Sorry for the long hiatus since the previous issue of
this newsletter. For many months I’ve been preoccupied
trying to finish my new book, called The Life and Times of
Richard Musto, which tells the true-life story of an
88-year old man who lives on the streets of New York. Although this
story does not directly involve Chinese literature, in many ways it has
been inspired and influenced by my interest in classical Tang poetry.
For those of you who are interested, please click on the link below,
where you can learn more about my new book and, if you feel so
inclined, order a copy in advance of publication this coming spring.
In the meantime, I’m pleased to resume publication of the Tang Spirit newsletter. This issue begins with my translation of two poems by Han Shan, also known as the Cold Mountain poet. Along with these translations, I’ll provide some literary and historical context that I hope will enhance your appreciation of the poems. And following that, I will return to the theme of my current work, and try to explain the connection, at least as I see it, between Han Shan and Richard Musto – a not so straight line drawn from Cold Mountain to the streets of Manhattan.
The poets and poems I am most drawn to are those
with mystery and uncertainty. Sometimes the more these subjects come
scrutiny the more unknowable they seem. That certainly is the case with
Han Shan, the Cold Mountain poet. He is, perhaps first and foremost, a
figure of legend, revered in the traditions of Chan and Zen Buddhism;
his image decorates temples and shrines throughout Asia. And a key part
of Han Shan’s legend is a sense of deep mystery surrounding him. He
lived in a cave in a remote part of Chekiang province. He wandered
among the cloud-covered mountains and wrote his poems on rocks and tree
bark he encountered along the way. He is the very epitome of the poet
as recluse and spiritual seeker – someone who made a conscious choice
to turn away from the comforts and routines of the mundane world.
Han Shan’s poems may not be the most sophisticated or finely crafted
in the Tang canon, but nonetheless I find them incredibly evocative and
beautiful. In relatively simple language, he describes his life in
seclusion, living in a place of bewilderment and clarity, at one and
the same time. Here is a picture of the cave, perhaps better described
as an overhang, where it is believed Han Shan lived and wrote his
One of the most compelling features in these poems is the strong unity between the inner and outer landscapes in which the poet dwells. He speaks of them interchangeably. That is part of his discovery on Cold Mountain.
As I mentioned above, part of the allure of Cold Mountain for me is the mystery and opacity of his life and poetry. The mystery deepens the more I’ve read and learned about him. To some extent this is true about all the great Tang poets because the remoteness in time and the sketchy nature of the historical record leaves many blanks to be filled in by the imagination. But it seems particularly the case with Han Shan because, as a poet revered in the Chan and Zen traditions, many stories have developed about him that are quite lovely and fanciful but highly questionable in veracity. The very idea that he wrote his poems on rocks and bark is a nice touch indeed, but likely pure apocrypha.
Not only is there a raging debate about whether Han Shan lived and wrote in the 7th or 8th century but some have questioned whether there was a single poet Han Shan or perhaps a series of hermit poets who lived in or around Cold Mountain and contributed to the oeuvre as we know it today. And the poems themselves only add fuel to fire; laden with both Buddhist and Taoist imagery, there is uncertainty about just what sort of monk Han Shan was, or whether he was a monk at all, as the translator Red Pine has gone so far as to suggest, perhaps he was merely a disappointed courtier who was forced into seclusion after the outbreak of the An Lu-Shan rebellion.
It is enough to make the head spin. But it brings me back to Han Shan himself (whoever he may have been) sitting in seclusion under the overhang of the massive rock. Sitting in seclusion is bewildering by its very nature; it’s a place where each of us goes from time to time, to contemplate our origin; a place where every form ends up asking its shadow from whence it has come.
And so I return to where I started out this issue of the newsletter, hoping to explain something about the connection that I see between Han Shan and Richard Musto. Of course, in many ways, the two men couldn’t be more different – one of them lived as a recluse on a mountaintop and the other makes his home on the busy sidewalks of Manhattan. And Han Shan, whether he was a Taoist or Buddhist, was a deeply religious man, living in seclusion, as seeker of the true Way; whereas Richard Musto is a peddler and panhandler on the street-corner, whose day-to-day survival depends on nothing so much as his complete immersion in the flux and chaos of city life, without apparent devotion or dedication to any larger purpose in life.
But recently, as I’ve been reading and translating Han Shan’s poems, I've been thinking more about the spiritual dimensions of Richard Musto’s life. And I've come to understand that the old man has his own form of spiritual practice that consists precisely of this -- keeping things footloose and fancy free to the ultimate degree. It’s the very mantra he lives by. In fact, when I met him the other day in Midtown, these were the very words he had taped onto his boots. I kid you not. I took a picture to show you since some of you may be skeptical and think this is another bit of fanciful invention, just like the tales that have been told about Han Shan writing on tree bark. From Cold Mountain to Manhattan may not be so far indeed, for those who are seekers and free from conventional constraints.
here to visit
Kickstarter and learn more about my new book about Richard Musto.
With a contribution of $20 made through Kickstarter, you'll help us
publish the first edition and receive a copy of the
e-book later this
You can also learn more about the book by visiting our website
located here: www.lifeofmusto.com
The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.