People ask about Cold Mountain Way;
There’s no Cold Mountain Road that goes straight through:
By summer, lingering cold is not dispersed,
By fog, the risen sun is screened from view;
So how did one like me get onto it?
In our hearts, I’m not the same as you —
If in your heart you should become like me,
Then you can reach the center of it too.
Just a few days ago I was brushing my way through the internet pages of facebook and came upon a poem that stopped me in my tracks with its simplicity and beauty. It so struck my interest that I immediately wanted to learn all I could about it and those accompanying poems that I began to discover as I journeyed deeper into its story.
So my plan is to share on my blog some of my journey with readers who may stop by. I have shared the one that stopped me from the large treasure trove of poems and also share this accompanying story about an American translater of ancient Chinese poetry centered around Cold Mountain. There are two stories, one written by an American, the other from a Chinese source.
Writer Bill Porter may be American but he is best known as an authority on Chinese religious culture. Yang Guang finds out what intrigues Porter so much that he keeps coming back.
American writer and translator Bill Porter says he could have been Chinese in his last life.
“Perhaps I was an ancient Chinese,” the 69-year-old quips, because when he first learned Chinese in the late 1960s, he found vernacular Chinese quite difficult, while classical Chinese was easier.
He is recognized as an authority on Chinese religious culture not only among Westerners, but among Chinese as well.
Porter has published three cultural travelogues about China. He has also translated a dozen Chinese classics on Buddhism, Taoism and poetry as well, under the pseudonym Red Pine.
His most recent offering, Yellow River Odyssey, recounts his three-month expedition in 1991, from the mouth of the river, which is known as the “cradle of Chinese civilization”, in Dongying, Shandong province, to its source in Qinghai province. The book will be available in English in the latter half of this year.
“Two decades later, I still recall in my dreams how I listened to the roaring of the river and how I could hardly breathe at the river source,” he says.
Porter’s connection with China started when he was enrolled in the PhD program in anthropology at Columbia University.
He half-heartedly chose Chinese as his major to get a language fellowship.
He had always tried to understand life but he says it wasn’t until he read Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen that he finally made sense of it.
“When I encountered Buddhism, I didn’t have any problem understanding exactly what it was talking about,” he says. Porter then started meditating on weekends with a Chinese Buddhist monk.
His pursuit of Buddhism took him to Taiwan in 1972, where he stayed for a year at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery with master Hsing Yun.
Then he landed at the Chinese Culture University as a student in philosophy, and met his Chinese wife there.
He rented a stone farm shed on top of Yangming Mountain and started translating poems by hermit poet Cold Mountain (AD 691-793).
It was then that he adopted “Red Pine” as his Chinese name, only to discover later it was also the name of a famous ancient Taoist.
To support his family after he married, Porter worked for six years at a radio station in Taipei as a news editor.
He began to wonder if Buddhist hermits still survived in the Chinese mainland in 1989, but didn’t have the money to embark on the exploration.
By chance, he had an interview with Winston Wong, son of Wong Yung-ching, one of the richest men in Taiwan. Wong was fascinated by his idea and financed his trip.
Porter traveled to Zhongnan Mountain in Shaanxi province and discovered that the hermit tradition was still very much alive, as dozens of monks and nuns continued to lead solitary lives in quiet contemplation, deep in the mountains.
He recorded his visits and interviews in Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. The book is considered a window on – and has helped revive interest in – the phenomenon of Chinese hermits.
Tang Xiaoming, Porter’s Chinese publisher, says the book has sold more than 100,000 copies since 2005.
Former literary editor Zhang Jianfeng decided to search for hermits in Zhongnan Mountain himself, after reading Porter’s book in 2008. The 35-year-old has visited more than 600 hermits to date and became chief editor of a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture.
Porter returned to the United States in 1993, settling in Port Townsend, a coastal town of about 8,000 residents.
Since 2001, he has organized biannual trips to China for American tourists, who find out about him through word of mouth.
He is planning a trip in October to search for the residences and tombs of 20 Chinese poets.
Bill Porter translates ancient Chinese poetry using the name Red Pine.
