David Hinton’s interest in ancient Chinese poetry grew from a youthful fascination with ecology, Eastern religion, and the American landscape poets of the West Coast. He earned an MFA in poetry from Cornell University in 1981 and was busy working on his own poems when he first encountered the writings of eighth-century Chinese author Tu Fu, said by some to be history’s greatest lyrical poet. Hinton was not particularly impressed by Tu Fu until he discovered a book in the Oriental collection at the New York Public Library that showed thirty-six of the poet’s works in every stage of translation — from the original Chinese characters, to word-for-word English translations, to more poetic translations, to prose versions. The translations he’d been reading had failed to capture the full scope of the poems, and soon he began making his own. He returned to Cornell to study Chinese and continued his language studies in Taiwan, moving there in 1984.
In the decades since his return to the United States, Hinton has lived with the poems of Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and many others, learning to re-create their voices in English. He recognizes that translation is all about disappearing into another author’s work, and humility is key. “I am uneasy with any portrayal of myself as a master of sagely wisdom,” he writes. But he does speak knowledgeably and passionately about the spiritual underpinnings of the Chinese poetic tradition, which dates back 3,500 years and is steeped in Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist philosophy. (Ch’an is more familiar to Americans by its Japanese name, Zen.) Hinton often refers to Taoism and Ch’an as one spiritual tradition, because Ch’an is an extension of Taoism, and both philosophies focus on the world that we perceive through our senses, rather than on an afterlife or abstract spirit realm. For Ch’an-Taoism, there are only the “ten thousand things” — the diverse, ever-changing reality of which we are a part.
Though he occasionally teaches at Columbia University in New York City and Freie Universität in Berlin, Hinton has managed to build a career mostly outside of academia. He is the author of the experimental epic poem Fossil Sky and a book of essays titled Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Literature, about China’s spiritual ecology and his own repeated walks up a mountain near his home. He is best known, however, for his translations of poets in the rivers-and-mountains tradition, which he’s collected in Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China. He is also the first person in more than a century to have translated into English all four of the Chinese philosophical masterworks: the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, and the Chuang Tzu.
I met Hinton for this interview at his small house on a dead-end dirt road in East Calais, Vermont. A tall, thin man with wavy gray hair, he welcomed me from the top of some slate stairs set into a grassy slope. For many years Hinton worked part time as a stonemason to pay the bills, and the landscaping on his property is a testament to his skill and aesthetic sensibility. I noticed a pair of damp leather boots drying in the sun, then saw that Hinton was barefoot. He explained that he’d stepped into a creek on a hike with his daughter. It was a fine summer afternoon, warm and still. We took seats on a back patio, where we could watch the birds and clouds as we talked.
Hinton’s voice is gravelly, and he pauses before answering questions. He regards the world with wonder and comes across as simultaneously cerebral and earthy. After nearly two hours of conversation, when I took a minute to replace the batteries in my audio recorder, he quietly drifted over to a nearby flower garden, plucked a single weed, contemplated it, then moved on to the next. I had the sense that if I hadn’t called him back, he would have spent the rest of the afternoon happily wandering.
Tonino: The rivers-and-mountains poetic tradition has been of particular interest to you. You say it represents the longest literary engagement with wilderness in the history of the world.
Hinton: That’s right. Its philosophical roots go back to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in the sixth century BCE, and beyond. The poetic tradition began around the fourth century CE and traces a spiritual engagement with landscape that has been a central theme of Chinese poetry ever since. There were other types of poetry, such as social-protest poetry or poems written for parties and farewells, but this core tradition worked its way into even the outermost fringes of Chinese literary culture. Anyone who reads Chinese poetry will see that it’s made out of natural images: birds and clouds and cliffs and flowers. Calligraphy and painting, too, began moving in the same direction.
Tonino: What were the lives of the poets like?
Hinton: They tended to have two sides. One was the political-social side. The poets felt a responsibility to serve in government and improve society. Then there was the Taoist-Ch’an side, which was the private, spiritual dimension.
The poets weren’t monks, but when they traveled, they would often stay in monasteries, which doubled as inns. And they traveled a lot, some moving every couple of years. So the poets had friends who were monks, and most probably had Ch’an masters with whom they studied now and then. Some were very committed to meditation practice, but few of them became monks. They were always engaged with the outside world. They didn’t want to disappear into monasticism.
Tonino: The rivers-and-mountains poets are often referred to as recluses, aren’t they?
