The Story of Han-shan and Shih-te

The first and by far the most famous Ch'an (Zen) eccentrics are Han-shan ("Cold Mountain"; Japanese: Kanzan) and Shih-te ("Foundling"; Japanese: Jittoku). The origins of the legends of Han-shan and his inseparable companion Shih-te can be traced to a collection of about three hundred T'ang poems, known as the Collected Poems of Han-shan. According to the preface, Han-shan was a recluse and poet who lived on Mount T'ien-t'ai (Chekiang, a place renowned for its hermits, both Taoist and Buddhist). He was a friend of the monks Feng-kan and Shih-te of the Kuo-ch'ing-ssu, a monastery near his hermitage. Shih-te, who had been found as a child by Feng-kan (Japanese: Bukan), and who had been brought up in the monastery, worked in the dining hall and kitchen. He supplied his hermit friends with leftovers. Sometimes, the legend says, Han-shan would stroll for hours in the corridors of the monastery, occasionally letting out a cheerful cry, or laughing or talking to himself. When taken to task or driven away by the monks, he would stand still afterwards, laugh, clap his hands, and then disappear. Judging from his poems, which abound with references to the Tao-te-ching and Chuang-tzu, the Taoist classics, Han-shan was actually more of a Taoist recluse than a Ch'an monk.

-from Zen Painting and Calligraphy by J. Fontein and M.L. Hickman

Kanzan lived in a cave behind Kuo Ch'ing monastery on Mount Tientai, the locus of the Tendai worship in China. The kitchen worker Jittoku would bring him food from the monastery, and the two men would amuse themselves in the evening with poetry and moon viewing. One among many examples of Kanzan's poetry is the following:

I divined and chose a distant place to dwell-
T'ien-t'ai: what more is there to say?
Monkeys cry where valley mists are cold;
My grass gate blends with the color of the crags.
I pick leaves to thatch a hut among the pines,
Scoop out a pond and lead a runnel from the spring.
By now I am used to doing without the world.
Picking ferns, I pass the years that are left.
Burton Watson, trans., Cold Mountain

- from History of Japanese Art by P. Mason

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