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Hunger Mountain





I've been translating classical Chinese poetry for many years, and slowly over those years I've come to realize that in translation I've stumbled upon a way to think outside the limitations not just of the mainstream Western intellectual tradition, but also of my own identity, a way to speak in the voice of ancient China's sage-masters, and for them to speak in mine. Ancient China had a long and diverse philosophical tradition centered on the nature of consciousness, the empirical world, and the relationship between them; but virtually all of that tradition's diversity begins with the same, relatively simple conceptual framework. This framework, apparently originating at the earliest levels of Chinese culture, in Neolithic and Paleolithic times, appears in the Taoist and Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist philosophical traditions, and even more fundamentally in the structures of the classical Chinese language itself. And it provided a deep form that the minds of all ancient Chinese intellectuals shared, even across their remarkable diversity, as did all aspects of the cultural tradition they produced: classical poetry, for instance, or landscape painting.


Inhabiting the minds of those poets and philosophers as I translate, I have inhabited that conceptual framework. It is a kind of practice in which I have slowly cultivated the elemental dimensions of that framework over the years; and eventually I wanted to work through that framework with as much thoroughness and clarity as I could, in part because it represents such a remarkably contemporary a worldview. It is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual. It is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding. Although articulated in the written tradition entirely by male members of a virulently sexist society, it is profoundly gynocentric: a primal cosmology oriented around earth's mysterious generative force, a cosmology whose deep sources in the oral tradition may well be female. And it is what we now call “deep ecology,” meaning it weaves human consciousness into the "natural world" at the most fundamental level. In fact, the West's separation of “human” from “nature” is entirely foreign to it.


For a variety of reasons that will be explained in the early essays of this book, those ancient sage-masters saw the deep structure of things most clearly when in the presence of mountain landscapes (hence, for instance, the preeminence of mountain landscape in the painting tradition). It therefore seems that tracing the physical and mental contours of mountain walks would be the best way to work through their insights-not as academic abstraction, but at the level of actual experience. And so, as autumn made its fitful way toward winter-days sometimes cold and sometimes warm, weather sometimes rain and sometimes snow, sky sometimes overcast and sometimes bottomless blue-I took a series of walks up a nearby peak called Hunger Mountain, following a trail I've taken often over my years translating the ancients.


Nothing much happens on these autumn walks, which makes them the perfect occasions to explore consciousness and landscape in and of themselves, as well as the dynamic interplay between them, which is to explore the fundamental texture of our everyday experience. To walk through a landscape is to walk through a culture, for it is culture that determines both what we are and what a landscape is for us. Each of these essays reflects my attempt to understand one of those walks on Hunger Mountain as the ancients might have understood it through their shared Taoist/Ch'an framework, to think through it in their voice, but also to let them think through it in mine, with whatever new possibilities that might open.

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