Hinton: Yes, but it’s important to keep in mind that being a recluse back then wasn’t an ascetic practice or a renunciation of the world. A recluse would probably have had a wife and kids, maybe even a courtesan if he was rich. He would have had a library. He would have had other intellectual friends living nearby. He would have had a nice house. These poets weren’t living in huts and wearing sackcloth. Some were what we call middle-class, but most came from the top 1 percent of society, the educated elite, and were quite well-off relative to the general population. The point was to live in a quiet and contemplative way, distant from the chaos of the so-called normal world, with all of its psychological dislocation — a dwelling place where they could meditate, garden, make art, take walks, contemplate mountain landscapes, and drink wine with friends.
Tonino: What place did poetry have in the broader Chinese culture of the time?
Hinton: Poems would have been written by hand and circulated mostly among friends near and far. As a poet gained a reputation, his poems were distributed among artists and intellectuals. They were often read by the emperor and others at the highest levels of political power, most of whom would have been poets themselves. Poems didn’t become more widely circulated until the ninth century, when the printing press came into use in China.
Women, sad to say, were generally excluded from artistic and intellectual pursuits. Though many from the elite class were literate, and some wrote, their work was rarely valued or preserved.
Tonino: If these poems were written by and for this elite slice of society, then why were they widely printed?
Hinton: That educated elite class was no doubt much larger, in absolute numbers, than the number of people who read poetry in the U.S. today. So hand-copied editions could hardly reach all of them. In addition to the intellectual elite, there was a merchant class that was literate. They weren’t scholars, but they did read books, and they aspired to learn and grow and broaden their experience. Poetry played a role in that. The biggest press runs, though, were not for poetry but for Buddhist teachings. Hundreds of thousands, occasionally even millions, of copies of religious texts were printed. It’s staggering. And this was maybe six hundred years before Gutenberg! Even people who couldn’t read well would have had these texts in their homes, almost as talismans.
Tonino: You mentioned that political action and civil duty were a big part of the poets’ lives. I’m curious to know how they balanced that with the pursuit of a quiet, simple existence on a farm or meditating in the mountains.
Hinton: For a man born into this intellectual class, his proper role in society was government work, helping the emperor make the world a better place. One poet whose work I’m just finishing translating, Wang An-shih, was actually the prime minister of China, the most powerful person in the country, after the emperor. Having done everything he could to transform society, he quit his post and went to live in the countryside as a recluse. That’s when he wrote the poems he’s famous for.
Because of their rank in society, the poets led comfortable lives, but the spiritual dimension was missing. Working on social issues meant being a bureaucrat: spending long days in an office, struggling to get things done, pleasing people who had to be pleased. It wasn’t a situation that allowed them to experience life with real spiritual depth. They couldn’t inhabit what the Taoists called tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things.
Tzu-jan is a very different manner of thinking about the universe than what we’re used to in the West. We think of time in linear terms, whereas in ancient China they thought of existence as a burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change. And this constant birthing goes on both in the physical world and in human consciousness, for consciousness is as much a part of that process as surf or a rainstorm or blossoms opening in an almond orchard.
But the poet-bureaucrats couldn’t feel themselves a part of tzu-jan in offices, just as we can’t today. Offices are sterile places; you go to them because you need the money or you want a career, but at heart you’d rather be elsewhere. So the poets would get away to some remote place every chance they could. There were holidays when they could take a couple of weeks or even a month and visit a monastery to find a little quiet. Some, like the prime minister I mentioned, would save their money, retire early, and move to the mountains. Others just got fed up and quit, choosing the route of self-cultivation. And a few would find themselves on the wrong side of power and become exiled, which was often a blessing in disguise. Much of the best poetry was written by bureaucrats in exile.
Tonino: It’s fascinating, this similarity between the flatness of office life nowadays and the flatness of office life more than a thousand years ago.
Hinton: Yes, this is one of the things I like very much about studying ancient China. Other ancient cultures interest me, especially primal cultures, but their worlds were so different from ours that it’s difficult to apply their wisdom to modern life. The ancient Chinese, on the other hand, had essentially the same capitalist society that we have now, with print media and an intellectual class. The people in this class supported themselves by working what we would call white-collar jobs. Their conceptual framework was secular, as is often true of the well-educated in our society. It was all remarkably similar.
Tonino: That said, most people who work in offices nowadays aren’t using their two-week vacations to go on a meditation retreat.
Hinton: It’s true, our society fails to encourage the same spiritual pursuits. Some people go to church on Sunday, but they talk a lot there about another world beyond this one. Chinese spirituality is about inhabiting this world as fully as possible. What is our culture about? I don’t know. I guess it’s about consumption and sports and the video screen. It skitters along on the surface of life. Wisdom is not cool anymore, even among intellectuals. But, of course, there are still people who spend their free time in quiet, natural places.
Tonino: Could you talk more about tzu-jan and the “constant unfolding”?
