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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

ontheroadI’ve just started reading Jack Kerouac again. Having my ipod out of action and a long train ride south of the river to bear I dug into the mountain of books piled high in the corner of the lounge room, sifted through yellowed pages to find the cover of Big Sur looking up at me. It was like meeting an old friend. Kerouac is an author I always find myself re-reading and never tire of. His words never fail to inspire and amaze. Like all his novels Big Sur is Autobiographical and follows Jack after the publication of his breakthrough novel On The Road as he struggles to deal with the pressures and expectations of success and fame. It begins with Jack waking from an alcoholic daze in a cheap hotel. His friends have given up waiting for him and have headed up the coast from San Francisco to a shack on a beach in Big Sur. Jack, desperate to escape the City follows them up and eventually finds himself alone at the shack. Here, before heading back to the City to see old friends, he meditates on his life and his initial peace of mind slowly unravels until he is once again left to struggle with his demons and self-destructs into an alcoholic delirium.

Here is a recording of Kerouac reading the first section of his book Old Angel Midnight, a collection of spontaneous prose pieces first published in 1959.