The Collected Songs 0f Cold Mountain

Red Pine’s translation of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain has been an enjoyable read so far. I first encountered Cold Mountain awhile ago while reading Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and through some Gary Snyder’ translations, which I discussed a few years ago

Though I suspect I would find Cold Mountain’s poems too “religious” for my taste if written by a Christian poet, I don’t find them objectionable here because the ideas are still relatively “new” to me. The newness of the ideas also makes me grateful for the “translator’s preface” and the introduction by John Blofield written in 1982. Blofield’s essay points out Taoist elements in Cold Mountain’s poetry, while still noting the importance of Buddhist elements:

The majority of these mountain men, whether overtly religious or not, would probably describe their manner of life as “hsiu Tao,” which literally means “practicing the Way?” The term Tao (Way) was for some two millennia at least used by Chinese of all religious and philosophical persuasions to mean whatever they individually regarded as “the highest good,” “ultimate truth,” “the absolute,” “the goal of existence,” etc. To those familiar with Taoist teaching, it meant the invisible, formless matrix that gives rise to the endless succession of forms which are no more apart from or different from the matrix than waves are apart from or different from the sea. To Chinese Buddhists the Tao was synonymous with the One Mind or Pure Consciousness, which they held to be not only the impersonal creator, but the very substance (or rather non-substance”) of the entire universe. The use of a term meaning “way” to describe the vast, unfathomable reality of which every form is but a transient manifestation has very subtle implications, pointing to the non-dual nature of reality; for, if reality is in fact non-dual, then the source, the way to the goal, the wayfarer, and the goal are all indivisible from one another.

For an outsider like myself, it’s difficult to make the distinction between Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, but Blofield helps to see where the two overlap and where they differ:

To my mind, Cold Mountain owed more to Taoism than to Buddhism, so complete was his unconventionality and so profound his empathy with nature, but he did not fail to castigate as quacks those wandering Taoists who earned their living as healers by combining natural remedies with magic charms. In making these observations, I may be guilty of being oversubjective; for some of them might be hard to justify by reference to particular poems. My impressions are grounded rather upon the general effect made on my mind by reading all three hundred.

As interesting as the introductory essays were, it’s the poems, and the notes that Red Pine includes for each poem, that are most interesting. I like many of them but tend to favor those that describe Cold Mountain’s home and life style:


Beneath high cliffs I live alone
swirling clouds swirl all day
inside my hut it might be dim
but in my mind I hear no noise
I passed through a golden gate in a dream
my spirit returned when I crossed a stone bridge
I left behind what weighed me down
my dipper on a branch click clack

Red Pine’s notes on the poem: The Chi-ch’ueh (golden gate) refers to the imperial palace. The sixth line recalls the poems of Ch’u Yuan (340-278 B.C.), who often called his spirit to return from its wanderings among the unvirtuous and depraved. The stone bridge is a natural arch that spans two merging cataracts near the summit of Tientaishan. After crossing its thirty- foot length and less than one-foot width, Hsu Hsia-k’o (1586 -1641) wrote: “Looking down at the deep pool below, my hair and bones trembled” (Travel Diaries). The hermit Elsu Yu (third millennium s.c.) preferred to drink water with his cupped hands. Once someone gave him a gourd dipper. He took one drink with it and left it hanging on a branch, knocking in the wind.

I’ve always sought the silence found in the mountains, and in my old age I find that more and more I leave behind what weighs me down in search of a simpler life style, though perhaps that’s just because I lack the strength to drag them with me up the mountain anymore.

What I often find most attractive in Cold Mountain’s poems, though, is not the Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, but the very human frailties he reveals in his poems:


Once I reached Cold Mountain
I stayed for thirty years
recently visiting family and friends
most had left for the Yellow Springs
slowly fading like a dying candle
or surging past like a flowing stream
today facing my solitary shadow
suddenly both eyes filled with tears

Red Pine’s notes on the poem: The Huang-ch’uan (Yellow Springs) are the destination of the dead. The association of a stream with impermanence recalls the scene of Confucius standing beside a river and sighing, “We pass on like this, not stopping day or night!” (Lunyu: 9.16)

No matter what our philosophy, it’s impossible to escape the sense of loss that accompanies our life. Even those who’ve devoted thirty years to meditation cannot escape the sense of loss when old loved ones leave them.

Still, there’s something inspiring, almost mythic, in this image of an aged hermit standing alone in the mountains searching for his soul:


Someone lives in a mountain gorge
cloud robe and sunset tassels
holding sweet plants he would share
but the road is long and hard
burdened by regrets and doubts
old and unaccomplished
called by others crippled
he stands alone steadfast

Red Pine’s notes on the poem: The phraseology and rhythm of this poem recall that of Chu Yuan (340-278 B.C.), the banished poet-official of the ancient state of Ch’u. The Chuantang edition takes this connection farther by adding that poet’s characteristic breath particle hsi to lines five and six, and also uses it to replace tao (sit) in line one. The tassels were attached to the chin strap which in turn held an official’s hat in place. In his poetry, Ch’u Yuan used the fragrances of plants to represent human virtues and vices. A sound body was a prerequisite for government service. Cold Mountain was, I believe, physically unfit for office, perhaps as a result of a riding injury.

It seems we’re all “crippled” in some way, doesn’t it? The difference is that some recognize it and still stand “steadfast,” while others are unwilling to admit it and at best spend their lives trying to avoid confronting their weaknesses or, at worst, indulge those weaknesses.

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