Hinton: Well, I sometimes struggle for months to describe it in a poem or essay, or for years in the case of a book like Hunger Mountain, and even then I don’t necessarily succeed. But OK, I’ll try. In a sense it’s not that hard. It’s the insight that the cosmos is a spontaneously self-generating organism whose basic nature is change. All things are always changing, one growing out of another. That’s the basic truth of reality.
We resist that change here in the West. We want permanence, an immortal soul that allows us to escape death. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato came up with the theory of Forms, which said the truest reality was one of abstract ideas. He thought that Being with a capital B was not part of this ever-changing reality but some nonmaterial Form that sits behind or above reality and doesn’t change, because it’s eternal. And because it is changeless, it is more real.
Western culture still has this belief that there’s some permanent identity inside of us, but if you actually watch consciousness — as meditation encourages us to do — you realize that change is just as constant inside as it is outside, and that there is hardly any distinction between the two. We can have only one thought at a time, or perhaps a cluster of thoughts. Everything else is forgotten in that moment. And if you think back over your life, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve forgotten 99.99 percent of what’s happened to you. We sort of assume that those memories are stored inside us somewhere, but most of them are gone. The internal world is constantly renewing itself, forgetting and rebuilding. So if I’m not this unchanging spirit in here, separate from the world out there, then what am I?
This idea that there is no permanent self is a big part of Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism. The self is always moving. It isn’t going to continue existing after you die. The minute you buy into the idea that some part of you will hang around, you’ve removed yourself from this world of trees and clouds and birds. And if you’re not in this flowing world of change, then you’re nowhere.
The self is always moving. It isn’t going to continue existing after you die. The minute you buy into the idea that some part of you will hang around, you’ve removed yourself from this world of trees and clouds and birds. And if you’re not in this flowing world of change, then you’re nowhere.
Tonino: So a thought arising and disappearing is the same as a green shoot coming up through the soil, blossoming, and decaying back into the earth.
Hinton: And the same as a mountain range grinding up out of the ground, soaring into the sky, and then disappearing grain by grain as erosion erases it back into nothingness. The thought comes and goes in five seconds, and the mountain range takes 500 million years to rise and fall, but it’s the same movement.
It’s simple enough to say this, of course, but actually inhabiting that truth is difficult. That’s what Chinese culture was all about: the difficult trick of living inside constant change and identifying with it. Well, at least, that’s the start of it. The depths begin there.
Tonino: Did Taoism and Ch’an originate with observations of the natural world, then?
Hinton: We can’t know, but I believe they did. In a way, the wisdom of Chinese culture comes from the natural world, which means it comes from our older selves. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers weren’t locked into dualistic thinking. Like other primates, they experienced themselves as part of the natural world. In fact, the word nature wouldn’t have made sense to them, because by definition it assumes a fundamental distinction between human and nonhuman. They wouldn’t have understood such a distinction, as they assumed themselves to be wholly a part of the cosmos.
Here’s a thought experiment: If you want to know what’s fundamentally true about the world, walk out into an open field and close your eyes. Then start forgetting. Forget everything you know and believe, all the knowledge our culture has accumulated, all our assumptions about the world and ourselves. Completely empty your mind. Then open your eyes and see what you encounter. The first thing you see is this physical stuff all around you. And if you’ve wholly emptied your mind, it is a wondrous revelation: existence, the material universe vast and deep, everything and everywhere, when there might just as easily be nothing at all.
The next thing you notice is that the empty mind perceiving that wondrous existence is not separate from existence. They are a single tissue. And if you stay there over time, looking out, you realize that existence is alive somehow. Things perpetually move and change, appear and disappear. Clouds drift. Wind rustles wildflowers and trees. Day fades into night, and night into day. Seasons come and go, one after another. You die. Other people are born. On and on it goes. Everything is moving all the time without pause, without beginning or end.
Finally you realize that the same thing is going on in your mind — that your mind’s movements are no different than a cloud’s movements or the turning seasons.
By locating the mental realm on a continuum that includes everything else — even calling it the “mental realm” creates too much separation — the Chinese found their way back to that earlier primal consciousness. In the West, on the other hand, we understand the self as a sealed-off identity, something fundamentally separate from the world. The typical Christian belief is that you’re being tested in this existence, and you’ll end up in either heaven or hell. This planet is just a temporary proving ground for us; we’re aliens here, because our souls don’t belong to this reality. Many writers and thinkers have theorized that our environmental crises are an inevitable result of that belief.
Tonino: How do you think this rift between what we call “us” and what we call the “natural world” opened in the first place?
