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In Search of a Chinese Hermit

Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him: A Journey up Cold Mountain Path The Cold Mountain Road is strange no tracks of cart or horse hard to recall which merging stream or tell which piled-up ridge a myriad plants weep with dew the pines all sigh the same here where the trail disappears form asks [...]

Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him: A Journey up Cold Mountain Path

The Cold Mountain Road is strange
no tracks of cart or horse

hard to recall which merging stream
or tell which piled-up ridge
a myriad plants weep with dew
the pines all sigh the same
here where the trail disappears
form asks shadow where to
-Han Shan1

TIENTAI MOUNTAINS, China- We hopped a bus and left Hangzhou at the apex of spring, the day was surprisingly warm and our spirits were high. We were goin’ a hermit hunting. To the Teintai Mountains of China! “Teintai says it all!.”2 But we were, knowingly, a little late; as the hermit of our search- Han Shan or Cold Mountain- had been dead for the past thousand years. But this, of course, mattered very little to us. The spirit of his poems and, subsequently, the mountain life that he expounded was more the object of our search. To find Cold Mountain was just our mulligan; our real goal was to read, sing, and feel his poems in the immediate environment that they were written.

The only clues as to Cold Mountain’s life are found in his poems and a few stray myth-like Buddhist parables. The initial collaborator of many of Han Shan’s stories and poems was the prefect Lu-ch’iu, who supposedly heard of Han Shan and took off into the hills to find him. When he arrived at the hermitage the only thing that he witnessed was Cold Mountain screaming lunacies and disappearing into a crag in a rock- never to be heard from again. The prefect then gave the ordered to compile and preserve all the Han Shan poems and stories that could be found.3 Obviously, this too, is legend. But the fact remains, and the only thing that really concerns me, is that Han Shan’s poems were recorded and preserved by somebody. I don’t think it really matters who this was.

Han Shan

The time in which Cold Mountain lived continues to be highly contested by scholars. Some say that he lived during the early seventh century and others say late ninth. A sly facet of this argument is that this was the period in which Buddhism began gaining popularity over Taoism in eastern China. If we apply the earlier date to Cold Mountain’s poems then Taoism could claim him, if the latter date, then Buddhism could do the same.4 From reading his poems one can understand that Cold Mountain was religiously amorphous and was ambivalent as to what particular brand of Dharma he was practicing. He practiced the Tao as he lived it- to place a title upon it could only serve as a yoke. Again, I do not think that it matters too much when Cold Mountain lived; to pursue this matter any further would just be for the musings of impotent academia.

Our bus soon pulled into the town of Tientai which was, appropriately, at the foot of Mount Tientai. It was here that Kuoching temple stood. It was to this temple that Cold Mountain would occasionally come looking for food and kicks (poking fun at the uptight monks and the like). It was here that he met the itinerant monk, Feng-kan (Big Stick), and the sage, Shi-te (Pickup); with whom many light hearted but heavy lessoned Buddhist parables would be played out. After a night accidentally spent at a cheap, pay-by-the-hour, sex hotel, Lisa and I set out on foot for the temple and the mountains of Tientai.

Legend has it that Han Shan lived at the beginning of Tang Dynasty China; which was a, relatively, benign period in Chinese history- “weapons were laid to rust, crops grew to fruition and the circumstances allowed for the people to attend to themselves- poets sang, musicians composed and painters painted.”5 During this time, the lofty goal of scholars was to obtain governmental posts through passing standardized examinations. There is much evidence that Han Shan attempted to go this route but something prevented him from becoming accomplished. Judging from the content of his poems, this incident seems to have left an indelibly bitter taste in his mouth throughout the rest of his life.6 As Han Shan wrote of the dead-end inherent to the unsuccessful pursuit of official life:

My writing and judgment are not that bad
but an unfit body receives no post
examiners expose me with a jerk
they wash away the dirt and search for my sores7

In this poem he tells us how to get way out of the tired rounds of the administrative life:

Calligraphy unrestrained
physique robust enough
alive a body with limits
dead a ghost with no name
it’s been like this since ancient times
what else can you do
Join me inside the clouds
I’ll teach you magic mushroom songs8

Cold Mountain opted out of this dead-end and took to the hills to live the life of freedom unrestrained: the life of the sage hermit. He retreated to a life that consisted of meditation, hill walking, solitude, and mountain songs. These Chinese mountain men rode through life, “speaking little and writing even less,”9 eating the clouds and drinking pure air. An adequate description of Cold Mountain and his disposition follows:

