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Seven Poems

By
February 2, 2005

 

Introduced and Translated from the Chinese by Tony Barnstone

_Han Shan is the name given to the putative author of a collection of fascinating Tang Dynasty poems, more than three hundred in number, who may or may not have existed–at present there is no reliable way of deciding. The poems tell the story of his retreat to Cold Mountain to live a life of hermetic simplicity, seeking Taoist and Zen (Chan) enlightenment in nature. They are proselytizing poems, but in their vernacular speech, in their clarity of focus, and in their celebration of simplicity, they embody the attitudes toward the world that they seek to teach and, in this, achieve their greatest success. Strangely enough, Han Shan is not considered a major poet in China. The Chinese complain that his work is too vernacular, full of good ideas but lacking in elegance and poetic polish. He has, however, become a favorite poet for the American readership, in part because he has had marvelous translators, such as Red Pine, Burton Watson, and Gary Snyder. Perhaps he is a poet who, to echo Robert Frost’s famous snub of Carl Sandburg, “can only be improved in translation.” If one ignores the politics of literary reputation, though, a remarkable voice emerges from the poems of Han Shan, one quite rare in Chinese poetry. He is a cynic and an ironist, like Meng Jiao, and the two poets’ bitter cynicism seems to have damaged their reputation among readers in China. He is a strange mixture of dogmatist and free-thinker, and one senses a personality behind the poems that is harsh and yet humorously irrepressible. Whatever the poetic value of his work in Chinese, there is much to appreciate in the riddling Buddhist thought-problems in these poems and in the way they capture the personality of a person who may or may not have ever lived._

____

Greedy men love to store wealth
like owls love their babies,
but small owls eat their mother when grown,
and the self is hurt by too much wealth.
Give away your wealth and you are blessed;
gathering it makes disasters rise.
With no wealth and no disasters,
you can glide on wings in blue clouds.

____

Heaven is endlessly high,
Earth so thick it has no poles,
and in between live creatures
supported by the Maker’s strength;
fighting head to head for food and heat,
they scheme to eat each other,
never understanding cause or effect,
blind babies asking what’s the color of milk.

___

I gaze on myself in the stream’s emerald flow
or sit on a boulder by a cliff,
My mind a lonely cloud leans on nothing
and needs nothing from the world and its endless events.

___

Talking about food won’t fill your stomach.
Talk about clothing won’t keep out cold.
To be full, eat rice.
To stay warm, wear clothes.
Those who don’t understand
complain it’s hard to get help from Buddha.
Look inside your heart. That’s where Buddha is.
Don’t look for him outside.

___

When people meet Han Shan,
They all say he’s crazy.
His look doesn’t attract the gaze,
and he is wrapped up in a cloth gown.
I speak and they don’t understand,
When they speak I keep silent.
So I tell people
come and visit me on Cold Mountain.

___

This life is lost in dust.
Like bugs in a bowl
we all day circle, circle
unable to get out.
We’re nothing like immortals,
our sorrows never end,
years and months flow off like water
and in an instant we’re old men.

___

The hermit escapes the human world
and likes to sleep on mountains
among green widely-spaced vines
where clear torrents sing harmonies.
He steams with joy,
swinging at ease through freedom,
not stained with worldly affairs,
heart clean as a white lotus.

 

Tony Barnstone is an Associate Professor of English at Whittier College. The author of a book of poetry, _Impure_ (University Press of Florida, 1999) and a chapbook of poems _Naked Magic_ (Mainstreet Rag, 2002), he has edited and translated several books of Chinese poetry and prose, including _Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry_ (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), _Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei_ (University Press of New England, 1991), and _The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters_ (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996). His book _The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry_ was published in 2004.

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