plagued by hunger and cold either; how could they talk? Han Shan knew and didn't pretend anything: as much as it is deliberating to throw away all attachments, there is nothing likable with poverty and hunger.
He left his wife, he felt useless in his role as landlord and breadwinner. He went the spiritual way fully, why doing it half? In his society it was nothing unusual for a man to leave his family and take the spiritual path. He moved to the Han Shan mountain, well known for hermits, alone, far away with no way back. And again, this caused new unexpected suffering - and unexpected joys.
Although this was the only way for him, unlike many others, he on one hand idealized this situation, on the other hand complained, was open to speak out the grief of his losses. Once the grand idea of becoming the spiritual one had crumbled and the excitement had changed to the new everyday life, he started to feel what he had lost. He remembered his wife and children. Now he was alone. Cold, poverty and hunger made it worse. The people he still met every now and then were often not friends, not a company, which could make him feel better.
But once the path was started it had to be completed. There was no return, the road ahead full of rocks. But Han Shan went further than the others to enter the white clouds - the metaphor for spiritual height:
- "you can only reach the peak, when the sky is clear". -
This way he went alone. In his heart still a person who likes company, he communicated as a recluse with the afterworld, writing his poems on rock walls of the mountain. At what time they were read, was irrelevant. He communicated to me thirty years ago and to you starting today, never to be forgotten, beyond the boundary of his own life:
The Man from the Cold Mountain
will exist forever
All by himself he lives
without birth and death
I put the poems in an order, which made sense to me. Of course I have no authority to do so. As well I have no authority to write all the comments. On the other hand I am not alone there since Han Shan had no authority to write all these graffiti's.
Also, all other commentators didn't seem to come up with an order, which makes sense. So I stripped them from the authority they didn't deserve.
If you, dear reader, are into sequencing, you might find the all logical order of the poems. If so, don't hesitste to tell me!
HAN SHAN'S LIFE
(This is actually a collection of legends, which don't fit with each other.)
The ancient Chinese foreword starts: Nobody knows, where Han Shan came from. - Everything what is known is legend. And the legend reports:
He was a poor and crazy man. Sometimes he came to the Kuo Ch'ing Zen monastery in the T'ien T'ai mountains not far from the Han Shan peak (Cold Mountain). There he picked up some vegie-leftovers, which he put in a bamboo cane and left again. Sometimes he strolled up and down the long hall ways of the monastery, laughed and talked to himself. Once as the monks ridiculed and yelled at him he suddenly clapped in his hands broke out in loud laughter and disappeared.
His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were rags and his shoes made from wood; his body was like dry wood, but every word was in accordance with the highest principles, penetrated by the Tao - the true path. He was always laughing, seemed happy in himself, went to the shepherds and cowboys and laughed with them.
It is said, you need to be a wise man yourself to be able to see a wise man - and this is specially noted with him. A story goes that a traveler was looking for him to take him as his master. Asked how to recognize him, another master said: Looking at him, you don't recognize him (as a master). Who recognizes him, doesn't need to look for him (because only a master is able to recognize him as a master).
It is told that a prefect was searching for him and came to the monastery. The door to the kitchen was open and everywhere footsteps of a tiger could be seen. Han Shan and his friend Feng Kan were supposed to be in the kitchen to stamp rice; at night they had both entertained themselves with singing. Entering the kitchen the prefect found two men facing the fire and laughing loudly. As he boughed to them they took each other's hand, nearly collapsed from laughing and said: You were told! You don't recognize us as Amitabha (Buddha of limitless light) why do you bough then? - The other monks came running together surprised how the high prefect could give the beggars an honor. Then the two took again each other's hand and ran away. The prefect gave on order to follow them, but they were too quick.
The poems appear very serious and at an important layer they are, but I think also that they show irony, the cracks in wisdom; why you shouldn't take any wisdom too literally.
Let's start with the poems.