In his encounters, he notes, people call him crazy, ugly, unkempt, and unintelligible. Han-Shan did not care. People could not begin to understand, he reflects. He was perpetually “hard in pursuit of meeting a Buddha,” but it probably would not happen. “There is a road,” he writes, “but not to town.” Instead, he invites all (rhetorically) to follow this road up Cold Mountain and see if they might not ascend it and understand.10

Lisa and I walked in circles for around an hour (becoming the joke of a group of kids who purposefully set us off in the exact wrong direction) before we found the right road to the base of Mount Teintai. It was here that we approached, and then passed by, the yellow walls of Kuoching Temple. We wanted to get into the hills as quickly as possible. So we took a potshot path from the temple and quickly found ourselves in forested mountains. Now, we had to figure out how we would “find someone who does not want to be found”11 a thousand years after they had died. We figured it best to let intuition guide us and ask questions later. We just wanted to feel the hills, having direction just seemed to get in the way. So we walked, read Cold Mountain poems in Chinese and English, rested, and hunted for hermitages. We knew where we were going because we were not really concerned with questions of where. The only direction that we had was: 35km east of Kuoching temple.

We were looking for the cave that Han Shan once dwelt in. He called it Cold Mountain (or Cold Cliff) and from his poems we knew that it was high in the Teintai Mountains, way up in the clouds:12

My home is below green cliffs
I don’t cut weeds anymore
new vines spiral down
ancient rocks stand straight
monkeys pick the wild fruit
egrets spear the fish
one or two books by immortals
I chant beneath the trees

Han Shan lived in this cave for many years- “Since I came to Cold Mountain/ how many thousand years have passed,”13- and would scrawl his poems into the trees and rocks in the surrounding landscape. From the poems we can tell that his hermitage was meager and his only property was probably a torn patchwork robe, a cooking pot, and a few books. He lived a life of naked necessity and, conversely, derived the wealth of life from the absence of wealth. He was a pauper, he lived free and in smiles. There exist many accounts of Han Shan entering nearby temples and challenging the monks with Zen riddles and outright lunacy, laughing like a madman without, seemingly, provocation. He was friends with two other Zen lunatics who would often reside at Kuoching Temple. Of them Cold Mountain wrote:14

I usually live in seclusion
but sometimes I go to Kuoching
to call on the Venerable Feng-kan
or to visit with Master Shi-te

One was the itinerant monk, Feng-Kan (Big Stick) who would walk through the hills of China curing illness, praying, and following pilgrimage routes to the summits of Holy Mountains. One story of an interaction between Han Shan and Big Stick goes as follows:15

Big Stick said to Cold Mountain, “If you’ll go to Mount Wutai with me, you’ll

be my equal. If you won’t go with me, you won’t be my equal.” Cold Mountain replied, “I won’t go.” Big Stick said, “Then you won’t be my equal.” Cold

Mountain asked, “What are you going to do on Wutai?” Big Stick answered, “I’m going to pay my respects to Manjushri.” To which Cold Mountain replied, “Then you’re not my equal.”

The other lunatic went by the name of Shi-Te, or Pick Up, because he was found abandoned in some bushes at the age of ten by Big Stick- he was picked up, get it?- and brought back to the temple and put under the care of the groundskeeper. It was here that Pickup worked cleaning the shrine hall until one day he was caught eating an offering of fruit and then yelled “Hinayana monk!” at Kaundinya (Buddha’s first disciple). After this event the monks convinced him that he should work in the kitchen. It was here that he met Cold Mountain, “And the two became such close friends, their images are still used by Chinese in their homes to represent marital harmony.”16 The tales that these two wove have become legendary and they serve as the archetypal proponents of Zen Lunacy. The hapless tomfoolery of Cold Mountain and Pickup has lived on through the ages as a model for those pursuing the Buddha Dharma with a laugh. The following is one of their stories:

One day while Pickup was sweeping the kitchen, the abbot said to him, “People call you pickup because Big Stick picked you up and brought you here. But what’s your original name? Ad where are you from?” Pickup put down the broom and stood there with his hands folded. The abbot didn’t understand that putting down precedes picking up. Cold Mountain slapped his chest and cried, “Great Heavens!” Pickup asked him, “What are you yelling about?” Cold Mountain answered, “Haven’t you noticed that when someone to the east dies, his neighbor to the west sends his condolences?” They both danced around and left in tears of laughter.