Hinton: Again it’s difficult, and I tried to work it out in Hunger Mountain, but I suspect it began with language and became critical with the rise of written language. Pictographic languages, like very primitive written languages and Chinese, at least retain some direct connection to the ten thousand things: mountains and deer and rain and fires and houses and tools. Alphabetic language is completely abstract and self-referential. The words point to things out in the physical world, but they exist in their own realm that we associate with thought, a realm that seems separate and changeless. Once language has created this illusion of a separate realm of consciousness, human nature begins to invent spirits and souls and myths to explain and enshrine this newfound place as some kind of spirit realm. But if you’re out in that field looking around, you can’t see spirit or soul no matter how hard you look.
Language, image-making, storytelling — these create the illusory self. Our language enshrines that self in grammar. Language also structures the mind, so we don’t even notice this. But every time you speak a sentence, you’re reinforcing the illusion of separation.
Tonino: Doesn’t written Chinese also promote the rift?
Hinton: Yes, but it’s less problematic than English. In the English language, we use the pronoun I, but the Chinese don’t — or they can, but their grammar doesn’t require it the same way ours does. Here’s an example: There’s a poem that, in the English translation, ends with “I heard the monastery bell.” Note the “I,” a spirit-center that stands apart from the rest of the world. In classical Chinese you’d say, “Hear temple bell.” The poem is about a silence that is broken by this sudden noise. Think about the actual moment when the tolling of a bell cuts through the quiet to reach your ears: You’re on a mountain trail. It’s dusk. You’re alone. The clouds are moving. It’s chilly. And then — gong! There’s no “you” in that moment. There’s no captain at the bridge of the ship. There’s just immediate perception. In that moment, the self vanishes. The grammar of classical Chinese conveys that.
Language, image-making, storytelling — these create the illusory self. Our language enshrines that self in grammar. Language also structures the mind, so we don’t even notice this. But every time you speak a sentence, you’re reinforcing the illusion of separation. You’re putting the captain back at the bridge of the ship.
Tonino: This reminds me of an idea I’ve come across in environmental philosophy and nature writing: that we are the “dream of the earth.” I’m not in charge; something bigger and older is working through me.
Hinton: The cosmos has gone through 14 billion years of change, and one outcome of that is our presence — here we are. You and I and every other person evolved out of that process. We’re the creation of the cosmos, plain and simple. When we look at something, we’re the cosmos looking at itself. When we feel something, we’re the cosmos feeling itself. When we know something, we’re the cosmos knowing itself. That’s remarkably beautiful and profound and difficult to actually experience in any immediate way.
And it’s not just us. Any animal with an eye is the cosmos looking at itself. When water first condensed and formed a reflective pool that mirrored the sky and the clouds, that was the cosmos reflecting itself. But our culture hides this from us because we’re so committed to the spirit-matter dichotomy.
Tonino: The metaphor of the mind as a mirror-like pool turns up a lot in the poems you translate.
Hinton: This insight is probably common across many cultures, but the Chinese certainly understood it better than most. They thought of a calm, glassy pool as the perfect metaphor for an empty mind for two reasons: One, because the surface is reflective. And two, because it has depths. Consciousness reflects, and beneath consciousness, there is a dark deep.
When we’re thinking, thinking, thinking, that’s when we most intensely experience ourselves as separate from the world. Meditation lets thought fall away, and with it that sense of separation. When thinking comes to a stop, all that’s left is an empty mind mirroring whatever is in front of you. Like in the field when you open your eyes.
Tonino: You’ve called classical Chinese poems “antipoems” because they remove that main character “I,” leaving behind just a moment of crystalline perception. It’s almost as if the poets are using language to get past language.
Hinton: The Chinese felt that language alienates us from the unfolding cosmos, and so the poets were always a bit uneasy using it. They knew that the deepest insights happen outside language. But when you’re a poet, language is your medium. What can you do? Around the seventh century, Chinese poets began stripping poems down to the bare essentials. They were pushing at the edges of language, trying to make language point to something outside itself. I’ve described this before as “voicing silence.”
The most spiritually engaged poems were a form of Ch’an practice. Buddhist monks use koans and meditation to get past the illusions of self; the poet tries to do the same thing by engaging with regular life. This makes the task messier and harder, but for me the result is richer. It’s based in everyday experience, not this special, cloistered environment. Not everybody can or wants to live in a monastery.
Tonino: The poets didn’t want to go into monastic isolation, but they did want to get out of their offices, back to the quiet rural life. Isn’t there an aspiration in Buddhism to be able to practice in the office just as well as in the mountains?
Hinton: If you truly understand the Tao, the Way, then, yes, you understand it regardless of where you are. You don’t have to be in a monastery or off in the mountains. You can be in an office. You can be on a bus. There’s a saying in ancient China: “A small recluse lives in the mountains; a great recluse lives in the city.”
This also applies to poetry. The ancient Chinese poets thought that anything can be the subject of a poem. You can splice together the profound and the banal. Tu Fu, often regarded as the greatest poet in Chinese history, is known for writing about seemingly unpoetic subjects, like the chickens in his garden. They, too, are part of the Way.
