Hunger Mountain is to be revered. It reaches us through the poetic words of David Hinton, a translator of Chinese poetry, a meditator and perhaps, who knows, an enlightened man. In the course of his walks up his favourite mountain in Vermont, the author reveals something of his own quiet mind and of the mind of Lao Tsu and Tu Fu and Su Tung-p’o, and of the ancient Chinese calligraphy which is both reflection and encouragement of such minds. Hunger Mountain is a book that is out of the ordinary, a small treasure come to light.
The West’s way of expressing the world was, and is, through combining letters to form words and sentences; classical Chinese used pictures as words. In addition, Chinese grammar, so I learn, was minimal. The things we in the West can hardly do without are, in classical Chinese, frequently absent: prepositions and conjunctions, verbs and tenses, distinctions between singular and plural, subjects and objects.
This leads to a different way of seeing the world. In the West, we bring an image into our minds and form sentences around it. This necessarily burdens the image with the mind it passes through, with ourselves. In ancient China, the Chinese characters and sparsity of grammar allow pictures of moon and mountain to be, as far as possible, pictures of how it is, the poet just a mirror reflecting what he sees.
As in the poem which David Hinton gives us, T’ao Ch’ien’s ‘Moonrise’:
“Thin slice of ascending light, arc tipped /Aside all its bellied dark–new moon appears.”
The poet shows us the thing itself, the moon, which is one of the 10,000 things that make up the Cosmos and around the moon is what is not: the bellied sky, the Absence or non–Being, the primal source from which the 10,000 things emerge.
This implied inclusion in the picture of what is absent is clearer when the characters of the language are before us on the page. David Hinton draws these for us – (to be scrutinised with microscope in hand) – and explicates them: the foxtails streaming out from the hands of the dancing woman in the symbol of non-being or generative emptiness, or the tiny brush strokes that conjure the image of lake from even tinier components: water, old and skin, so that lake becomes a wrinkled skin of ancient water. And behind the characters, he invites us to glimpse the meditative understanding that underpins Chinese thought: that Absence, equally with Presence makes up the Cosmos. It is the generative Absence from which the 10,000 things of the Presence emerge and to which they return; the moon and the bellied dark, each an aspect of the other.
Hunger Mountain is a series of linked reflections on the stuff of Chinese poetry: mountain, dragon, gate, silk, sincerity, friends – there are 21 short chapters – and mirror. Of this he says, ‘The beauty of mirror as metaphor for empty mind is that absence is its essence. The mirror is defined by what it is not, by whatever it reflects, and so it is a metaphor that is almost not a metaphor at all. But still there remains a trace: the surface, the inside and outside, and so the subjectivity it is trying to get beyond.’
And he links this, as inevitably he must, to meditation, since it is (only) through meditation that the truth at which the poets point can be experienced. ‘Meditative practice reveals that we are most fundamentally the opening of consciousness that watches thought coming and going, rather than the center of thought and intention with which we normally identify. And moving deeper into meditative practice, as the restless train of thought falls silent, self and its constructions of the world dissolve away into that emptiness of Absence. What remains then is consciousness emptied of all contents, known in Ch’an (Zen) terminology as “no–mind” or “empty mind”. To dwell in that elemental emptiness, that generative realm of Absence is to … inhabit the primal Cosmos in the most complete and immediate way.’
Towards the end of the book, the author climbs Hunger Mountain in the rain and records his change in mental state from the time he first hears the rain to the moment the distinction between himself and the rain ceases:
‘To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to long for the sound of autumn rain falling on Hunger mountain.
To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is to hear autumn rain falling on Hunger mountain.
To hear autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain is autumn rain falling on Hunger mountain.
Autumn rain falling on Hunger Mountain hearing rain fall.
His journey takes us from the implicit ‘I’ that is the centre of western thought to the thing itself, that which is as it is. And this movement away from the central ‘I’ towards the ‘consciousness emptied of all contents’ leads naturally to the idea of fundamental consciousness, a consciousness that does not depend on the body; so that death becomes the return of consciousness to its true form. Chuang Tzu talks of the freedom of released consciousness like this:
“On loan from everything else, they’ll soon be entrusted back to the one body. Forgetting liver and gallbladder, abandoning ears and eyes–they’ll continue on again, tumbling and twirling through a blur of endings and beginnings. They roam at ease beyond the tawdry dust of this world, wander without themselves, boundless and free through the selfless unfolding of things.”
Reading David Hinton is to be aware of both his deep scholarship and of the validity of his personal experience. With many who write on this subject, I find myself asking, ‘Yes, the words are fine, but has he experienced the state he describes?’ In Hunger Mountain, the attempt to explain in words what words cannot explain is done with such modesty that scepticism is difficult. David Hinton may be an enlightened man; who can say.