The Chinese Tradition

In the early 1960s Thomas Merton began a serious encounter with the Chinese spiritual traditions (among so many others!).  When he met the works of Chuang Tzu (today spelled as Zhuangsi), he immediately connected with him.  With the encouragement of his friend, John Wu, he took to doing what was a kind of translation of Chuang Tzu.  While not being a literal word-for-word rendition, many readers still hailed it as truly “capturing” the thought of Chuang Tzu, including the famous Chinese translator Burton Watson.  In any case Chuang Tzu quickly became one of Merton’s “favorite people.”  He writes: “I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.”  Later he writes somewhere in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander that he is more at home with all the Tzu’s, Fu’s, etc. he has met in the Chinese tradition than he is with most of modern Westerners. 

I first read all this stuff many years ago when I was in my teens, and it too resonated very much with my heart.  Foolishly I did not stay and grow in that milieu but in recent years I have rediscovered the spiritual and human riches that are there.  Here I would like to touch upon simply one aspect of this great tradition.

Recently I stumbled on a truly marvelous book: Mountain Home: the Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China by David Hinton.  The book covers what is known as the “rivers and mountains” tradition of Chinese poetry.  It illustrates the depth, the beauty, the power of what we might call the contemplative, mystical vision of ancient Chinese thought—though putting it this way is typically “westernizing” and complicating what they are saying. Hinton is a master translator of Chinese poetry  which is very, very difficult to translate.  Those of us who have to rely on folks like him are limited in what we can say about the translator’s work.  But reading Hinton and comparing it with other translations you can see that his language has a liveliness and an authenticity, and you intuit that this is getting you close to the original (other very good translators are Red Pine and Burton Watson, etc.–best method is to look at several translations and compare).  I will not comment on individual poems or poets.  They are so subtle, so refined, so deep that any passing comment would greatly miss the significance of the work.  You have to spend a bit of time with each work and appreciate the linguistic, the cultural, and the spiritual backdrop of each work.  That means that you need a real intuitive sense of early Taoism (like Merton had) and the Chinese Buddhism traditionally known as Chan, later to become Zen in Japan.  And here I do have some disagreement with Hinton.  I don’t totally buy his read, his interpretation of the meaning of “the Tao”–though of course there is much truth in what Hinton does say. 

The Tao we are pondering here is not the Tao of later “Taoism,” which becomes a kind of cultural, institutional artifact of China.  It  became a strange amalgam of body-work, martial arts, healing methods, magic, superstition, elixirs, alchemy, talismans, a seeking of immortality, a ritualizing of key life-moments like marriage, death, organized temples, etc., etc., etc.  Pop Catholicism has its own version and flavor of this phenomenon.  In fact this kind of thing can be found in all religious traditions. Some of this stuff is ok; at least it gets people thinking a bit beyond the surface reality.  But a lot of it is an obfuscation of what is at the core of each religious tradition and an attempt to manipulate reality to one’s ego benefit.  In any case it is the Tao of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and Chan Buddhism that is the true backdrop of the poetry and art of the “rivers and mountains” tradition.

The next thing that will enable our appreciation of this poetry is to recognize the importance and the role of the hermit life in the Chinese vision of things–even to this day.  Even during the peak of the Mao years and the Chinese communist ideology, there were hermits living in the wilderness areas of China.  Granted, the numbers were not large like in the old days, but there they were–and largely ignored by the government which was demolishing all institutional forms of religion.  Then with social and economic relaxation and a change in perspective, the hermit movement in China has begun to flourish again (see the works of Red Pine).

There is a paradox in all this.  Something that modern Westerners cannot grasp at all, and I fear some of the younger Chinese who have thoroughly appropriated Western ways may be losing.  Think about this: the Chinese are a quintessentially communal people–I think it would hard to find anyone more so.  In this context the atomized individualism of the West is almost incomprehensible.  Yet what is most remarkable is that this same culture provides the most prolific manifestations of the hermit life.  The thing that most modern Westerners do not understand is that the true grounding of the hermit life is in a strong sense of communion, oneness, community.  It is not our atomized individualism, which so afflicts modern consciousness.  In this context the hermit is seen as a kind of “rebel” vs. society or “the crowd.” The myth of the “rugged individual” who stands “outside” normal social life, the brave, lone fighter for what is real, or in fact just plain nuts….we are left to choose!  You can see this in a lot of modern myths, including a serious misreading of Thoreau.  In any case, the hermit’s real vocation and identity is to simply be a silent witness to that most fundamental (and therefore unspeakable) unity which is not grounded in politics, economy, nationality, race, sex, religion, or anything else.  (I won’t go into how the language of Christian spirituality can obfuscate all this–it needs careful explication.  Compare the language of early Merton with the later Merton.) That unity is grounded in what the early Chinese mystics called “the Tao,” and what Christian mysticism would call “the Mystery of God,” the unnamable and totally incomprehensible Ultimate Reality.  It is this fundamental unity which transcends all dualisms such as community/individual. The true hermit has no message for the world; he/she is simply a witness to that unity through silence and emptiness and solitude.  This unity is not a “something” alongside all the other somethings in one’s life; it is more like a “no-thing,” a “nothingness.”  So in a very real sense there is “nothing there” in the hermit’s life; no badge of identity, no ostensible purpose, etc….the true hermit is a “no-monk,” (Merton loved this term), a “nobody,” nameless in the truest sense.  People can stick labels on him/her, but that’s their doing.  The hermit’s home is in the emptiness of silence and solitude; and this is the atmosphere which pervades the work of these poet-artist recluses of ancient China.

