Friendship with the Ancients

David Hinton

Last night I walked up Hunger Mountain, a summit near my home in Vermont. I arrived in time for sunset, and soon warmed up cashew chili on my ancient Svea camp-stove. As the full moon slowly rose, I ate the chili with crackers my daughter called moon-crackers when she was young, because they are round like the moon. After eating and cleaning up as best I could, I sat and watched the moon rise into darkening skies as stars began to appear. Sleeping out on the bare rock felt like drifting deep into depths of stars, occasional wakefulness watching the moon blurring into dreams of moon, and this morning I wake early to watch it sinking low through still-dark skies. Immaculate, unscathed by the crowded millennia vanished between us, it’s the same moon that ancient China’s poets and artists and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monks watched a thousand years ago.

Alone here on the mountain, I begin thinking about friendship, and how it was a perennial preoccupation for those ancients, who wrote so many poems to one another about visits and departures and loneliness. Many aspects of what friendship meant to them are familiar—shared histories or experiences, common interests or ideas or beliefs—but they knew another dimension of friendship that is less familiar. It’s a dimension deeper than words, deeper even than the identities we think of as the subjects of friendship, and it explains how friendship could infuse this experience of being utterly alone here on Hunger Mountain watching the moon rise. Like any other aspect of ancient China’s human culture, this dimension of friendship was shaped by the culture’s deep conceptual framework.

That framework originates in Taoism’s seminal book, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (c. 6th century B.C.E.), and Absence and Presence are its two fundamental elements. Presence (Being) is simply the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation; and Absence (Nonbeing) is the generative emptiness from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges. Lao Tzu’s thought might best be described as a spiritual ecology in which the ten thousand things  appear out of Absence, each according to its own nature, independent but intricately interrelated, then die and return into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form.

This account is simply a deep description of natural process, manifest in this cycle of life and death, but also in the diurnal cycle of night and day, or in the annual cycle of seasons: the pregnant emptiness of Absence in winter, Presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into Absence in autumn. It also appears in countless paintings from the Chinese landscape tradition: the pregnant emptiness, in the form of vacant rivers and lakes, empty mist and space; and the mountain landscape as it emerges from that emptiness and hovers, peopled sparsely, seemingly on the verge of vanishing back into the emptiness.

Arising in the fourth century (C.E.), Ch’an clarified anew the spiritual ecology of early Taoist thought, focusing within that philosophical framework on meditation, Ch’an’s central way of fathoming reality at a level that lies beyond words. Such meditation allows us to watch Presence emerging from Absence in the form of thought burgeoning forth from the emptiness and disappearing back into it. And going deeper into meditative practice, once the restless train of thought falls silent, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of Absence.

Once the self and its constructions of the world dissolve away into that emptiness of Absence, what remains of us is empty consciousness itself, known in Ch’an terminology as “empty mind” or “no-mind.” The dimensions of this meditative dwelling are suggested by the graph for ch’an, which literally means “meditation”:  禪. The right-hand half of 禪 is an element meaning “individual” or “alone,” a sense complemented by older meanings like “simple, great, entirely, exhaustively.” The left-hand element is 示 in its full form, which derives from earlier more clearly pictographic forms like and.This image shows Heaven as the line(s) above, with three streams of light emanating earthward from the three types of heavenly bodies: sun, moon, and stars. Together, these elements mean something like: “alone simply and exhaustively with the Cosmos.”

As Absence, empty mind attends to the ten thousand things with mirror-like clarity, and so the act of perception becomes a spiritual act: empty mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. Hence, the ten thousand things become mind or identity itself, which is why the great Ch’an poet Cold Mountain (Han Shan: c. 7th to 9th centuries) could sit beside a lone lamp deep in the night and say of the moon:

It’s the unpolished jewel. Incandescence round and full,
it hangs there in blackest-azure skies, my very mind.

Most would call it coincidence rather than an act of friendship, but if you are awake and watching this early-morning moon drifting lower and lower, you share my mind at a level deeper than the stories we tell about ourselves, stories that define who we are: our personal thoughts and histories, the cultural histories and mythologies and metaphysics that shape ethnic and religious and political identities. And we share Cold Mountain’s mind the same way, however long ago and far away it was that he gazed at this moon.

Because empty mind is nothing other than Absence, its loneliness is the elemental loneliness of the Cosmos itself, which suggests a variation on the graphic meaning of 禪  (ch’an): “the Cosmos alone simply and exhaustively with itself.” This friendship of you and I and the ancients sharing the moon— it’s more than people sharing experience, or even sharing identity. It is the Cosmos keeping itself company, sharing crescent moon with itself, and empty mountains, and the Star River stretched silver and changeless across them.

From Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (Shambhala, 2012)


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.