So Lisa and I walked through the hills of Teintai without aim until we came to a sign for Gaoming Temple. With sudden shock, I remembered reading an antidote somewhere about Han Shan visiting that same temple. We then promptly turned down the road that was indicated by the sign and began walking down from the ridge to the temple. It was approaching dusk and we did not have any prospects on a place to sleep other than bedding down in the hollow of a rock outcrop or under a tree- as the hermit sages have always done. But we figured that we may as well ask for a meal and a place to stay. As we were walking down the path, the music of the brass diner bell stuck us with joy- we were right on time. So we continued down the winding trail to the temple. We passed through the gates and into an abandoned courtyard that was strewn about with various building materials. After a few minutes of deliberating about what door we should knock on we found the main entrance. We walked up to the ancient doorframe and passed through it.

We noticed two men in tattered Taoist robes and hats in a corner of the entrance hall behind a statue of a Bodhisattva making a fire. Night was approaching and the hall was dimly lit. They looked surprised when I approached them. One of them seemed disgruntled and the other was a dwarf with bucked teeth who greeted us with a very warm smile. The disgruntled one walked us back to the entrance and pointed to a small sign connected to the front of a table that had the characters for “Five Yuan” written on it. So we paid and then walked back in. The kind dwarfed monk apparently had gone and brought back a couple of older men who were also in Taoist clothing; although their robes did not seem as formal. They greeted us with hospitable reservation and invited us to join them for dinner. We gladly accepted.

We then entered the main grounds of the temple and watched the separate processions of nuns and then monks silently file past us and into their respected eating areas. Lisa and I were led away from where the monks and nuns were going and then up stairs by the two older men. We were taken into a shrine area that was lead into by the balcony walkway.

I could not have imagined this place to look much different in Han Shan’s time. The temple was constructed with massive wooden beams that were fitted together at the ends with notches rather than nail. The people inside were all in traditional, and well worn, robes. Their faces were well trodden and ancient, there expressions were far away from us. I felt as if I walked in upon a grand play that had been going on continuously for centuries without any intrusion or interference from outside. We were walking through time.

We then turned into a room that had hundreds of full size sculptures of the Mountain Arats acting out scenes from the past and from folklore. There was a path that led around through them which we were directed to walk on. We were in awe, the light was dim, the sculptures were real, and they were alive. Blue arms and bodies entangled around tigers and other great mountain animals, projecting hands stretched openly towards us in the walkway- the wild eyes looking down upon us. I felt the majik and could not even speak and could hardly walk. We both were vibrated, gasped, and lacked even thoughts by which we could reference what we were experiencing. In all my travels I have never been so overwhelmed and stupefied- a clot hung in my throat and I thought that I might cry. The path wove through the room in a cyclic fashion and at the end there were sculptures of human men in official white Chinese robes opposite the Arats, who were pointing and jesting at them in fat gestures of ignorance. On the other side the Arats carried on in their revelry, but a few peered back angrily at these jesting men in pompous posture.

We were soon led to another hall that contained very similar sculptures except that they were positioned around the walls of the room and Buddha was in the middle. The man who led us was very insistent that I go through the proper actions of respect. He showed me hand motions of reverence that I had never observed before and was extremely intent upon me doing them properly. I performed the necessary rites and then knelt and bowed three times before Buddha.

Lisa followed suit and then we left the hall and walked back down the stairs and then across the main yard towards the dining area. We were taken through and then behind the monk’s dining room and then down another flight of stairs to a basement like area where the laymen ate. We were fed boiled rice, steamed beans, and pickled root of some kind. We were feed generously and ate with vigor, as we were hungry and, honestly, did not know what else to do.

A few older women gathered around us and asked if we would like to stay the night and we, of course, said that we would. Communication was very difficult as the dialect in the Teintai range was very thick and the Beijing style Mandarin that I had been studying served very little function here. We were then led to our room which had two twin sized mattresses lying side by side on the floor with a window that looked out upon the Dharma hall and the outdoor incense burning alters.

We said goodnight to the women and just sat upon those beds thinking about all that we felt that day. Then the monks began chanting in the hall next door and it was like no chants that I have ever heard before. The harmony was multi-faceted with many different vocal and drum parts playing out synchronically. We both just sat there in contemplation taking in the music’s full stimulus. I rose and stood by the window, the moon shown brightly over the burning alters. It all made me think of Cold Mountain and the following poem:17

On ancient rocks are ancient tracks

below high cliffs there’s a clearing

always bright when the bright moon shines

no need to ask if it’s east or west

The subject matter of Cold Mountain’s poems were derived directly from the life that he lived. He wrote of the beauty of nature, meditative ecstasy, solitude, and the society he left behind. He did not balk at giving the impression that he lived in perpetual religious bliss; he wrote his true feelings, even if they were contrary to the “ideals” of enlightenment that others, who are not enlightened, may posses. He was not ashamed to admit his humanity, which to me, is a sure sign of his true understanding of the Dharma that he practiced. John Blofeld continues:18

. . . I recognize Cold Mountain as a pellucidly honest person and, at

the same time, believe that if recluses all over the world shared that

degree of honesty, there would be very few accounts of holy men totally

surmounting once and for all every kind of desire for sensual satisfaction.

