Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan

The Complete Cold Mountain

The Universality of Hanshan’s Writing

Though the poems in this collection were written more than twelve hundred years ago, poetry that expresses our common human experience with the unflinching wisdom and truth found in Hanshan’s writing has a way of collapsing time and distance, and even cultural differences, because it speaks from the deeply understood heart of life itself.

Original Poems (Circa Late Sixth to Early Seventh Century)


A country person lives in a thatched-roof hut.
In front of his gate, a horse or cart is rarely seen.
Birds gather in the dark forest,
the broad streams teem with fish.
He takes his child to collect nuts and berries,
and together, he and his wife plow the hilly field.
Inside their hut, what do they possess?
Only books on a single shelf.

茅棟野人居 門前車馬疏 林幽偏聚鳥 溪闊本藏魚
山果攜兒摘 皋田共婦鋤 家中何所有 唯有一床書


People are a country’s foundation,
just like a tree depends on the ground.
If the soil is deep, it supports the spreading branches.
If the soil is poor, the tree will decline.
Do not expose its roots,
or the branches will wither and the fruit will fall.
To get fish by destroying a dam
benefits you just one time.

國以人為本 猶如樹因地 地厚樹扶疏 地薄樹憔悴
不得露其根 枝枯子先墜 決陂以取魚 是取一期利


Rich people meet at a tall building
decorated with shining lamps.
When a woman without even a candle
wants to draw near,
they quickly push her away,
back into the shadows.
How does adding someone diminish the light?
I wonder, can’t they spare it?

富兒會高堂 華燈何煒煌 此時無燭者 心願處其傍
不意遭排遣 還歸暗處藏 益人明詎損 頓訝惜餘光

Early Additions (Circa Seventh to Eighth Century)


You who read my poems,
protect the purity of your heart—
be more modest with your grasping and greed.
Then, what is crooked will straighten out,
driving away unwholesome deeds.
Just take refuge in your true nature
and you’ll attain a buddha body today
like a fast-running demon!

凡讀我詩者 心中須護淨 慳貪繼日廉 諂曲登時正
驅遣除惡業 歸依受眞性 今日得佛身 急急如律令

* a fast-running demon: The demon serving the god of lightning and thunder. His name means “Law” or “Order.”


This tree was growing before the forest was born.
If you guess its age, it’s twice as old.
Its roots met the changes of hills and ravines,
its leaves were altered by wind and frost.
Everyone laughs at its outer decay,
failing to appreciate the colorful patterns within.
Its bark may have peeled away,
but there is only truth inside.

有樹先林生 計年逾一倍 根遭陵谷變 葉被風霜改 
咸笑外凋零 不憐內文彩 皮膚脫落盡 唯有貞實在

peeled away . . . truth inside: These phrases seem to be related to Zen.


If you want an analogy for birth and death,
compare them with ice and water.
Water freezes and turns into ice,
ice melts and returns to water.
Death never fails to become birth,
being born, you return to death as well.
Ice and water don’t cause each other harm.
Together, birth and death are beautiful.

欲識生死譬 且將冰水比 水結即成冰 冰消返成水
已死必應生 出生還復死 冰水不相傷 生死還雙美

* birth and death: A common Buddhist phrase.

Late Additions (Circa Late Eighth to Ninth Century)


An emerald stream—pure spring water,
Cold Mountain’s moonlight is luminous.
In silence I realize my spirit is clear.
Seeing the empty sky, things grow even more still.

碧澗泉水清 寒山月華白 默知神自明 觀空境逾寂


Since I first came to live on Cold Mountain,
so many years have passed.
Trusting fate, I escaped to forests and natural springs
where I live at ease and see things freely.
No one comes to visit Cold Cliff,
the white cloud is so often obscured.
With a bed made of thin grass
and the blue sky for my cover,
I rest my head happily on a stone pillow
and follow the changes of heaven and earth.

粵自居寒山 曾經幾萬載 任運遁林泉 棲遲觀自在
寒巖人不到 白雲常靉靆 細草作臥褥 青天為被蓋
快活枕石頭 天地任變改

Cold Cliff: Hanyuan, the name of Hanshan’s abode.


The place I used to walk,
I see again after seventy years.
Those I used to know do not come and go,
but remain buried in their tombs.
Now, with my hair turned white,
I still keep watch over clouds and mountains.
Let me say to those in the future:
Why not study the words of the ancients?

昔日經行處 今復七十年 故人無來往 埋在古塚間 
餘今頭已白 猶守片雲山 為報後來子 何不讀古言

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Peter Levitt is a poet, translator, and the guiding teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle in British Columbia.