EARLY YEARS, CITY AND COUNTRY
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Our poems start when Han Shan was not yet Han Shan, he only became it later in identification with the place of his final search: the mountain peak Han Shan.
Here we find him as a young adult, having past his exams, which included studying the classical works of Chinese wisdom. They influenced him more than the preparation for an exam intended. He identified deeply with the thinking of the old sages. But everyday life was different. As if learning had nothing to do anymore with the meaning in these works. His job was boring, it seemed a nightmare for him to go on like this. It would mean wasting his life.
In vain I tormented myself with the history books
wasted time brooding over the classics
Until I am old I will correct yellow lists
and like before work out tax papers
Asking the I Ching, it tells of difficulties
my life is guarded by a bad star
I will never be like the tree at the river
flowering year after year (1)
(1) He feels his personality is not that strong as the tree at the river, who flowers year after year; he is only a normal mortal.
It would be good just to break off, not to continue like this, whatever a later life might bring. But he is hesitant, hold back by the bad fortune told when he asks the I Ching. Can he dare to change? Is he the strong person to be different and survive, to florish?
As unsatisfying his job is and as much as the change is essential, only later it will show that without noticing, this period held also good times: He had enough money, knew people, was appreciated, felt good in company.
She said: "My home is in Han Tan" (1)
you could hear it in the singing of her voice
"Why don't you come with me in my private chamber,
it takes long to sing the old songs to you
You are drunk, don't talk about walking home
stay here, the sun is not yet at the zenith
In my sleeping chamber I have an embroidered quilt
covering a bed with silver ornaments."
(1) Han Tan was a town, famous for its beautiful women and its folk dances and songs. We might put in this period the time he got his wife to know.
He seems to have soon deliberated to move to the countryside inspired by memorable visits there.
In the third month when the silkworms are still tiny
young girls come to pick flowers
They chase butterflies along the wall
down at the pond they throw rocks at the frog
They collect plums in their wide sleeves
dig out the bamboo sprouts with golden hair pins
You can argue about taste endlessly (2)
but here it is more beautiful than at my home (1)
(1) - Here it is more beautiful than at my home - scenes like this inspired probably him to move. How could you compare that to city life?
(2)( The line - you can argue about taste endlessly - suggests that he is weighing up the advantages and pleasures of city and country life. But how will the reality look?
This picture above is so idyllic, but Han Shan seems just to be unlucky in the particular place he chose.
* * *
The peaceful country life he dreamed of didn't eventuate. Perhaps the dream picture stemmed only from a special holiday where the people in the country were looking forward to as well, different from the normal everyday life. Or was it just the position of his property? Loneliness had crept up, he hadn't expected that.
The beginning of the life in the country looked promising. After the terrible job in the city, this life seemed paradise.
But had the grass just been greener on the other side of the fence? Han Shan was a man of reality, facing whatever the truth holds.
Father and mother left a good heritage
here in the country they don't know envy
my wife is working; the weaving loom click clack
the children playing, the mouths chatter and chatter
A clap in the hands starts the flower dance
resting on my chin I listen to the bird songs
Who comes to give me the honour?
The woodcutter calls sometimes past
Han Shan bought a house in the country with a good roof, but not much else; the forest bears not much except birds and the fish seem to be difficult to catch. The first conflicts start to show up. His wife came with him compromising between loving him and making the best out of the situation from the view of a practical person, between his dream of a spiritual life and surviving.
A solid thatched roof; here lives a man from the country
very rarely horse and cart outside the gate
the dark forests bear only flocks of birds
a wide valley hides fish deep at the bottom
I take the kids out to collect berries
plough the field on the slope with my wife
Inside the house, what do I have there?
only a bed frame covered with books
Although there is some pride to be now a "man of the country", one can notice the first signs of isolation. The place is so far away from everything, hardly anybody comes to visit; they live in poverty, but he is still with his family, focusing on his spiritual pursuit which he shares with the authors of his books. This is the stage which he later misses, after he has left his family for the lonely search of the ultimate oneness and looks back (17 ff):
far away from his flock his heart got heavy
but when he returned to his old nest
wife and children didn't know him any more
For me the following poem sounds like the desillusion of country life: instead of becoming a more spiritual man he started drinking. He has to go much further than just moving to the country.