By Jeff Baker | The Oregonian/OregonLive
December 16, 2013
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. – To get to Red Pine’s house from the middle of town, you have to dodge some deer. They’re everywhere — strolling quietly down the middle of Water Street, grazing at an intersection above the Victorian buildings that ring the harbor, all over the approach to Fort Worden State Park. Best to take it slow and look both ways. I brake for deer.
And coyotes. A big one ran across the road and darted into one of the parks that are closed for the season as I drove up the Hood Canal toward Port Townsend. Not much traffic on a Monday morning in late autumn leaves me plenty of time to think about Red Pine and Cold Mountain as the last leaves spin down onto the wet ground.
Red Pine is the name Bill Porter uses when he translates ancient Chinese poetry. Porter uses his own name when he translates Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra and the Tao Te Ching, but when you’re translating poets named Cold Mountain and Big Stick and Stonehouse for Copper Canyon Press, you need a sweet-smelling name like Red Pine.
“Beautiful names,” Jim Harrison says when I ask him about Red Pine and his translations. The author of “Legends of the Fall” particularly likes Stonehouse, as a name and a poet. He says he reads Red Pine’s translations “religiously” and can’t believe Stonehouse hadn’t been translated into English before Red Pine came along.
“Nothing is better than being free,” Stonehouse wrote, “but getting free is not luck.”
That sounds like the story of Red Pine’s life, as I’m about to find out. I drove four hours to talk to him about translation and poetry but mostly I wanted to know about Cold Mountain, the Tang Dynasty poet whose messages of simplicity and nonconformity, pithily delivered, have captured the imagination of American writers.
Jack Kerouac dedicated “The Dharma Bums” to Han-shan, as Cold Mountain is known in China, and includes a long discussion about the poet between himself (Ray Smith, in the novel) and Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder). Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” opens with an epigraph from the poet:
Men ask the way to Cold Mountain.
Cold mountain: there’s no through trail.
Frazier’s Cold Mountain is in the Shining Rock Wilderness of western North Carolina. A wounded Confederate soldier drags himself through hell to get there and find his one true love. Cold Mountain’s Cold Mountain is a cave at the base of Cold Cliff, a two-day walk from the East China Sea. The poet lived there when he wasn’t at the temple at Kuoching, near Mount Tientai. This is sacred ground for Buddhists, where Cold Mountain wrote his poems on rocks sometime between 730-850 AD. (Dates are approximate and in dispute; Cold Mountain did say he lived to be more than 100 years old. Tientai, Red Pine writes, “first gained attention in the third century after two herb gardeners one day hiked out of its forests two hundred years after hiking in.”)
Port Townsend doesn’t have quite that kind of vibe. It’s isolated, reaching west toward Whidbey Island on one of the fingers of the Olympic Peninsula. You have to want to get there. It’s misty and dialed back in the Northwest tradition, lots of retirees and bed-and-breakfasts for Seattlites looking for a weekend getaway. James G. Swan, the great Northwest diarist and Indian agent, lived here for decades, collecting artifacts for the Smithsonian and hanging out with the Makah at Neah Bay.
Red Pine’s house has a thick stand of bamboo in front that screens the living room from the street and swishes in the breeze. He’s having a late lunch when I arrive and watching “King Solomon’s Mines” on a huge TV. The house is tastefully decorated with Asian art and except for the big screen is exactly what you’d expect a Chinese translator’s house to look like. Pine is exactly what you’d expect, too: short and round around the edges, with white hair and a full poet beard. He’s droll and articulate, a little amused that I’ve come all this way, and ready to tell stories. Here are a few of them, arranged chronologically according to his life, not in the order he told them. Taken together they might give some insight into why this man devoted himself to translating poetry from hundreds of years ago and what draws each of us to our own Cold Mountain.
