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#3087 - Monday, February 25, 2008 - Editor: Gloria Lee  

Nonduality Highlights -        

Dancing With Words:
Red Pine's Path into the Heart of Buddhism

By Roy Hamric

All great texts contain their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings.”
—Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator.

When I first saw Red Pine’s translation of “The Poems of Cold Mountain,” I remember thinking, “This is something important — who’s this Red Pine?”

That was 1983. Two years later came the book that really shook up the Buddhist literary community, Red Pine’s stunning, self-published translation of The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, a tough-spirited book of enlightened free verse — 300 poems chronicling the pains and pleasures of Zen hermit life. The Stonehouse (Shih-wu) and Cold Mountain (Han-shan) translations put a spotlight on Zen autobiographical poetry unlike any books before.

Red Pine’s elegant hand-sewn, self-published translation of “The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma,” in a Chinese red cover, followed in 1987.

Over the years, I avidly bought each new Red Pine translation: Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom (Sung Po-jen); Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching; and his own Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, which put contemporary flesh on early Zen hermit life.

My curiosity about the man who calls himself Red Pine grew with each new book. But facts about his life were clouded in dust jacket blurbs: he lived in the mountains overlooking Taipei in a small farm community called Bamboo Lake; he was connected somehow with Empty Bowl press in Port Townsend, Washington.
Eventually his American name, Bill Porter, appeared on one of his books. Red Pine: Bill Porter. But, no more — none of the American Buddhist magazines, which proliferated during the ‘80s and ‘90s, were of any help.

From the first, his translations seemed inspired. I held his books differently. There was a feeling of verisimilitude, rare in translation. His choices and love for the writers he translated filled a hole in my view of Chinese Zen writers. I felt connected to his poets as real people.

My admiration grew for the role of the translator who passes on obscure, subtle Zen texts and poetry. The translator is the invisible presence in the equation between writer and foreign reader. In translating (trans-relating) a text from one language to another, they serve as a supreme amanuensis who bridges language and brings writers and foreign readers together. Red Pine’s out-of-the-main-stream work is canny and clearheaded, and it has immeasurably enhanced Zen/Taoist literature and practice.

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Thanks to Mark Scorelle of Wisdom-l for this article.


Shan-shih: the Hermit House of Stonehouse

The "Mountain Poems" (Shan-shih) of Ch'ing-hung (1271-1352), or, Stonehouse, share many similarities with the poems of other Chinese and Japanese Zen-monk hermits. But the voice of Stonehouse is exceptional in revealing many details of a hermit's daily life and his hut.

Stonehouse was not a wanderer, artist, or formal poet, nor a reclused official or fugitive. He was a monk, educated and well-studied in Buddhism under several masters. For a while he served as a meditation master and for many years as a monastery abbot, acquiring an excellent reputation. But nothing suited him like the freedom of the mountains -- in this case the Hsiamushan (or Zhongnan) in eastern China -- and it was here, towards the end of his life, that he composed one-hundred and eighty-four verses he called "Mountain Poems."

Ch'ing-hung wrote the "Mountain Poems" in a burst of inspiration, fired with memory and insight, a sudden productive feat. In the preface, he notes:

Some monks have asked me to recall what I find of interest on this mountain. I have sat here quietly and let my brush fly. Suddenly this volume is full.

The poems are a mix of mundane and lofty, though Stonehouse never intends his pithy advice as lofty. Yet the mundane becomes lofty beneath his experienced gaze. The more outstanding reading, however, may be of the details of his life and hut. Daily life and survival from building to planting to food, clothing, nature and the seasons, are all well represented.


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