As a child scriptures in my belt I went ploughing
lived from the start with my elder brother
since everybody found something wrong with me
to make matters worse
my own wife avoided me
I tore all connections with this world of dust
always on the run and read what I like
Who of you could lent me a ladle of water
a fish trapped in the cart track? (1)
(1) The last two lines refer to the following story by the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu:
Dshuang's family was poor. So he went to the supervisor of the river to borrow grain. The supervisor of the river said: "Yes, soon I will get in tax money, then I will lend you three hundred lots of silver. Is that alright?" There the anger rose into Dshuang's face and he said: When I came here yesterday, somebody called me from the middle of the road. I turned round and saw a fish caught in the cart track. I said: Look who is there, a fish! What are you doing there? - The fish answered: I am the Eastern Duke of the waves. Master, don't you have a bucket of water to keep me alive?- I said: Yes, I will go South, to visit the kings of the Southern states, then I will get water from the Western river and bring it to you. Is that alright?- There the anger rose into the fish's face and she said: I have lost my element and can't help myself. If I would get only one bucket of water I would stay alive. But before you have completed kind offer, master, you can better look for me at the fish monger who sells dried fish.
The sixth month when the peasants escape the heat
Who would love to share a glass of wine with me?
I have berries spread in all colours
but nobody sits around the wine jar except me
Instead of a mat I need a layer of straw
banana leaves serve as plates
Sitting then drunk resting on my chin
the Sumeru is small as an arrow tip (1)
(1) The Sumeru is the holy high mountain of the Hindu. The mountain becomes the symbol for the spiritual height. Drunk, intoxicated, the Sumeru, the capability of the mind to be spiritual is close to nothing, like the tip of an arrow compared to the most massive mountain.
Although Han Shan enjoyed a glass of wine, he estimates the value of any intoxication as a hindrance for spirituality.
Most monks and spiritual searchers would not drink, realizing it is in the way of enlightenment. But Han Shan is weak like all of us.
But he knows: when he feels like drinking, he wouldn't get enlightened anyway. Totally honest he allows a very human understanding for himself and others.
East from my place lives an old woman
she became rich only a few years ago
used to be even poorer than me
today she laughs because I don't have a penny
She laughs - me being worse off
I laugh - she advanced? (1)
We will not stop laughing about each other
she from the East - me from the West
(1) She laughs - (as if) I would be inferior; I laugh - (as if!) she has climbed up
For Han Shan it means, she fools herself; she might have more money than before; but just because money is the reason for her to feel superior, it shows only that she is more materialistic than before. Money has taken the place of all her esteem. Other values in her don't count any more, and the value of her as a person is limited to the extension of her wallet. Han Shan laughs, because she turned such a fool and can't even see that.
Coming up in the material world can often mean to be sucked in and lose out personally and spiritually - as well as being on the spiritual path can mean getting so poor, that even the most spiritual one ends up think about surviving and money. Ridiculous! One can only laugh.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
JOYS AND SORROWS OF THE HERMIT
- THE NEW HERMIT -
My home is beneath the green cliff
the courtyard overgrown, don't feel like mowing
and always new creepers are dangling down
ancient rocks rise straight up
The monkeys come and pick wild berries
the heron snatches fish from the pond
With some rolls by the immortals
I sit underneath a tree murmuring and murmuring
Doesn't the last line remind of Buddha, finding his enlightenment sitting under a Bo tree?
