Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih-Te, and Wang Fan-chih

Jeffery Beam

I'm continuing to sort through stacks of books received for review while Oyster Boy slept, and although I don't have room to mention all of them, or to review any of them in great depth, here are a few more I thought you should know about.

. . .
  Cold Mountain Poems: Zen Poems of Han Shan, Shih-Te, and Wang Fan-chih.
J. P. Seaton, editor.
J. P. Seaton, translator.
Shambhala Publications, 2009.
126 pages, $16.95 (hardcover).
ISBN: 1590306465

Seaton's Cold Mountain Poems is his best book yet, from an illustrious career. (Full disclosure—Seaton and I are long-time friends and colleagues.) Here he translates a generous selection of the 307 poems in the Han Shan collection, 20 of 42 extant Shih Te poems, and 27 of the many poems from the three Wang Fan-chih scrolls.

Han Shan and Shih Te, made famous by poet Gary Snyder, have nevertheless not been translated much, and only ten poems by Fan-chih had been translated before. All three of these poets are from the T'ang era—a time (618-907) famous for its poets (Tu Fu being perhaps the most well-known in the West). The first two poets are inseparable in Chinese Zen literature with Shih Te serving as sort of a side-kick to Han Shan. They represent the earlier periods of the T'ang when the culture was rich and expansive. Their work, despite being the work of ragged witty sages who have chosen the way of poverty, reflects the comforts of the outside world. Considered bodhisattvas, Han Shan and Shih Te preach against the ways of greed and riches. Living up to their role as sages, their poems became tools for Chinese Zen (Ch'an) which was strongly influenced by Mahayana missionary goals. But Ch'an sitting mediation also appears over and over again in the poems. Fan-chih wrote near the end of the T'ang as the culture collapsed, and so his poems are full of people's suffering.

Seaton's introduction which explains the histories (and what curious biographies they are) of all three poets and their work (who are really, like Homer, more than one poet, and at least in the latter two, perhaps not actual poets at all) vibrantly engages the reader not only with the facts but with subtle comparisons between our time and theirs. I think this is Seaton's best book because he lets his own experience shine through, with sparkling little asides about his own seeking, and the way these poets, and other poet-sages have affected his life. The notes to the poems flash with brilliant insights and entertaining and informative particulars, too. I really can't say enough about this volume. It should have received much more attention than it has, for Seaton's personal additions work as commentaries every bit as wise as the poets' words, and the poems are simply beautiful—graceful, effortless directives for living.

To close I'll just give you a taste of each poet.

Fields, a house, many mulberry trees, fine gardens!
Oxen and calves fill his stables and his well-trodden roads.
He knows for sure from all this that all effects have causes,
and that only fools buy early and sell late.
So his eyes can see too how it could all get gone,
ground down, melted, all away . . .
These things can knock on the heads of everyone living,
like the Abbot's knock on the noggin of the errant novice.
You can end up in papercover pants, or worse, with
a broken tile, pierced and hung on a thong
flip-flapping over your private parts . . .
and sure as sure, you'll end up dead,
maybe starved or frozen, but certainly dead.

("XXIV", Han Shan)

A long way off, I see men in the dirt,
enjoying whatever it is that they find in the dirt . . .
When I look at them there in the dirt,
my heart wells full of sadness.
Why sympathize with men like these?
I can remember the taste of that dirt.

("VIII", Shih Te)

There's wind and dust come right on in
this little grass hut.
There's a raggedy rug on the bed.
If somebody comes, I'll invite him on in.
I can scrape up some dirt for us to sit on.

("I", Wang Fan-chih)

. . .