In many religious traditions, special care is given to the manner in which their sacred texts are transcribed. In Judaism, trained professional scribes ritually copy a new Torah in conformance to millennia-old tradition, focusing the mind on each of its 304,805 letters, assuring accuracy. In Islam, calligraphy is the primary means of preserving the Qur’an. Before the age of print, one of Christian monks’ main religious practices was to copy and illuminate the Bible. In Buddhism, shakyo, transcribing the sutras, and in particular the Heart Sutra, is a practice all its own, a practice that, aside from its spiritual value, once had an eminently practical one. Eihei Dogen, thirteenth-century ancestor in the Zen lineage, on his return to China from Japan, copied the entire Blue Cliff Record, preserving one of the main koan collections extant.
In the age of electronic print, however, the sacred text, as a paper-and-ink book, is in jeopardy. The heft to the hand, the leafing through the pages, fingers feeling the texture and weight of paper, the very smell of it, is sacrificed. The full sensory experience, and along with it soul, emotion and personality, are lost in the instantaneous and impersonal transmission of words on a screen. For all the practical advantages of digitization—an ironic term, given there are no fingers involved other than the ones manipulating keyboards—there’s a loss that a Kindle can never replace. And yet, this article—not scripture but concerning scripture—would not be in your flesh-and-blood hands without electronic technology. Fully knowing there’s no going back, the Luddite in me can’t help wishing that these words you are now reading were handwritten and passed by hand, reader to reader, or at least typeset and printed in a limited edition.
I have such an edition in hand, or rather, in both hands: this issue’s Dharma Jewel: Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems, not scripture exactly, but a poetic expression of the Dharma. My copy is wider than it is tall, and when I open it up it rests in my hands like a sutra book. Across the face of the textured green paper cover, in bold Italic calligraphy, crisp and black as the day I first saw it penned, I read:
Cold Mountain Poems
Translated by Gary Snyder
Opening to the title page I find:
Printed and published by Press-22
in Portland, Oregon, by permission
of the Four Seasons Foundation,
San Francisco, California
Copyright 1956, 1965 by Gary Snyder.
First Press-22 edition,
1000 numbered copies, May 1972.
Design and writing by
In the fifties and sixties, Gary Snyder was one of a cadre of translators of Japanese Zen and Chinese Ch’an poetry. This group included Burton Watson, also a translator of Han-Shan and other poet monks of the T’ang period, as well as Cid Corman, translator and publisher of Narrow Roads to Far Towns, Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue of seventeenth-century Japan. In the cultural ferment of East meeting West, Snyder translated the Cold Mountain Poems and in doing so brought Han-Shan to the attention of a number of Beat poets, notably Philip Whalen, who later became a poet monk himself and an ordained priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Jack Kerouac dedicated his Dharma Bums to Han-Shan, popularizing the image of a shaggy-haired, loony-grinned character leaning on his broom, an icon of Beat Zen, a kind of patron saint to “Zen lunatics going around writing poems.” And it is true, Han-Shan was a loose cannon in ninth-century T’ang dynasty China, a hermit who composed some 300 poems, found by monks at nearby Kuoling monastery, brushed on trees and rocks and cliffs, the author nowhere to be found. It was from this body of unusual work that Snyder selected the twenty-four poems appearing in his translation.
By the 1970 publication of McPherson’s first calligraphed edition of Snyder’s translation, Snyder’s work in general—and in particular his 1956 Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems—had already sent many of us in the direction of the Buddha Way. Reading the poems decades later, I am taken back to an era when Dharma and poetry, calligraphy and the mountains were inseparable. One poem in particular evokes the time:
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain.
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
The lines bring back the memory of a spring morning over forty years ago. That morning, with all Portland waking up from a long Northwest winter, I was on my way for a day’s hiking in nearby Columbia Gorge. I paused just long enough to poke my head into the study of my housemate, Michael McPherson. Michael was standing at his drawing board, a large white paper tacked to it, absorbed in his work. I knew he was engaged in a project involving Gary Snyder’s Cold Mountain Poems. I was intrigued with the undertaking but not as intrigued as with the day outside. I attempted to lure him away: “Michael, put down your pen and let’s get out.” “Sorry,” he said, not looking up. “I’m busy.” I didn’t have time to persuade him. The day would disappear too quickly.
Late that afternoon, high from wandering among waterfalls and wild rhododendrons, I looked in on Michael to find him still at his work. “What! You’ve spent the whole day inside?” “I haven’t been inside,” he retorted. “I’ve been in the mountains with Han-Shan.” I looked past him to the drawing board, the late afternoon sun slanting across letterforms dancing on paper. I could see what Michael meant. He hadn’t needed to go out; he’d been in Han-Shan’s terrain all the day, clambering up the gorge with his pen, as surely as I’d been clambering up the Columbia.
Ever since then, Michael’s response has been a trail marker for me in the territory where words in their most material manifestation—letterforms on paper—are fused with words at their most metaphoric and abstract. It’s a delicate navigation: if one pays too narrow a view to the letters, their significance can disappear into pure, elegant shapes; if one pays too wide an attention to their significance, one risks overlooking the matter in which understanding is embodied. Calligraphy integrates one with the other, the moving hand leaving behind traces of the writer in the very strokes of the brush, in the turns of the pen.
Philip Whalen, praising the Chinese poet ancestors in his (itself handwritten) “Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis,” witnesses their legacy passed on in brush and ink:
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture—bug, leaf,
caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
The strength of the ancestors in that moment transmitted beyond the moment. Perishable and imperishable at the same time, material and immaterial, the ancestors’ poems, like Han-Shan’s left on rocks and trees, pass hand to hand, to Whalen, Snyder, McPherson—and finally to me, the reader and the writer of these words.
Brushed onto the paper of the page, McPherson’s strokes add to the strength of the ancients, even when printed and reprinted in the edition I have in my hands. That sunny May morning, while calligraphing in his room, Michael walked with Han-Shan. Years later, I glimpse more of what my housemate was getting at. Although Cold Mountain is in geological fact a place of material mountains and rivers two days on foot east of the Yellow Sea, it also takes place in a virtual landscape, a landscape representing the Way in all its challenges to mind, body and spirit. Reading the Cold Mountain Poems now, I climb my own mountain, Han-Shan indicating the path going on and on, ahead and behind.
A landscape unscrolls to my imagination, and in its expanse I make out movements here and there. I spot a tiny figure, all but camouflaged, working its way up a fold among steep slopes, threads of water winding among the trees, a few hairline bridges appearing above and below. In a level clearing, black-robed forms are seated cross-legged before an elevated figure, a book before him on a lectern. Further up, through the open window of a hut, I see a scrivener bent over a table, copying a manuscript, but whether it’s the Torah, the Blue Cliff Record, the Bible, or the Qur’an, I can’t quite make out. The trail goes on and on, the mountains mound up on each other to a cliff. At the peak I see a miniscule form, possibly a rock-clinging pine, but more likely, by its movement, a human being. I sharpen my mind’s eye, and there he is, etched against the sky: shag-headed Han-Shan, sweeping dust into the wind, his latest poem.
A fiftieth-anniversary edition of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder was published in 2009 by Counterpoint.
Patrick McMahon came to Zen practice in 1968 through his study of Italic calligraphy.