A Buddhist in the world
The admission of loneliness and near-despair in many of his verses has always been a troublesome point for Zen commentators. But perhaps it is this non-Chan quality, this mortal touch, that elevates Hanshan to the rank of a great lyrical poet. He actually manages to be both a plausible Buddhist and a vulnerable human being.
Few other poets in Chinese letters managed to combine genuine Buddhism with such memorable verse: As Burton Watson observed:
In the works of most first-rate Chinese poets, Buddhism figures very slightly, usually as little more than a vague mood of resignation or a picturesque embellishment in the landscape — the mountain temple falling into melancholy ruin, the old monk one visits on an outing in the hills. Hanshan, however, is a striking exception to this rule. The collection of poetry attributed to him ... is permeated with deep and compelling religious feeling. For this reason he holds a place of special importance in Chinese literature. He proved that it was possible to write great poetry on Buddhist, as well as Confucian and Taoist, themes; that the cold abstractions of Mahayana philosophy could be transformed into personal and impassioned literature. . . . The language of his poems is simple, often colloquial or even slangy . . . [but] many of his images and terms are drawn from the Buddhist sutras or the sayings of the Southern School of Zen, whose doctrine of the Buddha as present in the minds of all men — of Buddha as the mind itself — he so often refers to. At the same time he is solidly within the Chinese poetic tradition, his language again and again echoing the works of earlier poets . . .
With Hanshan we return repeatedly to the world of Cold Mountain, which was—as another of his translators, Arthur Waley, has pointed out—as much a state of mind as a locality. It was this, together with his advice to look within, that finally gives Hanshan his haunting voice of Chan. He seems not to have cared for the supercilious "masters" who dominated the competitive world of the monasteries. He invited them to join him in the rigorous but rewarding world of "Cold Mountain," where the mind was Buddha and the heart was home.
When men see Hanshan
They all say he's crazy
And not much to look at--
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don't get what I say
& I don't talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
"Try and make it to Cold Mountain."