Saturday, 30 March 2013

Hinton: Hunger Mountain

David Hinton (2012) Hunger Mountain, A Field Guide to Mind and the Landscape Shambhala, Boston; 144 pp.; ISBN 978-1-61180016-6

Hunger Mountain is in the Green Mountains of Vermont in the United States. David Hinton, a prize-winning translator of classical Chinese poetry and philosophical works, lives with his family near the mountain and regularly climbs the peak for the purposes of solitude and reflection. His understanding of the worldview of classical Chinese literature informs the way he looks at the mountain. Mountains were significant for ancient Chinese sages and poets because they linked heaven and earth. Many ancients lived as hermits in mountain caves and retreats and their writing and paintings were often inspired by their experiences of communing with nature.

Each of the chapters in this book has a Chinese character or group of characters as its title, with a literal English translation beneath. (Where Hinton does provide a transliteration of the Chinese, he uses the old Wade-Giles system rather than Pinyin.) Hinton explores the meanings of the characters, often reaching back to early pictograms that were precursors of classical Chinese script. He sees the pictorial nature of Chinese script as an important element in classical Chinese thought which rejected the dualism of a self reflecting on the world in favour of an empirical perception of the world unmediated by a framework of ideas.

This drive for an immediate community with the empirical world is a fundamental feature of both Taoism and Chan (later Zen) Buddhism. Techniques such as meditation, seclusion, walking in wild places and pondering insoluble riddles were all aimed at overcoming the confines of conscious thought and being at one with the world. Hinton has tried some of these and they influence how he experiences Hunger Mountain. There is a constant feedback loop between those experiences and his translation work, with the latter then informing how he engages with Hunger Mountain.

Metaphor and simile are largely absent from classical Chinese poems because the idea is to present nature as it is. Hinton also discusses poets, often women, who attempted to go beyond the use of words in poetry to try and achieve that direct experience. I could not help thinking how some of their actions would not appear out of place in modern avant garde art shows, though I suspect the motivations in the latter are rather more base.

Hinton discusses the importance of friendship, silence and respect in understanding the world and how these were expressed by the ancient poets and philosophers. Friendship was more about sharing a perception of the world than matching likes and dislikes. Respect for the world and all it encompasses also bred tolerance and acceptance of the ebb and flow of existence. The ancient Chinese used the term ‘heaven and earth’ to express the full extent of existence, including all of us who are part of it. Hinton contrasts this with the dualist approach of Western thinking which sees the world as something apart from humans. I immediately thought of the way we say ‘I would move heaven and earth to …’ where the world is clearly seen as something ‘out there’ that we need to manipulate rather than something that encompasses all of us as an indivisible whole.

While there are some intriguing ideas in this book and some beautiful, if brief, passages of nature writing, much of the text is dense and complex. There are detailed discussions of Chinese characters and their etymology, and the difficulty of some of the philosophical concepts means that the discussion invariably gets abstract. It is ironic that Hinton, who clearly admires the classical Chinese idea of direct experience of the empirical world unfettered by the chains of language, is himself enmeshed in abstruse terminology and expression in order to get the idea across. The ancient wine-swigging sages would have had a good laugh at that.

Back in the 1960s, the folk singer Donovan sang a song which included the lines ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is’. The lines are from Lao Tse and they are a concise statement of what Hinton is getting at: we see the world as a material thing apart from us, then with training that duality is removed and we perceive the cosmos as one, until the final stage where we just accept the empirical world as is, no longer seen through the iron cage of our preconceptions.

I felt that Hinton could have done more to link the concepts he discusses to his experiences on Hunger Mountain. This might have helped to make his ideas more accessible to the general reader. As it is, this is a book that will appeal to those with a specific interest in Chinese culture, philosophy and poetry, and with a stomach for wading through some intricate explanation. If you can make the climb, you will enjoy the view.

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