Thirty years ago I was born into this world
always on my feet, thousand - ten thousand miles
from the grass banks of the Yangtsekiang (river)
to the red dust in the Northern boundary
I concocted elixirs, searched in vain for immortality (2)
studied scriptures and recited the history books
Returned home today to the Han Shan
I rest my head on the river and wash my ears (1)
(1) The last line refers to two stories:
When Sun Ch'u reclused to the mountains, he intended to say to a friend: “I will bed my head on a rock, and clean my mouth in the river.” But he muddled it up and said: I will rest my head on the river and wash my mouth with a rock.- Asked to explain this strange statement, he reacted cleverly and said: When I rest my head on the river, I can clean my ears, when I clean my head with a rock, I can polish my teeth.
Sun Ch'u referred with this to another story about the hermit Hsi Yu. When the emperor offered him to take the thrown, he quickly turned round and cleaned his ears in the river to wash the offer out of his ears.
(2) Like Han Shan mentions in (27), you can only reach the peak, when the sky is clear. Besides getting sometimes drunk (7) he seemed to have experimented with drugs to find out that reaching the spiritual peak is not dependant on drugs to chang your normal being, but that your normal head needs to be exceptionally clear.
Between thousand clouds, thousands of waters
there lives in peace a poet
During the day he walks through blue mountains
returned home in the evening he rests at the foot of the cliff
Spring and autumn fly past fairly quickly
come to rest he doesn't collect dust
Isn't it wonderful, not to be attached to anything?
- quiet like the great floods in autumn (1)
(1) Of course the great floods in autumn are not quiet. And in the same way it is alive and stormy when you are not attached to anything and rest. This rest is more alive and interesting than the dead way of living with hundred attachments. This poem can be written at any time after he left his family.
Since I reclined to the Han Shan
I live on wild fruit and berries
a peaceful live, I don't need to care much
in this world everything goes anyway its way
Days and months flow on like the river
our time today - sparks from a flint stone (2)
I leave it to you to change the world
I meditate happily between the cliffs (1)
(1) Literally for meditate is written "sit" in the sense of zazen, sitting sunk in Zen meditation. -
(2) - sparks from a flint stone - that's the short period of our life time. This reminds me of a geological description of a human life: seventy years out of hundred of millions in geological terms. Being totally surrounded by nature, one gets aware of the generous time spaces of nature and the swift coming and going of our life, like a flies life is so short for us (I perform regularly in a cave, 340 million years old; this feeling is very familiar to me).
According to the oracle I choose a secluded place
T'ien T'ai - what is there more to say (1)
through cold misty gorges sound monkey screams
the grass gate melts together with the green of the holy mountain
I break leaves to cover the forest shack
make a basin preserving the spring water
I enjoyed leaving all worldly business behind me
want to collect ferns for the rest of my life (1)
(1) T'ien T'ai was well known as a recluse for Taoist hermits and Buddhist monks; who went there did it in order to turn his back to worldly matters. Han Shan is a peak in the T'ien T'ai mountains.
Two famous brothers went into hiding out of loyalty to the Shang dynasty to have nothing to do with the new Chou dynasty. They lived on ferns until they died of malnutrition. In his dreams the collecting of ferns and dying of malnutrition seems to bear some romantic feeling, not too bad at all. It was so good to leave all attachments behind him. But how different can hunger feel when this dream becomes real, as the poems (18) and (20) show.
Full of joy I live with my everyday Tao (path)
in a grotto under hazy climbers
my wild heart completely free (1)
for ever idle companion of white clouds
No path connects my any more with the world
without intentions - who could still bind me?
I sit by myself on a rock plate (2)
and the full moon rises above Han Shan (3)
(1) This line reminds of the ironic line in (10): quiet like the great floods in autumn
(2) sit is again used in the meaning of Zazen, sitting as in meditating in Zen Buddhism
(3) Han Shan leaves it open, if the moon rises above the mountain Han Shan or himself; it reminds of the line in (27) that he sees (can climb) the peak only when the sky is clear.
Overwhelmed with feelings by watching the birds play
I rest now in my grass covered hut
wild cherries are shining in gleaming red
willow rods are hanging long feathered
In the bite of dark blue ridges the morning sun
clouds are playing happily in the green lake
Can you understand that I left the world of dust
to turn my steps towards the Southern slope of Han Shan?