But it’s difficult to achieve that kind of insight even under the best possible conditions. Humans evolved in the mountains and the deserts and the savannas, not in offices. It makes sense to me that we’re going to feel the resonance between ourselves and the great unfolding more on mountaintops, where water is flowing over bare rock and the wind is in our ears.
From an evolutionary perspective cities aren’t our natural habitat. It’s only in the last six thousand years or so that we have tried to call them home. In cities many things don’t appear to be moving. Buildings aren’t moving. Streets aren’t moving. Cars drive by, but the cars themselves are relatively stable and made of metal that seems to be a dead material. Sometimes in a city you barely notice the difference between night and day because of all the artificial light. On your farm in the mountains, though, you’ll know when it gets dark. You’ll be right there with that change.
That said, if you sit in Brooklyn and look across the water at Manhattan, it’s kind of like looking at a mountain range. You can watch the light pass over the skyscrapers and know that the same light is passing over you. But you might be able to feel the power of such a moment only because you or your ancestors have been to the real mountains. The city is part of the cosmos, just like the mountains, but the real mountains are probably a better place to start.
Tonino: In his book The Spell of the Sensuous philosopher David Abram says these so-called inanimate objects in our lives — metal tables, plastic laptops — each have an elemental presence with which we can engage. But it’s hard. It’s not a hawk swooping in front of you, catching your eye.
Hinton: No, it’s not. And the hawk is diving after a squirrel. The squirrel is running. The wind is blowing. The squirrel is in the hawk’s mouth, soon to be eaten and to, quite literally, become the hawk. There’s a clear process going on. It’s the food web in action. It’s not like contemplating the surface of your metal table.
Tonino: In classical Chinese no distinction was made between heart and mind. How are we to understand that?
Hinton: When we say “mind,” we mean our rational, analytical faculty. When they said “mind,” they usually meant empty consciousness, the mirror-pool that receives all perception, and they believed that it couldn’t be separated from feeling. A more accurate translation might be “heart-mind.”
There’s a Wang Wei poem in which an egret standing at the edge of a stream flutters up and then settles back down. That’s it. In the West we think there’s something missing, that there should be more to the poem. But if you remember that heart and mind are the same, then you realize that this perception, this experience of empty mind perceiving with mirror-like clarity, is also an emotional experience. It’s both the observation of the scene and the feeling evoked by the scene at the same time, the two together filling us completely.
Tonino: Like how we can feel heartache when we see the sunset or joy when watching a bird.
Hinton: Exactly. But Western metaphysics tells us we’re not supposed to have this kind of connection with landscape; we’re supposed to be separate from it. Emotion is seen as a human-to-human experience in our culture, because humans supposedly operate in this spirit world apart from everything else. Yet there’s always the possibility of feeling something in response to a cloud’s passing shadow or an egret in a stream. In a sense, each time we look at a mountain and feel awe, it deconstructs Western metaphysics a bit, because it shows that we’re not isolated; we’re in communication with the world. And now, more and more in this age of vast ecological destruction, people are finding that they “feel” it, that they grieve over it. It is, for the culture, like discovering a new emotional life, isn’t it?
Tonino: Is there some historical framework for this?
Hinton: The Transcendentalists — Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman — were all pushing in this direction at the end of the nineteenth century, but they were stuck with Christian language and concepts. Even Robinson Jeffers, the great Californian poet of the early twentieth century, had to use the phrase “the wild God of the world,” though he wasn’t talking about God in the Christian sense. He was talking about the Tao, this flowing, elemental reality in which we’re embedded.
In the early twentieth century, American poets began abandoning Victorian abstraction and embellishment in favor of a clear, precise language of unadorned experience, and Chinese poetry helped bring about that change. It remained influential for decades after that, especially in the work of Kenneth Rexroth, the so-called father of the Beats, and Gary Snyder, who combines poetry and environmentalism.
I see my work as an effort to reintroduce these ideas to Western consciousness. As I’ve said, the ideas are simple to explain but difficult to plumb and inhabit. I don’t write about them academically, because then they would remain just ideas. I try to craft essays and poems — and to translate ancient Chinese poems into contemporary English — to make that experience real for people.
Tonino: Are there connections between your work and today’s deep-ecology movement?
Hinton: Yes, I think of Taoism and Ch’an and rivers-and-mountains poetry as the original deep ecology. For me Sierra Club environmentalism is just stewardship. It says we need to take better care of this separate entity over here called the world. Stewardship sometimes achieves very important results, but it’s still tangled up in the spirit-matter dichotomy. Deep ecology is about living as a part of the world, weaving consciousness into the world, and that’s what Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism did.
