Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "Residing under Mossy Rocks"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | October 17, 2005


Residing under Mossy Rocks
By Han Shan

Residing under mossy rocks,
I do not hoe weeds in my yard.
Newly grown rattan climbs down.
Giant tall rocks look ancient.
Monkeys pick up fruits on the mountain.
Egrets fetch fish out of ponds.
With one or two scrolls of Divine books,
I read them out under the trees.

"Residing under Mossy Rocks" in Chinese



About Han Shan

Han Shan, also known as Han Shan Zi, was a famous monk and poet in the early Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.). He lived on the freezing ridges of Mount Tiantai for a long time. The language of his poems might be simple and common, but his style was ethereal and solitary. The realm of his poems reflects his lofty character. Over 300 of Han Shan's poems are preserved and compiled into The Collection of Poems by Han Shan Zi.

The Author's Interpretation

The eight lines of this poem describe scenes on a mountain. One can describe the poem as eight paintings of still and moving objects or a collection of finely designed and tailored montages. With each shot, an ethereal, harmonious, serene and natural world is presented and the image of a divine hermit away from the secular world is portrayed.

The hermit lives under mossy rocks and away from the secular world and everyday people. Since he has no visitors, why not let weeds grow in the front yard? The new rattan shoots climb down the branches and then along the rocks as though they were painting the message of life on the canvas of natural landscape. The ancient giant rocks of thousands of years tower towards the sky. They manage to preserve their majesty amidst attacks from winds and storms over many years. Monkeys play in large groups and make a lot of noises. They fight for fruits on the fruit trees on the mountain. They do not fear or guard themselves from humans. A snow white and slender egret fetches a fish from a pond and flies back to its nest. A poet has one or two scrolls of Divine books and reads them out under a tree.

The poet and nature are in one. What a wonderful realm! In another of his poems, Han Shan wrote, "Tigers and deer are my neighbors." It means that tigers and deer often visit him at his lodge on the mountain. There are many records of lofty monks in Chinese history who were able to live peacefully with wild beasts and, in some cases, wild beasts would even perform services for them. That is but a natural outcome when a person restores his mind to its natural state and when he connects with the world's creatures through his kindness.

But when the poet wrote the poem, by no means was his purpose to merely present the beautiful landscape like what one sees in a postcard. In many of his poems, Han Shan uses images as analogy to illustrate the Buddha Law. Through descriptions of social phenomena or natural landscapes, Han Shan tries to enlighten the world's people on the Buddha Law. Han Shan once said, "Having poems of Han Shan at home is better than reading many scrolls of Buddha scriptures." It follows that the focal point of this poem is about the "Divine Book." By describing the landscape as beautiful , Han Shan leads readers to yearn for beautiful things and then for cultivation of godhood. Readers might suddenly realize that to pursue the cultivation of godhood is the most beautiful thing.

There is one interesting thing that is worth mentioning. Han Shan is a Buddhist monk and is alleged to be the reincarnation of Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom. However, he uses the word "divine" which is closer to the doctrine of Taoism. It is a hint that Taoist cultivation is also a righteous cultivation school. His choice of words is very meaningful.

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