Sometimes people visit Han Shan, but a visit can make even lonelier than no visit:
A visitor criticized the master of Han Shan:
Your lines are missing the right principles
I read of the ancient sages that they felt never bad about their poverty -
I had to laugh about his words
it's easy to do puffed up speeches
But I'd like to see you in my condition today
how essential a few pennies would be for you
Were the ancient sages honest? Buddha was fat, but didn't earn anything and didn't work. Jesus did not work during his active preaching time, but never suffered under hunger and cold. They both had followers to support them, they could easily preach poverty having never suffered under the consequences.
The Tao Te Ching (Lao Dse) says:
Who exercises learning, will gain daily
who exercises the Tao, will lose daily
Although this might be true for spiritual goals, without being materialistic, we are still humans with personal needs; and often you have taken the step, there is no way back. But even if you don't want to go back, some parts you will miss, they are gone; you wanted it like this, did it to yourself, voluntarily and not realizing what it will mean later, without knowing what you can all lose and took for granted.
Only into his books, and not sharing their activities, this was a possible life, so worthwhile that it seems now worthwhile to dream about or wanting to go back.
Far away, the lost part seemed for him now to be worthwhile to search for, but it is gone. His children are grown up, his wife is so estranged now, she wouldn't even recognize him. She still cares for the daily living with her loom as when they lived together. Although only into his books, and not sharing their activities, this was a possible life, so worthwhile that it seems now worthwhile to dream about or wanting to go back.
- LOOKING BACK -
But looking forward, feeling he has to go his path, he had taken the step to leave his family, not knowing what loss this would mean.
We don't know how long these different periods took, but we find clear accounts that the path away from all attachments was deliberating, a leap forward but his heart got heavy again.
The white crane, a peach twig in his mouth
had only every thousand miles a rest
wanted to reach the blessed peach tree country
his food was only the twig
Before he arrived he lost his feathers
far away from his flock his heart got heavy
But when he returned to his old nest
wife and children didn't know him any more
In my dream I returned last night to my home village
saw my wife working at the loom
there she stopped lost in past memories (1)
only tired she took again the shuttle
I called her, she turned to me
turned away again confused without recognizing
Too many years now since I said Good Bye
my hair lost since the old colour
(1) Literally past memories includes a yearning, a desire to be back.
These two poems describe the same situation. Once cut off long enough, there is no way back; the string is cut. Han Shan went out to find what he was searching for, his spiritual fulfillment. One of the great wisdoms of Han Shan is: if you gain on one end, you will lose on the other.
And isn't it starnge: when we watched our children grow up and now they are adults: do we miss their childhood as if we have lost something? To speak for me, I don't. But having not seen their childhood I would have felt a sense of having lost something, although in both cases the time has gone forever.
Still living in the village
everybody praised me as somebody outstanding
but yesterday when I came to the city
even the dogs gave me funny looks
Somebody there joked about my narrow trousers
the next found my jacket too long
If you pick the eyes of the eagle
us sparrows fly around in dignity (1)
(1) The last two lines mean: It is nothing wrong with when you don't look right; but it is horrible to be stared at by everybody. It is hard in this situation to be unaffected and carry the dignity .
Already early I was pretty burnt out
here today in poverty and bitter cold
what ever I start, nothing works out
where ever I turn to I am pushed around
When I walk in the mud I always slip
sitting with the villagers, my stomach rumbles all the time
Since I lost the spotted cat too
the rats besiege my rice jar
To hear the Tao is supposed to drive away misery and grief
but these words don't reflect the truth
only yesterday morning all worries had vanished
today already I am stuck deeply in them
At the end of the month I was exhausted by misery and grief
the new year brings always new worries
No surprise, is under this hat
nowhere else than the old grump
Which other sage is so honest? All these nice words about the supposed benefits of wisdom. Today the awareness of being in the Tao, hearing the Tao is there, "hearing the music of the spheres" as Pythagoras described the ultimate state of spirituality, but tomorrow it's gone. Which other spiritual leader would admit that? Don't you feel like sitting together with Han Shan, he would understand us? Yes he might have the same feelings like us himself. And if not, he would understand us and laugh out whole heartedly.