Tonino: In the introduction to your book Mountain Home you write: “The poetry of this wilderness cosmology feels utterly contemporary, and in an age of global ecological disruption and mass extinction, this engagement with wilderness makes it more urgently and universally important by the day.” How can these poems help?
Hinton: That’s what I spend my darker days asking myself: Does poetry really have an impact? And the answer is no, probably not. This world is going to keep going the way it’s going, and Chinese poetry is not going to change that. But at least the poems present this other way of experiencing ourselves and the world. If anything is going to alter our destructive path, it’s a shift in consciousness. Until people start feeling a connection between their own body and mind and the rest of “nature” — until they come to understand this as a continuum — they’re not going to care.
These ideas I’m translating started flooding into Western culture back in the 1950s and 1960s, and they have had some impact. When I was in college, environmentalism was very much a fringe movement. Now everyone is an environmentalist. Even George W. Bush had to call himself an environmentalist while campaigning for president. When I was a kid, if a candidate had said he was an environmentalist, he would have been considered a radical and a loony. And far more people today are familiar with meditation and yoga and other non-Western spiritual practices. What I do is a small part of this gradual cultural opening. Scientific research into species loss, pollution, and climate change is more immediately valuable, and it’s hugely important, but in a sense this spiritual-conceptual side where I work is more fundamental, more foundational. Its influence is harder to trace. The poems and ideas don’t have a huge audience, but they do percolate through the culture.
If anything is going to alter our destructive path, it’s a shift in consciousness. Until people start feeling a connection between their own body and mind and the rest of “nature” — until they come to understand this as a continuum — they’re not going to care.
Tonino: What about China’s current environmental issues? The Chinese spiritual and poetic tradition doesn’t seem to have helped them there.
Hinton: It’s true, China is an ecological disaster area despite the fact that the Chinese have never had the same deep metaphysical alienation from the natural world that we do. I don’t know how to explain that, except to say that ideas and philosophies have to struggle against brute human nature, and they don’t always succeed. We use the world around us, and we often overuse it, exploiting it for our own short-term gain. Sheer population pressure on natural resources has been a problem in China from the beginning. I guess recognizing that you are a part of nature doesn’t necessarily prevent you from abusing nature. The difference for us now is that our technological power allows us to live lightly on the planet if we choose. Unlike impoverished villagers in China (or in today’s Third World) who have to cut forests to cook and heat their houses, we can put up solar panels.
Tonino: Earlier you said that there are not a lot of women poets in classical Chinese poetry.
Hinton: I tried to include as many women as I could in my anthology Classical Chinese Poetry, which attempts to trace the whole tradition from its beginning around 1500 BCE, through the centuries of its major achievements, and ending around 1200 CE. But there are only a handful of women poets whose work has survived, and then it’s often no more than a couple of poems. Women in ancient China were generally not educated the way men were. Certain classes of women, such as courtesans, were educated, and occasionally an independent woman would go to live in a monastery, where she could receive an education, but even then their poems weren’t valued, and so they weren’t saved. In China today some ancient texts by women are being found in tombs. If this continues, a hundred years from now our understanding of ancient China might be very different. Maybe an anthology of women’s poetry will turn up in one of those digs. Wouldn’t that be great?
I’ll say this: Even though ancient China was a male-dominated culture and its poets were almost all men, its poetry comes from a fundamentally female-centered tradition. Taoism sees the cosmos as a feminine, generative organism. Great poems in the West tend to be large, intellectually aggressive, and occupied with masculine adventures like war. But Chinese poems are mostly small, quiet poems about immediate experience and deep thought. If you didn’t know anything about the authors and you considered Chinese poetry in the context of world literature, you would probably think it had been written by women.
Nevertheless ancient China was a very sexist society, and some of its poets were involved in military actions through their role in government. China has an amazingly bloody history. Dynasties rose and were overthrown. The country was overrun several times by more-warlike cultures from the north. There was no such thing as a religious war in ancient China, because the people in power didn’t take religion seriously, but violence surged up regardless.
Tonino: As a translator, you say you’ve found a way to speak in the voice of ancient China’s sage-masters while also letting them speak through your own voice. What happens in this process of translation?
Hinton: We’ve been talking about how this sense of an isolated self — this “I” that we assume is us — is really an illusion, and Taoist and Ch’an practice is about seeing through that illusion. Translation is similar. Anytime I work on a poem, I’m trying to be that other person who wrote it. I start with the poet’s words, and because language shapes mind and perception, I take on that person’s mind and perception to some extent. But there’s a huge difference between Chinese and English, so I can’t just follow a poem word for word. For example, there are no verb tenses in classical Chinese. There’s also no punctuation. And, as I’ve mentioned, they usually don’t use pronouns like I. This means I have to reinvent the poems in my own language, in my own voice. There are scholars who don’t like what I do. My response is that you can’t translate word for word and end up with anything of value. Direct English translations appear as chopped-up, strange, experimental texts with none of the precise beauty of the original. I’ve got to make the writing come alive in the language of this place, this time. It is a risky venture, rife with compromise and always open to criticism, but without it there would be no poem in English, just a stale documentation of the original.
