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.” [tooltip content= “The Clouds Should Know Me By Now, Mike O’Connor (ed.) (Wisdom Publications, 1998)”] [source][/tooltip]

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