Han Shan, Poet, Buddhist Fool, Hermit, Spiritual Guide, Good Friend

Han Shan, otherwise in translation known as Cold Mountain, lived around 700/800 CE in the late Tang Period, China’s real “Golden Age.”  I feel very close to this person; he has been a kind of spiritual guide for me for many years.  Granted this might seem strange…after all he is so far away in time and space!  And you couldn’t have a greater difference than the one between our cultural setting and his.  But I am reminded of what T. S. Eliot once said when he was criticized for seemingly ignoring his contemporaries in his poetic work.  He asked:  “Who are my contemporaries?  My contemporaries are the people who have the same questions I have!” You kind of get the idea!  In any case, let me go into this a bit more.

By the way, there is a decent write-up of Han Shan in an online encyclopedia at this link with some translations by Burton Watson:


Han Shan, the poet.  Best place to start because frankly it is the only place you can meet him:  his poetry.  He has written no books, no treatises, no essays; he has no “teaching,” he pushes no doctrine; he has no “spiritual methods” to pass on.  Right away I like the guy!  But if you think this makes him a vacuous purveyor of spiritual fluff, you would be very wrong.  For several decades that he lived as a vagabond hermit he wrote scattered poems; it was other folk who collected them up in time and published them.  Even today he is an  iconic figure in Chinese lore.  And this brings us to a key problem for us:  he wrote of course in Chinese!  If his writing were expository of some kind, a reasonable translation would capture most of the meaning.  But we are talking about  poetry, ancient Chinese poetry, one of the most subtle art of all arts.  Han Shan is difficult even for modern Chinese!  The subtle allusions, the double and triple meanings of a word, the quiet symbolism that can slip right by you, all this and more prove to be quite a challenge to the modern Chinese speaker whose language now is a flattened  out modern conveyer of information….like all the other modern languages.  So you can imagine what a translation does to Han Shan!  You’re probably getting about 40 to 50 percent of what is in the poem at best, but for some of us even that little is enough to enchant us.  I readily admit, though, that Han Shan is not everybody’s cup of tea.  And in translation he can seem at times very bland and pedestrian….but like in the case of the proverbial iceberg you are then seeing only the “tip.”  Fortunately for those of us whose only access to Han Shan is in translation, we  have quite a few good ones to help us.  

Back in mid-century there was Arthus Waley, then Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, Red Pine, and most recently the team of Peter Levitt and Kazuaki Tanahashi, and then a number of others.  This team and Red Pine translated the whole Han Shan canon; the others only a small portion of the poems. 

 I first met Han Shan through the poetry of Gary Snyder.  I was interested in the literature of the Beat Movement of the mid ‘50s, and I picked up an anthology of Beat writings when I was a freshman in college.  Gary Snyder, who did not strictly belong to this movement, was included in the anthology.  He was a poet, and at times hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Kerouac, so he was in!   More importantly, Snyder was a serious student of Chinese at  UC Berkeley and for a seminar project he translated about 20 of Han Shan’s poems, and the anthology picked up some of these translations.  To these folks Han Shan seemed like a Beat figure of the late Tang!  In any case I was immediately taken by the poetry of Han Shan.  Having read a lot of poetry,  even at that age I recognized that this was a beautiful work of translation (and I still regard his translations as the best…too bad there’s so few of them), and my own spiritual quest was deeply attracted to this ancient figure. 

There is very little we know for sure about the historical life of Han Shan.  Needless to say the scholars are all over the place trying to determine “facts” about his life and “facts” about his poetry.   We won’t go into all that.  To be sure we can glean a little bit about him from his own poetry.   He seems to have been born into a well-to-do ambience; then well educated and earning some kind of position in the current ruling government.  Also he got married.  However, in the tensions and the turmoil and strife of the late Tang, at a certain point he had to run for his life (Red Pine surmises).  His wife seems to have died, and around the age of 30 he becomes a vagabond hermit.  A small chunk of his poems are about his life in society, but even there you can see the orientation to a spiritual quest.  The majority of his poems, however, were written in Tientai, the mountain range where the mountain called “Cold Mountain” was located.

Here is Han Shan in his own words, summarizing his life’s journey:

In my first thirty years of life

I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

Walked by rivers through deep green grass,

Entered cities of boiling red dust.

Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;

Read books and wrote poems on history.

Today I am back at Cold Mountain:

I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

(trans. By Gary Snyder)

Some notes:

  1. Note the implied restlessness of his young life, constantly looking for something,  both inner and outer, neither civilization nor the natural world bring him peace.


  1. “drugs”….an allusion to the pop religion of his time,  pop Taoism which was already prevalent….the profound mysticism of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi transformed into a magical search for elixirs of immortality.  Then, an allusion to the Confucian training that he got in becoming an official of the government.
  1. “Cold Mountain”……MOST IMPORTANT….”Han Shan” translated into English is “Cold Mountain”…..so the line can read:  “Today I’ve come home to Han Shan.”  There is layer upon layer of meaning here.  In ALL his poems, the words “Cold Mountain” always have at least three meanings: 1. The person of Han Shan; it was not his original name, but it’s the name he took upon himself when he became a hermit; 2. The geographical location, this mountain where he lived as a hermit; 3. And his state of heart, his mind, his level of awareness….and this of course is the key.  It reminds one of that notion in Cistercian spirituality, one begins one’s journey in the land of “unlikeness,” alienated from one’s true self, and one journeys to the land of “likeness,” where one is “in the image of God.”  In other words, a profound return to who you really are.  Similar dynamic in Buddhism….always really a kind of “return.”  
  1. Note now a different relationship to nature.