Tonino: Is what you do perhaps more like reinvention than translation?
Hinton: I do follow very closely every word and detail of the original, but, yes, I have to remake it. Maybe it’s best thought of as cultural translation. I feel as if I’m translating not just lines of text but also the Chinese culture. I want to bring to Western readers a different understanding of our place among the ten thousand things. But the Chinese language has characteristics that I can’t put into English. I have to leave those behind in China. I guess I try to find a middle ground. I want my translations to have a classical quality and a slightly elevated diction, but I also pare them down as much as I possibly can. I just chisel and chisel and chisel.
Tonino: You’ve also paid the bills from time to time by building stone walls and stairwells and patios. What parallels do you see between stonework and translation?
Hinton: Writing in general, and translation especially, is a matter of working one word at a time, slowly building a structure. So it’s much like constructing a wall. Every time you put a stone down, it changes what can come next. If you put down a thick stone, you have to place two thin stones next to it. And every time you choose a different word in a poem, the rest of the poem changes. It takes a certain kind of personality to do the work. You have to be slow and deliberate and meditative. It’s not for everyone.
Tonino: What are the ethical teachings of the Ch’an-Taoist worldview?
Hinton: In a sense, pure Ch’an Buddhism has no ethical dimension. A lot of American Zen practitioners are involved in social causes of one kind or another, which is great, but Ch’an doesn’t point you there. Of course, this doesn’t mean Ch’an Buddhists didn’t have ethics. In the West there’s a belief that you can’t have ethics without some transcendental authority. I don’t think that at all.
Tonino: What about an environmental ethic? Does Ch’an-Taoism have that?
Hinton: It’s complicated. But it seems to me that, once you recognize yourself as a part of nature, then you won’t have an uncaring attitude toward the environment. It’s not this dead resource that has no value of its own or that exists just to be exploited by you. But then, we’ve talked about China’s abysmal environmental record.
The early Chinese philosopher Mencius says something like “The ten thousand things are all part of me.” He also offers advice similar to the golden rule: “Treat those things as you would treat yourself.” Put the two together, and he’s saying that you should treat the world however you would want to be treated.
It seems like I’m right on the edge of an environmental slogan here: “Whatever you do to the earth, you do to yourself”?
As long as we’re thinking and saying and writing, we’re not directly experiencing, and the Chinese are about direct experience. You meditate until you’ve emptied your mind, and then you look at the flower. Just look at it. There’s no difference between it and you.
Tonino: There’s deep ecology again.
Hinton: Yes, it’s a deep place. It’s an ethic that tells us, for example, that elephants matter, and we shouldn’t be killing them just because we feel like it. More and more in our culture we are expanding the circle of whom we treat ethically: other sexes, religions, nations, races, and so on. And now that is beginning to include the nonhuman world.
And then there’s the legal dimension: If you have a legitimate interest in a legal dispute, meaning you have been harmed in some way, then you are said to have “standing.” Without it you can’t bring a case before a court. For a long time environmental law foundered on this point. The legal system would say that nobody had standing to bring a case to protect a watershed, for instance. Now, slowly, the courts have come to think that the watershed has its own standing, and lawyers can represent it. That’s huge.
Tonino: In A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold points out that it took us thousands of years to establish a governing ethic for how we treat our fellow humans . . .
Hinton: . . . so don’t be surprised if it takes us even longer to expand that circle to include wild animals and plants and rivers and mountains.
Tonino: At the start of our conversation you mentioned that the rivers-and-mountains tradition included painting. Humans in Chinese landscape paintings are usually tiny, dwarfed by their surroundings. Do you think this sense of scale can alter our perspective on our place in the natural world?
Hinton: Many people respond emotionally to Chinese landscape paintings. They look at them and sense the landscape sweeping through them, but they can’t quite explain why. “It’s beautiful,” we might say, or, “It’s sublime.” But it’s not just an experience of beauty or the sublime. It’s something else we can hardly talk about.
In many of those paintings the human figures are indeed very small. This encourages a viewer to feel small, too. It’s a reminder that the world is vast, and we are small parts of that vastness. But sometimes the people in these paintings can be bigger, and when they are, they’re drawn with only a few brushstrokes. They’re kind of empty. The landscapes have a lot of emptiness in them, too. The stones might be mere outlines. The mountains might be loosely sketched in. Everything is basically empty, and those human figures participate in that emptiness, blending with the environment.
