I just finished Red Pine’s translation of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain and can certainly see why these relatively “simple” poems have retained their popularity for so long.
The advice Cold Mountain offers sounds as contemporary as today, as eternal as Taoism and Buddhism. It varies from simple homilies about the wisdom of sharing with others to esoteric interpretations of Buddhist tracts.
Needless to say, I tend to prefer those songs that offer simple but sagacious advice:
Reading won’t save us from death
and reading won’t free us from want
so why this love of literacy
the literate are better than others
a man unable to read
never finds any peace
squeeze garlic juice in your crowfoot
and you’ll forget the bitterness
Red Pine’s notes on the poem: While crowfoot, or Coptis chinensis, is among the bitterest of medicinal herbs, garlic is among the most acrid and used here to mask the former’s flavor. In this case, crowfoot is used to represent hardship, and garlic, literacy.
I’ve often been aware of the irony of having to read poems and tracts that advise us that “book learning” can never lead to true enlightenment, an idea Cold Mountain is obviously aware of, but here he offers an original reason why so many of us resort to reading. We may not agree with some people’s actions, but understanding their actions allows us to at least accept them. Reading helps us to find a kind of “peace,” even if it doesn’t directly enlighten us. At the least, writing can let us know when we have lost the path, the Way, as it were.
My favorite poems are those, however, that celebrate the things I love to do:
Where Cold Mountain dwells in peace
isn’t on a traveled trail
when he meets forest birds
each sings their mountain song
sacred plants line the streams
old pines cling to crags
there he is without a care
resting on a perilous ledge
Unfortunately I don’t live high in the mountains beside a mountain stream, but some of the best moments in the last twenty years have been during hikes in the high mountains, standing on a cliff looking back on the city in the distance, feeling blessed that such escapes are still possible in the 21st century.
I doubt I’ll ever attain it, but my goal is to live as free as Cold Mountain suggests we should be in:
Amid a thousand clouds and streams
there’s an idle man somewhere
roaming the mountains during the day
sleeping below the cliffs at night
watching springs and autumns pass
free of cares and earthly burdens
happy clinging to nothing
silent like a river in fall
I’ve already become an “idle” man thanks to a teacher’s pension, Social Security, a wife who’s still working, and some savings I managed after my children graduated from college, but I’m still working on freeing myself from “cares and earthly burdens” and, hopefully, “clinging to nothing.”
I wonder if it counts if what you care about most is not yourself, but others? Personally, I’m grateful I have enough money to buy what little I want, pay for my medical insurance, and still have enough money left to go visit a grandchild in Colorado and take another grandson to Disneyland in the fall.
I still worry about those around me who are too little to care for themselves, those who can’t pay for medical necessities, and those who worker harder than most of us and still can’t pay their bills because some forms of work apparently aren’t important enough to deserve a decent wage. The poor are, even after all these years, one of those “earthly burdens” I’ve never quite been able to escape.
Perhaps, most of all, I worry that my children and grandchildren may fall victim to a culture that seems diametrically opposed to the simple advice that Cold Mountain offers us.