DADDY WAS A BANK ROBBER
Bill Porter was born in Los Angeles 70 years ago and grew up in great wealth. His father, William A. Porter, owned a chain of hotels in the west and was a major donor to the Democratic Party who was involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign and loved to play up his political connections. As a young man in the 1920s, Porter’s father and some cousins formed a gang and robbed banks, working their way north from their native Arkansas. By the time they got to Michigan, the cops were waiting when they arrived at a bank. There was a shootout, Porter’s dad was wounded in the kneecap and got 20 years. He never could walk quite right after that, he son says.
Porter’s aunts Pearlie and Pauline moved to Michigan to be near their brother. They waited tables at a Detroit hotel and got to know the governor, who heard their story and issued a pardon after six years.
“You could do things like that in those days. I don’t know if you could do that now,” Porter says, then laughs. “Maybe you could.”
Porter Sr. went straight and became a big success, then got divorced and saw the hotel chain crumble in a mess of lawsuits, not that the future Red Pine minded. He didn’t like the servants and the boarding schools and the way people put on airs because they’re rich.
“That was my introduction to Buddhism,” he says. “Meeting powerful people and seeing what facades their characters were, how false they were. I didn’t realize what I was being introduced to but I realized that money and fame are not worth seeking, and are even worth avoiding. I still remember how good I felt when I realized my father was losing all his money because then I realized I wouldn’t have to inherit it. Not that I couldn’t use a little money right now but at the time I was so turned off by it because of all these fake people I met all the time as a child.”
THE MONK WHO DIDN’T SAY MUCH
Porter read a book called “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts in college that changed his life. When he applied for a foreign-language fellowship to graduate school, he chose Chinese even though he didn’t speak a word of it and got a four-year fellowship to Columbia to study anthropology. While in New York’s Chinatown he met a monk and learned to meditate.
“He couldn’t speak any English and of course my Chinese was nonexistent,” Porter says. “I never had a real conversation with him but I was very impressed with him and his demeanor, the way he moved, the way he stood, and the directness whenever he would say something to me when he taught. I really liked the meditation part, hanging out in a Buddhist monastery, so I went to Taiwan to live in a monastery.”
HOW BILL PORTER BECAME RED PINE …
In the monastery, his name was Victorious Cloud. He lived in two different ones but becoming a monk didn’t happen, especially after he met the woman who became his wife in a philosophy class.
“When I decided the time had come for me to move out of the monastery I needed a new name,” he says. “So I moved to this farming village and one day I’m coming down the mountain on a bus and it came to a stop right next to a billboard advertising Black Pine Cola. I say ‘that’s the name!’
“But black is not a Chinese color. Red is a Chinese color. Red Pine! That’s my new name. Some months later I was doing some research and I came upon this note that the first great Taoist in Chinese history was Master Red Pine. He was the ringmaster of the Yellow Emperor. I said ‘wow, it’s a real name.’ Not just on a billboard or edited from a billboard. It gave an explanation for the act of translation.”
… AND DISCOVERED COLD MOUNTAIN
At the second monastery, the abbot published an edition of Cold Mountain’s poems with commentary in Chinese and some English translations by Burton Watson. Porter started translating the poems himself as a way to improve his Chinese and was amazed.
“Cold Mountain really spoke to my heart. It was the first deep voice I had encountered who spoke so simply and so truly about living a simple life and not being distracted or seduced by the things that bothered me when I was younger, wealth and power and all that sort of stuff.
“He writes his poems from that point of view with a delight in living in the natural world, living simply and giving people a bad time for being taken with money and power and stuff like that. I appreciated his poetry because it’s very simple in Chinese. I’ve done a lot of poets since then who are not simple at all and I’m really glad I started with somebody whose language and syntax was pretty straightforward.”
CREDIT CARDS AND FOOD STAMPS
After 20 years overseas, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it was time to come back to the U.S. Porter and his wife wanted their two children to learn English and the international school in Taiwan was too expensive. Copper Canyon published Red Pine’s Cold Mountain translations and he’d been to Port Townsend a couple of times and liked it. A two-story Victorian with a cracked foundation was available for $93,000 in 1993, and they bought it. He worked at a bakery and as a waiter and came home too exhausted to do anything else.
