Tag Archives: Cold Mountain

Traildogs, Trailheads of the Heart, Han-shan & Shih-te & John Muir

Part I   Introduction

Spent 14 days in the wilderness of the High Sierra country–Yosemite to be more specific, the land of John Muir, the Range of Light. Some time back I wrote about a previous experience here, so this will be a revisiting.

Yosemite Valley is one of the most spectacular places in the whole world. Its awesome beauty is beyond all description. However….the crowds there are also beyond most anything you will experience unless you make it a habit of large urban rush hour congestion. Best to go there in the winter when the crowds have radically diminished. All you need is camping gear that can handle the cold weather.

So it was the High Country for me, and away from the crowds. I camped at Tuolumne Meadows Campground at over 8000 ft. The campground was full but it was marvelous how quiet it was. John Muir was right–it feels like a church up there. There is a sense of a Presence–though very few would admit they were aware of any such thing, and most people there talk in quiet tones. Most everyone seems more peaceful and thoughtful. In this forest of giant pine trees, among the grand cliffs and snowy mountain peaks, you intuit a sense that there is much more here than just “here.” (However, if it were up to me I would have everyone turn in their cell phones, Tablets and Pads at the entrance. But I suppose the young people would be totally discombobulated!!)

Like in all human activity, there are quite a lot of different kinds of people in the High Country with very different reasons for being there. For example, one early morning I was sitting at Tenaya Lake, this pristine High Sierra lake that is easy to reach because of Tioga Road. This was one of John Muir’s favorite lakes, and it is stunning in its beauty, its clarity, its surrounding cliffs. After a few hours there, a bus load of German tourists appeared. They got off the bus all with cameras, took their pictures, and off they went back on the bus and onto the next stop. This is a common occurrence–more often it is just a small group in a car. Even so….I am sure that somehow someone’s heart is touched by the reality he/she witnesses and it is not just a moment of “capturing” an image for a collection of experiences.

Needless to say the campers also come in all “shades and flavors”–all kinds of reasons for being there. Most stay 3 or 4 nights and take in the beauty of the place by hiking the innumerable trails. But regardless who they are and what reason brought them here, the wilderness speaks to them. She speaks in a language that to most is incomprehensible yet very soothing, inviting, peaceful, calling them home to their own heart. I think many intuit this but are unable to put it in words what it is they experience. They feel this inarticulate peace upon which they perhaps do not even stop to reflect.

Part II Trails, Trailheads of the Heart, & Traildogs



Trails there are here!! So many and such variety that whatever be one’s inclinations or capability, there will be a trail for you. There are the modest day-hike trails of 2 to 6 miles in length. Then there are the more challenging overnight hikes of 10 to 40 miles where you sleep in the wilds. These take you into the remote backcountry of the High Sierra where you might not see anyone for several days. These require some backpacking skills and gear, but the rewards are enormous. Then, of course, there are the Great Trails–I mean the John Muir Trail (the JMT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT). The latter runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. What a journey!! The JMT may be one of the top most beautiful trails in the whole world. Tuolumne Meadows is a starting point for the JMT (and it terminates at Mt Whitney in the Southern Sierra), and it is a rest and resupply point for the PCT. There’s a store here and a post office where many long distance hikers send packages to themselves to pick up when they finally reach this point. I talked to a young couple who were starting off again after 2 days rest. They had started at the beginning of April at the Mexican Border. They were not even half way done!

What I find fascinating is that all these trails become a beautiful, physical metaphor/symbol of the spiritual journey–indeed some call it a path. I am not one to say that all such trails lead eventually to the same place. I prefer to think: THAT is to be determined “later.” However, what is key is to be on that trail that leads to the Heart where you and I and God are One. No duality of any kind. Just the joy and ecstatic play within this Oneness. Even if the words pointing at this Reality are different on different trails, the important thing is to be on one of these trails. A good part of every spiritual journey is to find the “Trailhead to the Heart.”
Now just as with campers and people in general who come to Yosemite, the hikers also do their hiking for a myriad of reasons and motivations. (Indeed people come to monastic life for such a variety of reasons, and the whole point of growth in monastic life is to shed all the false reasons and find that one true quest buried in the heart.) There are those who take up these trails–especially the JMT and the PCT–as a kind of challenge, something to prove to themselves or to others, another “conquest” to add to their list (or resume), another credential to show “who they are,” etc. As a matter of fact, I read a mountaineer lament that Everest has been beset with these kind of people also–usually well-off who can pay $50 to $60 thousand dollars to get a guide to take them to the top to satisfy their ego.

But many, many hikers hit these trails, the short and the long, because they are drawn by the beauty of the wilderness, by what She speaks to their hearts. Some of those on the long trails speak of a transformative experience. Their sense of self and who they are and their vision of the world changes by the time they finish the long journey. Then there are the few “Traildogs,” people–both men and women–who seem to live on the trail. They have in a sense become one with the trail. They leave the trail only to resupply and then off they go. The trail is not a means to an end, an instrument for some goal; another experience alongside a collection of some such “adventures.” They somehow get around the “permit limitations” that the National Park Service and the Forest Service puts on them for they seldom seem to leave these trails. I met one remarkable such Traildog, a woman of about 70, who stays in Fresno during the winter months and then during the Spring to Fall she is in the mountains with only a backpack. I think she buys food with her social security check. She had the face of an ancient Chinese sage or one of those Native Americans so eloquently photographed by Edward Curtis.

And here let us conclude this section with a word from Edward Abbey:

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above your clouds.”

Part III The Wilderness Speaks

Earlier I had said that the wilderness “speaks” to us all, whether we can understand her or not. Actually I think it would be more accurate to say “she sings” to us. It is like hearing a beautiful, haunting music from far-off and a song whose words most of us can’t make out. But it gathers our attention peacefully and totally, enveloping us with a serene sense of Presence. From Han-shan to John Muir, there have been these sensitive souls who are attuned to that music. Once you are within that song you realize that actually there is no “inside” or “outside”; there is only the Presence. And your heart and your very being become manifest as one with the song. To be better prepared for what the Wilderness sings to you, I would recommend meditating first on Merton’s poetic work, “Hagia Sophia.”

Part IV Han-shan & Shih-te & John Muir

I brought a number of things to read when I went camping in the High Country. I had Shankara, the Upanishads, the New Testament, and Abhishiktananda’s “The Further Shore.” I also had the complete poems of Han-shan, Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter). But interestingly enough I couldn’t get into anything else except Han-shan. All else seemed too wordy, and somehow nothing seemed to resonate with the wilderness more than Han-shan. So I kept company with him during my whole stay. Just went “with the Flow” as a good Taoist!!

For those who don’t him, Han-shan is a most remarkable fellow who seems to have lived in China in the late Tang Period, around the 8th Century. We don’t know too much about him because he hid his identity very well. He seems to have been a “somebody” in upper Chinese society, a learned man and a scholar, a government official early in life. But at a certain point he “flees” all this–either out of necessity (some scholars believe he had to flee for his life) or out of utter disillusionment. In any case he ends up in one of the remote areas of ancient China, living in a cave as a hermit. In this regard he reminds one of the Christian Desert Father Arsenius who had been a “somebody” in ancient Rome and fled all that.

What is striking is that Han-shan never became an official monk, never entered a monastery, never had a spiritual teacher as such(in that regard he is even more “stark” than Milarepa who did have a spiritual teacher at least). He shows a great awareness of the Buddhist and Taoist Classics, and his spiritual path is a typically Chinese amalgam of the two paths. He wrote over 300 poems/songs, short pithy things showing great poetic skill that of course cannot be captured in translation. What is amazing is that this obscure, lonely figure is one of China’s most popular figures(he is also revered in Korea and Japan).


As I said, Han-shan was never officially a monk, but he often visited a monastery that was about a 2-day hike from his cave. There he had a very good friend, Shih-te who was his equal in spiritual maturity but not quite the poet that Han-shan was. Shih-te was also not a monk but a layworker in the monastery kitchen. Amazing how often that happens and where you will find the deepest people….!! In any case, Shih-te would give Han-shan some food and supplies to take back to his cave, and the two would have these great poetic conversations and constantly laughing and having a good time together. In later Chinese art they are often depicted together.

photo 1

Han-shan’s name can be translated into English as “Cold Mountain.” Whenever you see that reference in his poem, it actually has three meanings. First of all, of course, it refers to that geographic location of the cave–its name was and still is today: Cold Mountain. Then that term refers to his hermit identity. We don’t know what his name was in Chinese society, but now his new identity is indicated by that term: Cold Mountain. Finally, and more subtly, “Cold Mountain” refers to Han-shan’s state of mind, his awareness, his heart.

So let us begin by listening first to one of Shih-te’s few poems(all translations by Red Pine):

Woods and springs make me smile

no kitchen smoke for miles

clouds rise up from rocky ridges

cascades tumble down

a gibbon’s cry marks the Way

a tiger’s roar transcends mankind

pine wind sighs so softly

birds discuss singsong

I walk the winding streams

and climb the peaks alone

sometimes I sit on a boulder

or lie and gaze at trailing vines

but when I see a distant town

all I hear is noise



This is very much in keeping with the spirit of John Muir but written a 1000 years before him. Han-shan also has that keen sense for the wilderness, a sensitivity to its beauty, and a definite preference for it as opposed to so-called civilization. So here’s a few of my favorite reads of Han-shan while I too was in the wilds:


Towering cliffs were the home I chose

bird trails beyond human tracks

what does my yard contain

white clouds clinging to dark rocks

every year I’ve lived here

I’ve seen the seasons change

all you owners of tripods and bells

what good are empty names


Comment: Of course the “tripods and bells” refers to both ritual religion and economic well-being.