Now it must be added that there is a tension in Chinese culture between community and solitude that is due to two contrasting ideals:  the Taoist/Chan ideal and the Confucian ideal.  The latter fills the Chinese mind with a sense of social responsibility for the family and the community; the former initiates a dynamic seeking of Ultimate Reality.  Among the poet-artists this tension is not resolved but a life becomes lived in various stages.  A person might start out by serving the state as a scholar-official (what’s amazing about ancient China is that you could become a state official only if you were proficient in language and poetry).  For one reason or another they then might “drop out,” leave the “world of red dust,” as the Chinese termed the busy social world of commerce and government, and live in solitude in a mountain wilderness.  There also are the cases where the person is driven out of government, even into exile, and there they find themselves in an unexpected solitude. Then again sometimes a hermit is called by the Emperor to some official capacity because he is respected for his wisdom, and here again a variety of answers can transpire.  Then there are the cases where a person heads into solitude early in life and comes back into community much later for one reason or another. Also, there are the cases where some of these poet-artists were married and lived in the wilderness with their wives. What they all share in common was a keen sense of what was found in that wilderness: silence, solitude, depth, emptiness,….the Tao.


Now let me briefly touch upon some very significant points that Hinton makes in the introduction to his translations.  Let me quote from the beginning:

“…China’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history. Fundamentally different from writing that employs the ‘natural world’ as the stage or materials for human concerns, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. This is not wilderness in the superficial sense of ‘nature’ or ‘landscape,’ terms the Western cultural lens has generally applied to this most fundamental aspect of Chinese poetry.   ‘Nature’ calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and ‘landscape’ suggest a picturesque realm seen from a spectator’s distance–but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way.”


Now this is a very important statement, and I am not going to try and unpack all the key insights here; but I do want to say that I was startled when I first read this.  I was always attracted to the wilderness, and I read much in John Muir and Edward Abbey and so many others(even Merton was a bit of help here) trying to find the language to understand my heart’s yearning for that wilderness.  A lot of this was very good, but I sensed it did not go deep enough.  When I first encountered Han Shan, the most remarkable hermit of any tradition, I felt I had discovered a real friend and a real source of further inquiry.  Now I know why Merton loved all these Chinese characters and why I myself felt so attracted to wilderness places!

Here’s another quote from Hinton’s introduction:

“This cosmology as dwelling place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China.  Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China.  This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less  than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness.”

And one last quote, and here Hinton is referring to a particular poem, but I just want to illustrate the overall idea:

“The language in this sentence magically conjures the self as a presence, but it is an utterly empty presence.  Here is the Chinese poem as an act of meditative dwelling in the deepest sense.  When the bell calls out, we are not only there in the pregnant emptiness at the heart of the Cosmos, we are indistinguishable from it.  This dwelling is the Way of ancient China’s Taoist and Chan sages.  In it, self is but a fleeting form taken on by earth’s process of change–born out of it, and returned to it in death.  Or more precisely, never out of it: totally unborn.  For those sages, our truest self, being unborn, is all and none of earth’s fleeting forms simultaneously.  Or more absolutely, it is the emptiness of nonbeing, that source which endures through all change.  And China’s poets and readers were, in a very real sense, always already masters of this enlightenment, for it is the very structure of their language, their thought, their consciousness.  This is utter belonging to a wilderness cosmology as dwelling-place. And as the mountain realm is the most compelling manifestation of this cosmology, it was for them always their mountain home.”

And I would like to conclude with an ancient Chinese painting which graces the cover of Hinton’s book.  It pretty much illustrates it all and no more words are needed: