Celebrated poet and Chinese translator David Hinton talks with us about Chan

Birds have vanished into deep skies.
A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.
Inexhaustible this mountain and I
gaze at each other, it alone remaining.

~ Li Po, Reverence Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone, China Root, p. 75

David Hinton writes:

“Through translation I’ve come to realize that I stumbled upon a way to think outside the limitations not just of the mainstream Western intellectual tradition, but also of my own identity; a way to speak in the voice of ancient China’s sage-masters and for them to speak in mine.”

The ancient Chinese graphical language, unlike modern phonetic languages, Hinton believes, allowed the Chinese to retain what today would be considered a remarkably modern world view. It is both empirical, but also deeply religious. It is “profoundly gynocentric”, with a cosmology oriented around “earth’s mysterious generative force,” a “female dark enigma.” Finally, it envisions a “deep ecology, wherein human consciousness is woven into the natural world at a most fundamental level.

”The metaphysical divide between consciousness and landscape was largely absent for China’s ancient artists and intellectuals, he believes. They were poets and calligraphers, especially sensitive to the structures of the graphs. “Indeed, they thought graphs were sages, great teachers not unlike Thatch-Hut and Hunger Mountain.” The Chinese character for “poem” is “words spoken at the fertility altar…It is poetry as sacred.”Ch’an is more deeply Taoist than Buddhist, Hinton believes. Ch’an’s earliest beginnings can be traced back to the 4th century, over a hundred years before Bodhidharma, during a re-emergence of both Taoist “dark-enigma learning” and of “mountains-and-rivers poetry”, created by Tao Ch’ien and Hsien Ling-yun. This school of Taoist thought saw meditation as a practice of sitting amidst and in celebration of mountains and rivers, all without end.

Near Hinton’s home in Vermont is Hunger Mountain. Of autumn walks up Hunger Mountain, he writes: “To walk through a landscape is to walk through a culture. The name of the mountain manifests that cosmology of generative hunger and sincerity… However many times I climb Hunger Mountain, I always have some sense that I don’t know it all: a hermit’s rest… (A storm comes in and) I’m lost, and all this emotion and thought and knowledge weaving the mountain and me together is only the beginning.” He found a shard of mirror on the mountain: “I tossed it up into sunlit air and watched as it twisted and tumbled—all heaven, then earth; earth then heaven. It was so empty that it contained everything.

To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to long for the sound of rain falling on Hunger Mountain,
To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain,
To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain,
Autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain hearing rain fall,

~ David Hinton, Hunger Mountain, p. 108