Han-shan Te-ch’ing

Han-shan Te-ch'ing – J.P. Seaton
Han-shan Te-ch’ing (1546-1623). Aside from Hui Neng and his five main disciples ineighth century (T’ang) China, Han-shan Te-ch’ing is without doubt the most famous and influential Zen monk (so far) in the history of the transmission of Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism. As Abbot of a famous monastery, he was a “player” in Ming politics, and though he lacks a beheading to prove his commitment, he did spend time in prison and in exile. He was also a brilliant scholar and his commentaries on Taoist and Buddhist classics are still widely read. It seems ridiculous to expect such a man in such a time to be a poet at all, much less a great one, but he was one (the latter).  Part of the possible paradox is explained by the fact that he clearly had a wonderful self effacing sense of humor: the “Han Shan” in his name is definitely meant to refer to the madman poet-bodhisattva Han Shan of the T’ang , but the character used to produce the “Han” syllable in pronouncing the name includes the word for “to dare” above the word for “heart-and-mind” followed by the word mountain, the same character that makes the “shan” in Han Shan’s name.  Our hero Han-shan Te-ch’ing appears to be borrowing the glory of his already vastly famous predecessor, and adding a daring heart: but as it turns out the character I just described means, silly, or even stupid: making his self applied name all the sillier is the fact the Te-ch’ing, means literally virtuous prince, giving us Stupid Mountain Virtuous Prince in the final Englishing.

Jim Cryer’s translation of Han-shan Te-ch’ing’s quatrain set reveals each poem to be a separate facet of a jewel of Buddhist enlightenment. Not Wang Wei, nor Han Shan wrote a better poem than this.  [tooltip content= “The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, J.P. Seaton (Shambhala, 2006)”] [source][/tooltip]

Han-shan Te-ch'ing – Red Pine

Hanshan Deqing was born in 1564 in Jiangsu Province near the city of Nanjing. At the age of 12 he entered Nanjing’s Baoensi and studied there until the age of 28. In 1592 he went north to the Buddhist mountain of Wutaishan where he practiced for 8 years on Hanshan Peak (Stupid Mountain). It was here that he added the name Hanshan to his other Buddhist name Deqing.

“Wutai was the scene of a special ceremony that Deqing helped organize to ensure the birth of a male heir to the throne. When a boy was born to one of the emperor’s concubines exactly nine months later, the emperor’s mother became Deqing’s lifelong supporter. Unfortunately the emperor disagreed with his mother’s choice of heir apparent, especially when a more favored concubine gave birth to a second son several years later.

Meanwhile, Deqing began writing the series of Buddhist works that were to make him one of the most revered monks in the realm, and he moved to the Shandong coast. With the help of the emperor’s mother, he built one of the largest Buddhist centers in China on Mount Laoshan overlooking the sea. But the relations between the dowager and her son worsened as the issue of the heir split the loyalty of those at court, and Deqing was caught in the conflict. In 1595, he was arrested, defrocked, his new monastery burned to the ground, and he was sent into exile to the southernmost province of the empire.

Although at first he was required to report to authorities, his fame as a Buddhist cleric eventually gained him the freedom to move about the region. In addition to organizing relief afforts during plagues and quelling a riot in the provintial capital of Canton, he also spent a number of years restoring the Buddhist center at Caoxi, 200 km north of Canton. Caoxi was where Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, transmitted the Dharma to the monks whose disciples founded the various sects of Chan in China.

Finally, after 20 years of exile, Deqing was pardoned and given his freedom in 1613. At first he accepted the invitation of a fellow monk to spend his old age on Hengshan, Wutaishan’s southern counterpart 300 km west of Caoxi. Once more he shaved his head and donned his monk’s robe. But after less than three years, he left Hengshan and traveled north to the Yangzi and then east to Nanjing. Halfway to the southern capital, however, he stopped at Lushan and was sufficiently impressed with that mountain’s scenery and serenity that he returned there in 1617 to spend his final years. But, as his health declined, his disciples urged him to move back to Caoxi, and in 1622 he returned once more to Huineng’s old temple in south China. He died the following year, and his body has been preserved there to this day along with that of Huineng, with whom he was linked by his disciples, who honored him as the Seventh Patriarch of Chan.” (The Clouds Should Know Me By Now, Mike O’Connor (ed.))

Mountain living: twenty poems

Down beneath the pines,
a few thatched huts.
Before my eyes,
everywhere blue mountains,
and where the sun and moon
restless rise and fall,
this old white cloud
idly comes and goes.

When plum petals among the snows
first spring free
from the ends of night,
a dark fragrance flies
to the cold lantern
where I sit alone
and suddenly storms
my nostrils wide.

Through a few splinters of
white cloud, motionless,
the Buddha wheel bright moon
comes flying
to accompany me
in my mountain stillness…
and I smile up at it
above the dirty suffering world.

It only took a single flake
to freeze my mind in the snowy night,
a few clangs to smash my dreams
among the frosted bells,
and the stove’s night fire fragrance
too is melted away,
yet at my window  the moon
climbs a solitary peak.

Through a face full of clear frostiness
raw cold bites.
Through a head overstuffed with white hair
a gale whistles.
And over the world from flowers of emptiness
shadows fall…
but from my eyes the spells of darkness
have completely melted.

Jim Cryer


Cold Rain

A hard cold rain a forest of wind
late at night the lotus drips
who knows the dream that entrances the world
is simply the luminous prajna mind

Red Pine



Snow besieges my plank door I crowd the stove at night
although this form exists it seems as if it doesn’t
I have no idea where the months have gone
every time I turn around another year on earth is over

Red Pine



My body is like deadwood my thoughts are like ashes
there’s snow on my skull and frost on my jaw
I don’t disdain the World just because I’m old
dust finds no place to land in my eyes

Red Pine


A hundred thousand worlds are flowers in the sky
a single mind and body is moonlight on the Water
once the cunning ends and information stops
at that moment there is no place for thought

Red Pine


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.