What makes Han Shan a spiritual leader is that we don't need to lie to ourselves or to pretend, to suppress parts of us in order to be spiritual; we are invited to follow, normal as we are. We gain insights and the next day we might lose it again; but isn't that normal? Spirituality is not a Diploma, gives no guarantee or supplies us with a title like Dalai Lama, but it is alive, a state of living, prone to coming and going.
They laugh about me: Look at this peasant fool
what rough features he has!
His hat has never the right height
his belt is always much too narrow
Not that I have no idea about fashion
but without money you can't keep up with it
When one day I will have lots of money
I will wear hats, high like this pagoda there!
How typical for Han Shan! Being a total beggar in rags, he admits he feels awful when other people laugh at him. He surley has higher goals and find this superficial, but if he is honest, he is in fact affected.
And not only that, despite his reclusiveness Han Shan still knows about fashion - an amazingly honest account about some illogical fancy one had as a teenager, which might still pop up in a nostalgic liking; and perhaps he enjoyed this part of living when he lived in the city and earned well - and he would like to show these stupid laughers!
I remember past adventures
went from one attraction to the next
enjoyed the mountains, climbed dazzling heights
loved the water and sailed on thousand boats
Gave Good Bye parties for guests in the lute valley
brought the zither and played it on Cockatoo Island
Who would have thought, that I sit now crouched
under these pine trees
clutching my knees in whistling shivering cold
Could you imagine how we will be in twenty years?
Seeing an old man or woman, and looking in their face: how would they have looked like and felt like when they were children or when they were twenty?
Seeing a child, how will its life be in sixty years?
Some bodies face, back to long gone times or the distant times to come:
what hidden mystery is written there.
None of the sages since ancient times
has demonstrated eternal life to us
what ever comes to life, has to return to death
has completely to disintegrate into dust and ashes
Bones make up a giant mountain
an ocean full of farewell tears
What remains is nothing than empty names
who can escape the cycle of life and death?
A group of girls playing in the sunset
the wind carries their perfume across the whole street
their skirts tied with golden butterfly brooches
jaded mandarin ducks on their hair pins
The chambermaids veiled in red satin
the eunuchs dressed in crimson brocade
They all stare at me who lost his path (1)
a man with grey temples and a restless mind
(1) A man on his right spiritual path doesn't admire worldly matters like this!
And that we learn from Han Shan: The true spiritual man is honest. He has a restless mind and loses his path. He knows that he can't get enlightened when he drinks (7), but sometimes he does it. He knows the life elixir herbs are nonsense but he is used to search for them. He knows that admiring the perfume of dancing girls and golden brooches is only superficial.
But the true enlightened person is sometimes superficial. The true enlightened is free to be sometimes wrong, is free to see it and admit it. Only the student and pretentious teacher tries to be perfect all the time.
The poem tells us as well that simple people who are embedded in their culture and never started questioning, remain in a certain way always at their old home, never left their original path - in a similar way as animals never question their being and never lose their path.
With the change of year a gloomy year had past
At the start of spring the world is beaming in fresh colours
wild flowers are laughing over the green see
mountain peaks are dancing in blue mist
Bees and butterflies play self content (1)
I am allowed to share the joy of the fish and birds (2)
But a yearning after a playmate remained
sleepless I turned until the early morning
(1) Chuang Tsu dreamed he was a butterfly. A happy butterfly who self content went after his own pleasures not knowing anything of Chuang Tzu. In the morning, when Chuang Tzu woke up, he was not sure, if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu or he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamed of being a butterfly.