Now look at this poem (also trans. By Snyder):

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.

Such beautiful economy of expression….physical geography and “spiritual geography” blending into one.

Han Shan, the Buddhist fool.  Several things to say here.  This is one of the most remarkable aspects of Han Shan’s life:  his total severance from any institutional ties.  He is not a “monk” belonging to a monastery.  He could have easily joined a  monastery (either Buddhist or Taoist), which then as now would have been the usual thing to do.  In fact, there was then (and still there today) a monastery a few miles from his mountain.  Sometimes he would go there begging for food, and he befriended a ragged worker in the kitchen (Shi te or Shide) who would help him out.  So, like the Christian Desert Fathers, when he “left the world” he set out on his own, no map….really not even a religious one.  Many regard him as Buddhist, and he shows signs that he was well-versed in Buddhist thought; but he also blends in a lot of the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi.  The fact is that “officially” he is not anything!  And at times he seems to enjoy poking fun at the official members of both religions.  You really can’t nail him down to some category of belonging.

And then there is his physical appearance!  There also he meets all criteria for a “fool”!   Han Shan in his own words!

People hereabouts call me
“The crazy hermit of Cold Mountain.”
They say: “His face is butt-ugly,”
“His rags smell of mange,”
“Everything he utters is jabberwocky,”
“Anything we say dumbs his ears!”
What do I reply?
“Climb Cold Mountain and sit with me awhile

(trans. by Stanton Hager)

And this poem:

Men who see the Master

Of Cold Mountain, say he’s mad.

A nothing face,

Body clothed in rags.

Who dare say what he says?

When he speaks we can’t understand.

Just one word to you who pass –

Take the trail to Cold Mountain!

(trans. by A. S. Kline)

Han Shan, the hermit.  What can you say?  The hermit life, in whatever tradition and in whatever era, basically defies articulation.  The less words, the better.  The hermit’s natural home is a deep silence and an unspeakable simplicity.  Or as Merton once put it in the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude:

“This book says nothing that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  Its pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and the forests.  But what can the wind say when there is no hearer?  There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.”

To begin to understand Han Shan you have to approach him in that mindset.  If your notion of the hermit life is filled with a lot of formalities, a lot of “religious” sentiments, a lot of “specialness,”  then you will miss Han Shan by the width of the universe!

And here he is once more in his own words telling you about his hermit life:

I divined and chose a distant place to dwell-
T’ien-t’ai: what more is there to say?
Monkeys cry where valley mists are cold;
My grass gate blends with the color of the crags.
I pick leaves to thatch a hut among the pines,
Scoop out a pond and lead a runnel from the spring.
By now I am used to doing without the world.
Picking ferns, I pass the years that are left.

(trans.by Burton Watson)

 Han Shan does not romanticize the hermit life, nor does he minimize its hardness:

The trail to Cold Mountain is faint
the banks of Cold Stream are a jungle
birds constantly chatter away
I hear no sound of people
gusts of wind lash my face
flurries of snow bury my body
day after day no sun
year after year no spring

(trans. by Burton Watson)

Han Shan, the spiritual guide.  This is most interesting and probably not many would agree with this title for him.  He seems to be lacking  in all the credentials you need for this position! I mean he is not like Milarepa, an awesome figure of amazing powers; he is not like one of the Desert Fathers who practiced great austerity.  He has no “program” for “spiritual realization”; he is not a proponent of any teaching.  And certainly he is not like a modern spiritual director who makes a living teaching spirituality.  So, it seems like there’s nothing there!

And unlike spiritual teachers of legend, Han Shan admits to feelings of sadness and loss (not unlike Jesus!)….he comes across as a fragile, vulnerable human being, who has journeyed through his own tangled humanity into the depths of his own heart and mind.  What he finds there is only hinted at; what is beyond words is also beyond poetry!

But frankly I think this whole thing about spiritual guides is overblown and over rated.  Some people are always looking for that “special” person, and God knows what that “specialness” is all about!  But in any given situation your true spiritual guide may be your neighbor, your spouse, your teacher, your co-worker, etc.  All you need is “attention.”  Simone Weil made attention the key to the whole spiritual life.  From a Christian perspective, God always provides the “spiritual guide” that we need in all circumstances.  We can begin the real journey by paying attention in that deepest sense.  And really it is to this that Han Shan invites us in all his poetry.  There is a “path” that Han Shan has taken, certainly not an easy, magical, powerful way; there is no program, no formula for this path.  And like a good, humble spiritual guide Han Shan is inviting you in so many ways to your own path that passes right through your own personhood, into the depths of your mind and heart.  At a certain point the Path and the person become one.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

(trans. by Snyder)

Han Shan, good friend.

Question:  Why do you consider Han Shan a good friend?

Answer:  See all of the above!