“After about a year I just said (forget) it. I’m in America — I’ll do the American thing and use some credit cards. So I started living on credit cards and that’s when I started doing books. Suddenly I had all my time but I was accumulating debt. I thought I would somehow make some money on a book but that’s wishful thinking of course. The kind of books that I do don’t make any money, not in this country. I have 15 books in print and if I sell 1,000 copies in a year that’s a good book. A thousand copies to me usually means about a buck and a half a book. Fifteen thousand dollars a year is about what I’ve made in America.”
Lately Porter’s been making ends meet by leading tours to China. There’s been some tight times, though, and he’s sacrificed plenty for his art. Some of his books have thanks to the Washington food stamp office in the acknowledgements. People think he’s kidding, but he’s not.
BREAK AN ANKLE FOR STONEHOUSE (AND GEORGE T. STAGG)
Two hours of stories and it’s time for a break. He shows me the room where he translates and some of the Chinese texts he’s using. There’s a bed in it, and he often sleeps there and gets up and gets straight to work. A cat named Mao Mao occupies the bed and gives us a look that doesn’t need translation.
In the next room, Porter flips open a case on the floor and reveals an assortment of high-end bourbon. (George T. Stagg is his favorite.) He got a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to China and find the graves and old homes of poets and writers. When he finds one, he pours a drop of George T. on the grave and maybe has a sip himself in the poet’s memory.
The book is called “Finding Them Gone” and it’s under contract to Copper Canyon. The title, he explains, is because “there’s not a Chinese poet of any significance who hasn’t written a poem called ‘Visiting So and So and Finding Them Gone.’ They go to find somebody and they’re not there and they write a poem about it.”
Porter was in China looking for Stonehouse’s grave last year and broke an ankle. He laughs at my suggestion that he might have had a little George T. before the accident.
LIFE IN THIS WORLD …
Michael Wiegers, the executive editor at Copper Canyon, says Red Pine is “the most professional of the writers on our list. He has deadlines and he hits those deadlines. He can pitch an idea for a book and I know he’s going to deliver and do this project. It isn’t ‘I’m going to translate some poems’ or ‘I’m going to sit down and write some poems and win the Pulitzer.’ He puts a stake in the ground and goes out after it.”
I ask Wiegers why all of his writers aren’t like that. He looks at me like I’m crazy.
Jack Shoemaker, the editorial director at Counterpoint Press, says that Porter “is one of our sustaining backlist authors.”
Shoemaker also says Porter “is a trip. He has strong vocal opinions on everything involving design and typography and layout. He’s very proactive. He’s also the first person to call if his royalties are one day overdue. … He is a writer to be celebrated.”
… AND THE OTHERS
Red Pine says couldn’t write an original poem if he tried. He says that for him translation is like a dance.
“It’s like I see a beautiful woman dancing on the dance floor and I’m so attracted I want to dance with her but I don’t hear the music,” he says. “I’m deaf. I have no idea what’s impelling her to dance but I want to dance with her, so I do. But I would never want to put my feet on top of her feet to dance.
“This is what most people think is translation – dancing with your feet on top of someone else’s feet. That way it’s literal and it’s accurate but it’s not because it kills the dancer. And you can’t dance across the room either. You have to get close enough to feel the energy.”
Back at the hotel, named after James G. Swan, I call W.S. Merwin in Maui and we talk about translation. The 86-year-old National Book Award-winning poet loves Red Pine’s translations because “they’re not like any others. Love of language, love of tradition, accuracy and power of language. I am so indebted to him. I’ll be reading his Stonehouse translations for the rest of my days.”
It’s dark, and I take a walk down to the beach. The Admiralty Inlet is calm and the water slaps on the stones and falls back, slaps and falls back. So many lines from Cold Mountain are running on a loop – “All of you who read my poems/guard your purity of heart” and “My mind is like the autumn moon/clear and bright in a pool of jade” – that I have to take a breath and stop. I think about a story Red Pine told me that day, about a visit he made to his mentor’s house in Bangkok. The man had the first half of a line from a famous poem by Li Bai inscribed on his front gate.
“There is another world” – and the gate swings open – “beyond the world of man.”
— Jeff Baker