and the distractions of materialism

“Where’s the trail to Cold Mountain?

Cold Mountain? There’s no clear way.

Ice, in summer, is still frozen.

Bright sun shines through thick fog.

You won’t get there following me.

Your heart and mine are not the same.”

  • Han-Shan

In January of this year, I broke my boyfriend’s heart and left him for another. It’s strange how often such occurrences are depicted in popular culture where they are rendered exciting and rebellious, while their experience is so utterly dissimilar. It is unfathomably unpoetic to watch someone’s heart break in the space of a few words.

Where am I going with this? My ex’s birthday was to take place two weeks after we parted ways, and I couldn’t let it go. I caved in and bought him a book: Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems. The poetic minimalism of the poetry amazed me in its evocation of immense depths of emotion in such pure form and economised language. Nothing was accidental; nothing was out of place. It was the perfect image of the beauty and pain of solitude, and the buying of it for my lost love became some sort of ceremonial offering that held my own loneliness and repentance within its pages:

“Alive in the mountains, not at rest,

My mind cries for passing years.”

After giving my ex the book, I began to read more about Han-Shan and explore his life and his significance in the literary landscape. The figure of Han-Shan is alleged to have lived in the Chekiang (now known as Zhejiang) Province on the east coast of China during the eighth to ninth century AD. He resided on the T’ien-t’ai Mountains, which have been long-revered in Chinese history, both in their connection to ancient Taoism and later as prominent areas of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

The most intriguing aspect of all this is that, since he was a hermit, no one actually knows if Han-Shan even existed at all. He wrote his poetry on objects of the natural landscape; sections of mountain faces, bamboo, and rocks. There are no paper records to verify his existence. What better example of a “minimalist” poet than one who didn’t use paper, and potentially didn’t even exist? The fact that Han-Shan left no trace except his art is what intrigued me most—in modern days of rushed and cluttered existence, of pointless objects and chaotic houses, Han-Shan’s honest, unembellished discourse was a breath of fresh air for me. The appeal of “minimalism” in both literature and aesthetics is a hugely popular movement, arising perhaps as a remedy to the complexity of our everyday lives. Han-Shan himself offers guidance on this subject: 

        Go tell families with silverware and cars

        “What’s the use of all that noise and money?”’

(As interpreted and translated by American Poet Gary Snyder, 1965)

I think it’s fascinating to consider how literally you would take this phrase. Is he addressing you? Would you give up your consumerist habits? Shopping is an integral part of our culture, capable of expressing love, joy, sadness, and repentance, sentiments that I wished to express in giving my lost love Han-Shan’s book. Buying and giving are ways of asking questions, like asking for forgiveness, for companionship, or for approval. Having lots of expensive gadgets and items implies our success as humans, but it is also a way to express ourselves creatively, through architecture, design, and artwork. But there is no limit to this expression, this desire to own the next phone, to jump on the next clothing trend, to start the newest diet craze, to acquire more and more and more stuff. And we are encouraged to pursue these desires by ads on our cereal boxes, on our phones, on our buses, on the billboards we drive by every day. 

It certainly isn’t an easy feat to reject the value that our communities and societies place on the material. Han-Shan speaks of his estrangement from his friends and family in his decision to reject the beaten path in favour of a life of simplicity. He faces his “lone shadow” and his “eyes [become] bleared with tears.” Though Han-Shan’s experience of living completely apart from his community is extreme, perhaps it can teach us something valuable about the process of change, how difficult that change can be, but also how wonderful and how transformative seizing the possibility of a new beginning can be:

“If there’s something good, delight!

Seize the moment while it flies!

Though life can last a hundred years,

Who’s seen their thirty thousand days?

Just an instant then you’re gone.

Why sit whining over things?”

I am not suggesting that we can comprehend or implement the simplicity that Han-Shan practiced as a solitary man living quietly in the mountains with no material objects to his name. Nor am I saying that what he achieved is perfect and that we all need to aspire to it. But I am suggesting that there are ways we can all begin to contemplate the ways we live and the ways we consume in order to bring more peace into our own lives. Perhaps we can examine what brings us the most joy, what gives us comfort and love, and how we can begin to bring more clarity in our lives by shifting our focus away from the material and toward a greater understanding of what we want from life. 

Ask yourself these questions: Are there clothes in your wardrobe that you wear once a year? Do you have boxes of trinkets, cracker keyrings, old soaps, old makeup that you cannot even face sorting through? 

Give them away, sell them. 

It’s funny, these suggestions seem almost too obvious to write down. But, I understand that there is a more profound meaning to these acts than merely getting rid of objects. This is not simply about the objects themselves, but about cultivating a greater perception of what connects you to the world, what has importance to you and what does not. It is about uncomplicating our lives to give space to appreciate life itself. Even food, our most basic need, is consistently overcomplicated by the industries that feed us. When did bread, the simplest creation of human ingenuity, become something other than flour, water, and salt? When did we lose our ability to cook and feed ourselves? Our supermarket shelves are inundated with the words “easy” and “quick”; convenience is of the essence, as society no longer gives us time to slow down. We live in a constant rat-race, living rushed and complex existences simply to get by. 

I do not say these things to instill guilt, but to encourage you to notice all the ways in which capitalism has failed us, and how we can begin to make more conscious decisions about how we choose to live our lives, how we choose to spend our money and what impact our existence eventually has on the world we leave behind. 

Maybe, in removing the distractions that materialism has bought us, we can refocus our emotions and realize what we hold most dear. In my solitude after my boyfriend and I parted ways, I read Han-Shan’s words and cried for many long, dark days. When the tears stopped, I thought how wonderful it is that in a world of materialism, cultural bombardment, and noise, everything always comes down to love. And I think that is the overriding message I took from The Cold Mountain Poems. To love unconditionally—to love the world around me as much as I love the people in it, and to remove whatever doesn’t align with that love. I am in awe that after over 1,000 years, we can still understand Han-Shan’s words, even if it is in the context of our own, hectic lives. 

“Bright water shimmers like crystal,

Translucent to the furthest depth.

Mind is free of every thought

Unmoved by the myriad things.

Since it can never be stirred

It will always stay like this.

Knowing, this way, you can see,

There is no within, no without.”

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