han shanHanshan (Cold Mountain) was a chinese buddhist monk and poet who lived in China some time around the 9th century. He is a legendary figure and details of his life are sketchy. He lived as a hermit in the Taishan Mountains and would write his poems on walls, rocks and trees where he travelled. He is said to have written 600 poems however only about 300 have been collected. Little else is known about him. He would occasionally visit the near-by Guoqing Temple to see his friends and fellow monks.

I first discovered Hanshan in one of my favourite books, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. The main character, Japhy Ryder (who in real life is the poet Gary Snyder) is studying the monk and translating his poems from Chinese into English. Reading his poems, I am taken by his enigmatic and rather magical descriptions of life in the mountains, grounded in metaphors on Zen philosophy.

A thousand clouds among a myriad streams
And in their midst a person at his ease.
By day he wanders throught he dark green hills,
At night he goes home to sleep beneath the cliffs.
Swiftly the changing seasons pass him by,
Tranquil, undefiled, no earthly ties.
Such pleasures! – and on what do they rely?
On a quiet calm, like autumn river water.

When the men of the world look for this path amid the clouds
It vanishes, with not a trace where it lay.
The high peaks have many precipices;
On the widest gulleys hardly a gleam falls.
Green walls close behind and before;
White clouds gather east and west.
Do you want to know where the cloud-path lies?
The cloud-path leads from sky to sky.

Ensemble Nipponia – The Sound Of Wind Through The Bamboo Leaves

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