(2) Chuang Tzu was walking with Hui Dsi along the banks of a river. He said: How happy are the fish jumping out of the water! That is the joy of the fishes! - Hui Dsi said: You are not a fish, how will you know about the joy of the fishes? - Chuang Tzu answered: You are not me, how can you know, that I don't know of the joy of the fishes?
THE HERMIT ARRIVED
Han Shan - dark and mysterious
who climbs up does it in fright and horror
in the moonlight deep water glitter shiny
wind goes through the grass murmuring and whispering
A barren plum tree carries snow flowers
clouds instead of leaves up in bare tree tops
A rain shower changes everything like with magic hands
You only can reach the peak when they sky is clear
Han Shan is the mountain; but here it is more; it takes the place which is called before "the Sumeru": a mountain symbolizing the spiritual height. sitting then drunk resting on my chin the Sumeru is small as the tip of an arrow Han Shan's Sumeru is naturally the Han Shan mountain. The descriptions are realistic, naturalistic, but at the same time symbolic. We get the impression that nature itself in its realistic form has the symbolic meaning. It is not taken as a symbol, it is a symbol.
The climb includes horror and fright, it means leaving behind to stay down, with the others, turn into a loner, into somebody misunderstood, although you understand the others and even more, you are still one of the others although you decided to climb. The horror is the loss of belonging, being an outcast, combined with poverty, hunger and being unprotected against cold. You can only reach the top when the sky is clear. The sky is your mind, usually shrouded in mist. Han Shan breaks the traditional description of spirituality which links it with mist and white clouds. But he knows:
You can only reach te peak when the sky is clear,
what the heck with traditional descriptions of how to achieve spiritual goals on the path of a scholar focussed on doing the correct thing. What nonsense; he knows, what he knows, is sure of true knowledge and a feel for it.
Poetry is not there to make nice words but to talk honestly to the ones he wishes they would be there. -
A rain shower changes everything like with magic hands -
In the German edition the editor comments, that the meaning of this line is not clear; and I must say when I still lived in Germany, went Sundays for a walk on these nicely prepared forest tracks, lived for the rest of the week in the City, I wouldn't have understood these lines either. It reminds me of Nimbin and Bellingen. Once you have lived in any rainforest, you know: You feel sticky, sweaty, can't see the sky, your thoughts are not clear either; in fact it is difficult to think in this weather at all. All what you need is a cool drink or cool wind. And then a shower changes everything. You don't mind getting wet. You feel fresh and start straight away planning your next activity or you continue a forgotten thought. The path is cleared.
My home is on the mountain, sadness in my heart
only mourn over the rushing past years of my life
collect busily herbs for the life elixir
but has all this research made me immortal?
Now my large courtyard is shrouded in clouds
the forest rests in the light of the perfect round of the moon
What's this home here for me, where I am going?
It's the cinnamon trees that keep me here
Above all search for spiritual fulfillment, it is the natural beauty of the cinnamon trees which give joy and meaning to the place.
I live on the mountain
nobody there who knows me
Between white clouds
is only me alone
The two poems (13) and (14) are written for the after world. On one hand he notices that nobody knows him; he is physically and emotionally completely alone. At the same time, the white clouds symbolize that his mind has risen from earth to loftier heights. The mountain where he lives is getting another meaning: he alone is following the track to the spiritual mountain. Nobody knows him there, and can't know him there, because he can't share neither his journey nor his spiritual home living up on the mountain between the white clouds.
The Man from the Cold Mountain
will exist forever
All by himself he lives
without birth and death
A last statement. Han Shan was and still is in his essence a social being. The meaning of his life exist in relation to others. Living is a relative statement. All alone life and death are irrelevant. But the fact that this poem is written down makes him who is anyway alone, living forever; his social context only existing in his timeless poems is independent from his physical death. Han Shan has finally peacefully come to terms with his physical isolation in his time and relates to me and you as his companions.
