Pen Portrait: Hanshan the Poet
Welcome to our Pen Portrait series, where we look into the lives and works of some of the world's most influential thinkers. Today, we are focusing on Hanshan the Poet, a Buddhist ascetic who composed a staggering 600 poems in - as his name reflects - the 'Cold Mountain' of China.
Hanshan is one of Ch’an Buddhism’s most revered figures. Despite not being a monk (though often confused with another of the same name, born some centuries later), Hanshan and his constant companion Shide represent a cornerstone of the Chinese mystery tradition in Buddhism.
The pair were jovial ascetics, renowned for shunning society and composing a prolific number of poems. Neither he, nor Shide were Buddhists proper, and it’s difficult to pin down exactly what they believed and how they associated. In the finest classical custom of mystics, it seems they drew from every corner for inspiration and rendered their own vision of the inner world.
Regardless of his own views, Hanshan is remembered today primarily through Buddhist sources. It’s unknown when he was born or died, appearing as a great name in the 9th Century. Ch’an tradition holds that he and Shide were emanations of the Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra, which leant them their wise eccentricities and mercurial behaviour. His poems cover a wide variety of styles and imagery, but are often concerned with nature, the ephemeral passing of time, and finding inspiration in common or simple things.
I spur my horse past ruins;
ruins move a traveler's heart.
The old parapets high and low
the ancient graves great and small,
the shuddering shadow of a tumbleweed,
the steady sound of giant trees.
But what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals.
Through antiquity, Hanshan’s work was treasured by Chinese and Japanese writers and artists alike, both Buddhist and secular. His reflections on the transitory world, and his bohemian nature divide him from most of his monastic or courtly peers, and frame him as a kind of ancient hippie. Unsurprisingly, in modern times, he inspired beat poets like Gary Snyder(1) – one of the first translators of the old master’s work – as well as Jack Kerouac, to whom he dedicated his book, The Dharma Bums.