There’s also a sense of dynamism in the paintings. The painters were trying to express the living energy that flows through everything by using energetic brushstrokes that were full of life. The mountains, the rocks, the people — they’re all drawn with this same dynamic brushstroke. Unlike Western landscape painting, it’s not trying to be representational at all.
Tonino: In Hunger Mountain you describe different ways of understanding loneliness. If we’re part of the mountains, nature, the cosmos, are we less alone than we think?
Hinton: Most of the time we take it for granted that we are our mental processes, the analytical back-and-forth. Meditation reminds us that we’re not. When you’re meditating, watching your thoughts, you see them rise out of nothingness and recede into it. Next comes the question: If I’m watching this mental process, then I must be separate from it. So what am I?
When we say we’re lonely, we’re assuming that there is this identity that is isolated from others — either physically, or emotionally, or both. But if you’ve gotten inside this Chinese consciousness that undermines our normal conception of self as a soul or spirit-center fundamentally separate from the world around it, then the idea of loneliness begins to change. It becomes a profound cosmological loneliness, because you’re not anything at all. You’re just this empty mind, aware of the egret lifting from the river, aware of your thoughts, aware of each momentary feeling of longing or sadness. Once you reach this place, you perhaps start to miss who you thought you were, the old illusion, but you also begin to sense that you’re a part of this vast reality. Suddenly loneliness seems almost silly: How could I be lonely? I’m not even me!
If two people are aware of the rising moon, and both have empty minds, then, in a sense, they are the same person. The content of their consciousness is the same: an exquisite moon ascending into the sky. This was a valued practice in ancient China. Poets and intellectuals would spend time together, sipping wine and watching the moon creep over a mountain ridge. It was the opposite of loneliness. It was a total sharing that goes beyond identity and touches the very roots of perception. I think this is part of what goes on in Chinese poetry: you and the poet share a mind for a short while.
Yesterday, on Father’s Day, my daughter and I hiked up Hunger Mountain, the mountain near my home that I’ve written about and explored again and again over the years. There’s something powerful about sharing such an experience — an experience of ferns and dirt and sky — with a person you love. Again, in the West we don’t talk much about this, because we have no conceptual framework for it.
Tonino: In one of your books you describe stopping to gaze at yourself in a mirror. “This creature I am eludes me,” you write. Do you think we can ever know ourselves?
Hinton: No, not comprehensively, just as we can never know a mountain or a flower or any of the ten thousand things. I’m a mystery to me. I won’t ever get to some deeper “truth” or “essence,” no matter how I try. And isn’t that strange? Of all the things you might know, you’d think you would know yourself. After all, you’re walking around being you all the time. If you’re an artist, your whole business is expressing yourself. But the mystery of who you are is just like the mystery of a flower: You can photograph it. You can paint it. You can write a poem about it. You can assemble all of the relevant scientific information about it. You can study its place in the ecosystem. You can study its cellular structure. You can do all of this with the hope of somehow capturing its essence, but it doesn’t work that way. The flower still sits there, untouched by all of that activity — the information and art and storytelling. Here’s the flower, right here, and yet its essence still somehow escapes you.
As I mentioned, in Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism there’s a lot of skepticism about the ability of language to capture reality. As long as we’re thinking and saying and writing, we’re not directly experiencing, and the Chinese are about direct experience. You meditate until you’ve emptied your mind, and then you look at the flower. Just look at it. There’s no difference between it and you. I think that’s pure magic. An empty mind that mirrors the world puts the world inside of us. But as soon as we start hunting for that fictitious essence, to label it and name it and describe it with science or myth, suddenly the flower is not a part of us. It’s become objectified.
In ancient China they thought the only way to really experience yourself directly is through an empty mind looking at its own emptiness. In that moment the distinction between looking at yourself and just being yourself finally dissolves.
Tonino: Where does that leave us? When you wake up tomorrow, do you hike the mountain again, look in the mirror again? If there’s no real “knowing,” do we give up trying?
Hinton: Why is “knowing” the point? I think you just inhabit the mystery. Part of inhabiting the mystery is shedding the idea that you have to work and work, and rush and rush, as though if you just worked harder and faster, you would find the answer. These inclinations have to do with a desire for permanence. Inhabiting the mystery means embracing impermanence. You can’t hold on to anything. That’s just the way it is. You want to go deeper, but maybe this awareness of impermanence is as deep as you can go. At the very least, it’s real. Everything else is an illusion.
In a deeply experienced life, things are always entering us and becoming a part of us. I think this is wonderful. The mountain goes inside us. This table goes inside. The river goes inside. These words go inside. All of our immediate experience goes inside us and simply vanishes there. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that enough?