Comment 2010: Today I think, the meaning of the poem is like this:
Han Shan is the person, but it a s also the Mountain. The person is the individual, but it is also the typical person of the Mountain, the kind of person which is attracted to the spiritual place and path, and there will always be this person. Larger than an individual, this person will never die (The psychologist Jung would later call such aperson "the archetype of place"). The spirit of the place is so strong, the hermit feels, many, many will come who will feel here the same - friends in the afterworld, eternity.
* * *
I read Han Shan the first time in 1982. It inspired me to write poetry; it told me that my little feelings are worthwhile and normal, that my and every bodies little feelings are worthy to share and to write down.
Up to this time I had written down thoughts, theories and analytical ideas about feelings, but feelings as such hadn't found much entrance into my writings.
The other change that happened was, that when I read Han Shan the first time, I started to romanticize being a hermit; searching for a natural place away from the involvement in the world and find there time for meditating, thinking, just space. The outspokenness of his feelings had triggered in me the desire to share the same, to join him as a Han Shan No 2.
I discovered myself liking my own sadness and found in that to my surprise a special happiness (as I do in listening to sad music in minor keys).
What I didn't realize at the time was, that Han Shan himself had to a certain point regretted what he had done. Perhaps there would have been possibilities not to live totally alone and in poverty, but to have continued to live with his family and still pursue a spiritual path? -
I became aware that my urge to be alone was a sort of spiritual head trip. I could feel, in the long run I was not cut out to be a hermit but I needed people around me.
Today, or better this time when I read Han Shan again, it had again a massive impact. Perhaps translating word for word made me understand his poems much deeper than before.
I finish with a poem by another Chinese poet, T'ao Ch'ien who didn't leave his family, but moved to the country with his wife, trying to combine everyday demands and spiritual fulfillment.
I grind millet, make up a lovely wine
and when it's ripe, ladle it out myself
Our son plays beside me. Too young to speak,
he keeps trying new sounds
All this brings back such joy I forget
glittering careers. White clouds drift
endless skies. I watch.
Why all that reverent longing for ancient times?
* * *
My life has changed since the last edition, and once again Han Shan took part in that. Two main streams go through his poetry: On the one side the uncompromising inner strive for spiritual truth and on the other side the awareness of what one has lost.
Han Shan went radically the spiritual way and he lost what he loved. At the start of his journey he had not realized that he wanted or needed both: A family life or at least company and spiritual fulfilment. The loss of the one took away the full concentration on the other. Would he have known - would he have found a way to satisfy both?
Keeping the one can mean loose the other one. That's what Han Shan had painfully experienced and I wanted to learn from him so it didn't happen to me. But new problems happened to me, clinging to a relationship out of fear of loss: would I later remember lost moments with fondnes?
It just shows how difficult a balance it, and how it can go wrong when we learn from somebody else. Nobody's problem is the repetition of somebody else's and the cure can't be a repetition.
It is a strange thing with the past. Although it is gone anyway, we attach a feeling of loss, when in our thoughts we complete events in a way it didn't happen, where as when things happened in a satisfying way, we remember this loss of the past with fondness, a good memory.
We discover our own desires and wishes by looking at what we miss it didn't happen.
After discovering this I tried to bend the present in a way that can incorporate the wishes of the past I discovered. For example I missed after a divorce to witness the children's play when they grow up. Realising that this time period would be over anyway, I tried to form a close friendship with my now grown up children, as close as if they would have grown up with me. Not to my surprise the feeeling of having missed something gradually faded, because the result today is the same as if we would have spend the time together. Being today friends with their child-friends, having heard the stories and seen the photos, feeeling as close as if we had been together, the feeling of loss has vanished.
If it is not too late, our eyes are open, we are free to stay, we are free to go, even free to return. We can make our decisions and act slowly, we can do it quick; we can do it alone or search friends and talk it out; we can wait or not; every day is new, every moment; what keeps us stuck is our idea of expectations and conditions. Our whole life is this beautifully detailed endless necklace of free moments running through our hands.