Looking for a refuge

Cold Mountain will keep you safe

a faint wind stirs dark pines

come closer the sound gets better

below them sits a grey-haired man

chanting Taoist texts

ten years unable to return

he forgot the way he came


Comment: Remember that every reference to “Cold Mountain” has three referents.



People ask the way to Cold Mountain

but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain

in summer the ice doesn’t melt

and the morning fog is too dense

how did someone like me arrive

our minds are not the same

if they were the same

you would be here



Comment: Very similar sentiments in a very different cultural and geographic setting by the Desert Fathers of Scetis.



Who takes the Cold Mountain Road

takes a road that never ends

the rivers are long and piled with rocks

the streams are wide and choked with grass

it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick

and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan

who can get past the tangles of the world

and sit with me in the clouds




The layered bloom of hills and streams

kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds

mountain mist soaks my cotton bandana

dew penetrates my palm-bark coat

on my feet are traveling shoes

my hand holds an old vine staff

again I gaze beyond the dusty world

what more could I want in that land of dreams


Comment: Both of the above poems illustrate Han-shan’s sensitivity toward the wilderness and his kinship with John Muir. Indeed, Muir himself could have written these words as he was living in Yosemite.



My true home is on Cold Mountain

perched among cliffs beyond the reach of trouble

images leave no trace when they vanish

I roam the whole universe from here

lights and shadows flash across my mind

not one dharma appears before me

since I found the magic pearl

I can go anywhere everywhere is perfect

Comment: Interesting image of the “pearl”—it appears several times in his poems and of course it refers to his realization of his “Original Mind,” his Buddhahood, his enlightenment. The Gospel also uses this image of the pearl: recall the Pearl of Great Price which someone who wants it needs to give everything he has and is to obtain it.




I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds

and met some Taoist priests

their star caps and moon capes askew

I asked them the art of transcendence

they said it was beyond compare

and called it the peerless power

the elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods

and they were waiting for a crane at death

or some said they’d ride off on a fish

afterwards I thought this through

and concluded they were all fools

look at an arrow shot into the sky

how quickly it falls back to earth

even if they could become immortals

they would be like cemetery ghosts

meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright

how can phenomena compare

as for the key to immortality

within ourselves is the chief of spirits

don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban

persisting in idiocy holding onto doubts



Comment: Han-shan was critical of the established religion in China which was mainly Taoism but also the complacent Buddhist monasticism of his time. Already the Taoism of the Tang Period was slipping into decadence and corruption, into a kind of magical superstition and a search for personal immortality that was no more than a perpetuation of the ego-self through some kind of “deus ex machina” process. Instead, Han-shan is always pointing at the luminous Self that you already are—that’s all that matters.




On Cold Mountain Road

no one arrives

those who walk it

are called ten names

cicadas sing

crows don’t screech

yellow leaves fall

white clouds sweep

rocks are huge

I live here alone

I’m called the Guide

look around

what are my signs


Comment: According to Red Pine, the “ten names” refers to the ten titles that each Buddha has. “Cicadas” are hermits; “crows” are the regular monks. According to the Buddha, the whole earth preaches the Dharma.



I’ve always loved friends of the Way

friends of the Way I’ve always held dear

meeting a traveler with a silent spring

or greeting a guest talking Zen

talking of the unseen on a moonlight night

searching for truth until dawn

when ten thousand reasons disappear

and we finally see who we are



Comment: One of the very attractive features of Han-shan is that he never presents himself as a Teacher or Guru or Wise Man. He is always “with you,” a fellow seeker and searcher.



And finally let us conclude with a bit from John Muir:


“I am often asked if I am not lonesome on my solitary excursions. It seems so self-evident that one cannot be lonesome where everything is wild and beautiful and busy and steeped with God that the question is hard to answer—seems silly.”



In June of 1869 he concluded his account of one of his early forays into the High Country, and he sums up how I felt at the end of this June:


“And so this memorable month ends, a stream of beauty unmeasured, no more to be sectioned off by almanac arithmetic than sun radiance…a peaceful, joyful stream of beauty…Looking back through the stillness and romantic, enchanting

Beauty and peace of the camp grove, this June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal…one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s Love, never to be blotted or

blurred by anything past or to come.”