If it seems at times that some of Han Shan’s poems were misogynistic, one must be aware of the fact that it is severely detrimental to view these ancient poems through a contemporary lens of binding political correctness- to grasp at a pool of water leaves the hand empty. To idealize something into the realm of categories is to miss that which is to be defined.

The next morning we woke early and went to say our goodbyes and then leave Gaoming temple. But we were invited to breakfast and, as we did not have any other food, we could not refuse. So we ate some more steamed beans and pickled roots over boiled rice and then chatted a little with the women to find out if they knew where Cold Mountain’s cave was. They did not or, more likely, could not understand my fallow attempts as speaking Chinese. So we put our packs on our backs, said farewell, and went towards the door. We met the disgruntled Taoist gatekeeper from the night before and figured it was worth a chance asking him where Cold Mountain’s hermitage was. His attitude towards us had changed greatly from the night before, though his jetty and quick demeanor remained the same, I showed him the characters for Cold Cliff and he seemed to understand. He tried to tell us something but we could not understand. He then asked some of the workmen something and they began pointing in various directions. But the gatekeeper led us around to the back of the temple and set us off on a path that curved around the mountain that we were situated upon. We said thank yous and goodbyes and were again off to find Cold Mountain.

After a few excited moments in which we though we were going to walk right into Cold Mountain’s ancient dwelling we began realizing that we were not on the right trail. We were descending down into the valley and we were sure that Cold Mountain did not live that far down. But it was a beautiful valley with a beautiful stream running through it so we kept walking. At the bottom the path leveled out into a few fallow terraces with a ruined stoned hermit’s hut sitting at the confluence of the mountain’s terminus. Weeds were growing up through the set stones and most of it had previously collapsed; it had obviously had been abandoned long ago. We walked around it digging the view of the rising mountains into the blue sky. We walked over to a stream and stripped down and bathed. Once we were again clothed we began walking up the valley crest and came upon a group of middle aged picnickers who were playing a stringed lute and singing. I asked them the way to Cold Cliff and they did not know. So I asked them what path lead out of the valley and four of them pointed in four different directions. So we picked a trail and began climbing upward.

After a few minutes we came upon the inhabited hut of a hermit. It was made of stone, well put together, and faced down into the valley. Stalks of bamboo rose up high and formed a nice canopy over the entire area. The soft duff humus that comes with bamboo forests was distributed think upon the whole ground surface. We stood looking at the hut in magical acknowledgement and then decided to walk closer. As we passed directly in front of the slab wood door I noticed a man lying inside upon a raised cot with an empty tin cup lying upon the floor. I did not want to disturb him with my atrocious attempts at Chinese so we kept on keeping on.

Lisa and I had a real relaxed walk back up to the mountain ridge that we were previously walking on the day previous. We played and climbed upon the terraces, sang little songs, and told jokes. We were on Cold Mountain path for sure. Soon we were back on the ridge road and we hitched a ride with a couple of monks who had a car. They took us to a mountain intersection and we hopped out to their surprise. “We are just going to walk,” we told them. “To where?” “Don’t know, just walking.” They probably though us a touch cracked.

As we walked onward in joyous ambivalence it became apparent that we were not going to find Cold Cliff or the place of Cold Mountain’s hermitage. We found out later that it was 35km west of Kuoching and not east. But what we did find was the essence of Cold Cliff and felt the life of the poems, and that was all that we were really looking for. So we smiled as the day came to an end, found a town made of hay, found another town made of stone, and then flagged down a bread bus and rode back down to Tientai.

Cold Mountain lived a life of religious reclusion, simplicity and in dire obeisance to the ways of nature- the way of the Tao. His poems have become the anthems of those who cannot accept the de facto restraints of their culture and pursue a life of their own making- a life of pure freedom. The spirit of Cold Mountain’s songs will forever be sung where ever the winds whistle through the pines and whenever there is a man fit more for the society of rivers and mountains than that of other men.

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About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3215 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Johor Bahru, MalaysiaMap