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Han Shan

Category: Poet

Han Shan was a poet-recluse of the T'ang dynasty (618–907), his exact date of birth and death are unknown. 

The hermits Hanshan 寒 , Shih-te拾得, and Fenggan 豊干, are all said to have lived at or around the temple Guoqing si 國清寺 on Mount Tiantai 天台. (T'ien-t'ai) in Danxing (Tang-hsing), China at the same time ;  all three hermits are now looked on as highly important characters in the history of Zen Buddhism.

The Tang government official, Lü Qiuyin 閭丘胤 (Lu Chiu-Yin), who introduced Han Shan’s poetry to China, met the poet while visiting the local Buddhist temple. Han Shan wrote more than 300 poems, which he inscribed onto trees, rocks, and walls. Lu Jiuyin took it upon himself to copy these poems, along with a few poems by Shi De, and collect them in a single volume, collectively known as Hanshan poetry.   There are several editions of the work, all having a preface by Lü Qiuyin and a postscript dated 1189 by Zhinan 志南 (n.d.) The earliest extant edition dates from the Song. The collection is one of the most widely read works in all of Chan literature.

The hermits and their poems have become a favourite subject of Sumiye painting by Zen artists.  Ink wash painting (Chinese: 水墨畫; pinyin: shuǐmòhuà; Japanese: 水墨画), or sumi-e (Japanese: 墨絵), uses black ink and an emphasis on brushwork and the perceived "spirit" or "essence" of a subject over direct imitation.  It is thus ideal for representing more spiritual subjects. [please note that the selection of paintings we have chosen to illustrate this entry come from various periods]

Han Shan as mystic poet

Han Shan's poetry is deeply spiritual rather than religious. He wrote mainly on Buddhist and Taoist themes, specifically enlightenment, in simple, colloquial language, but employing considerable symbolism.  He used conventional Chinese rhyming schemes within the five-character, eight-line verse form. The imagery and spirit of his poems in creating what scholar Burton Watson has called "a landscape of the mind" and his ability to express Buddhist ideals have given Han Shan a place among the finest of Chinese poets.  His poems “abound with references to the Tao-te-ching and Chuang-tzu, the Taoist classics”.

But he was like all mystics, a  man free of tightly defined religious doctrine, - 'gone to the other side' where such divisions and attempts to classify are essentially meaningless.

From the descriptions of him, there is every reason to think he was  almost child-like, but not mentally ill, just one who appeared to keep his childish state.  This, as we have already seen with others on the site is spiritually, one to be greatly envied:

Han Shan translated by D. T. Suzuki  

I think of the past twenty years,
When I used to walk home quietly from the Kuo-ch'ing;
All the people in the Kuo-ch'ing monastery--
They say, "Han-shan is an idiot."
"Am I really an idiot:" I reflect.
But my reflections fail to solve the question:
For I myself do not know who the self is,
And how can others know who I am?
I just hang down my head-- no more asking needed;
For of what service can the asking be?
Let them come then and jeer at me all they like,
I know most distinctly what they mean;
But I am not to respond to their sneer,
For that suits my life admirably.

There is reason to believe that Han Shan’s birth and death are not specified, because having achieved nirvana, the terms become meaningless

Know you not the birth and death,
They are like water and ice.
Water becomes ice and vice versa.
There is nothing otherwise,
Dead men have to be born,
Living men will be gone.
Water never harms ice,
To me both are so nice!

Ever Thus!
Living alone,
No birth no death!!


Little is known of Han Shan, not even his given name. While his poetry is well known and widely available, his life is shrouded in mystery. Even his name 寒山子 Hanshanzi [Kanzan shi] means, literally, "The Master of Cold Mountain."

 In the introduction to his translation of Hanshan's poems, Burton Watson writes, "If the reader wishes to know the biography of Hanshan, he must deduce it from the poems themselves." But Watson does go further to describe Hanshan as "a gentleman farmer, troubled by poverty and family discord, who after extensive wandering and perhaps a career as a minor official" became a hermit. In Paul Rozer's translation of poem 302, Hanshan appears to say that after leaving home and traveling he arrived at Tiantai Mountain at age 30, and that he was trained in the Confucian classics:

I’ve been in the world for thirty years,
And I must have traveled a million miles.
Walked by rivers where the green grass grows thick,
And entered the frontier where the red dust rises.
Purified potions in vain search for immortality,
Read books and perused the histories.
Today I return to Cold Mountain,
Pillow myself on the creek and wash out my ears.

Although living near the monastery and benefiting from any hand-outs, however, Han Shan did not live the life of a monk

The Preface to the Poems of Han-shan by Lu Ch'iu-yin, Governor of T'ai Prefecture tr. Gary Snyder

No one knows what sort of man Han-shan was. There are old people who knew him: they say he was a poor man, a crazy character. He lived alone seventy Li (23 miles) west of the T'ang-hsing district of T'ien-t'ai at a place called Cold Mountain. He often went down to the Kuo-ch'ing Temple. At the temple lived Shih'te, who ran the dining hall. He sometimes saved leftovers for Han-shan, hiding them in a bamboo tube. Han-shan would come and carry it away; walking the long veranda, calling and shouting happily, talking and laughing to himself. Once the monks followed him, caught him, and made fun of him. He stopped, clapped his hands, and laughed greatly—Ha Ha!—for a spell, then left.

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha!—the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

I once received a position as a petty official at Tan-ch'iu. The day I was to depart, I had a bad headache. I called a doctor, but he couldn't cure me and it turned worse. Then I met a Buddhist Master named Feng-kan, who said he came from the Kuo-ch'ing Temple of T'ien-t'ai especially to visit me. I asked him to rescue me from my illness. He smiled and said, "The four realms are within the body; sickness comes from illusion. If you want to do away with it, you need pure water." Someone brought water to the Master, who spat it on me. In a moment the disease was rooted out. He then said, "There are miasmas in T'ai prefecture, when you get there take care of yourself." I asked him, "Are there any wise men in your area I could look on as Master?" He replied, "When you see him you don't recognize him, when you recognize him you don't see him. If you want to see him, you can't rely on appearances. Then you can see him. Han-shan is a Manjusri (one who has attained enlightenment and, in a future incarnation, will become Buddha) hiding at Kuo-sh'ing. Shih-te is a Samantabbhadra (Bodhisattva of love). They look like poor fellows and act like madmen. Sometimes they go and sometimes they come. They work in the kitchen of the Kuo-ch'ing dining hall, tending the fire." When he was done talking he left.

I proceeded on my journey to my job at T'ai-chou, not forgetting this affair. I arrived three days later, immediately went to a temple, and questioned an old monk. It seemed the Master had been truthful, so I gave orders to see if T'ang-hsing really contained a Han-shan and Shih-te. The District Magistrate reported to me: "In this district, seventy li west, is a mountain. People used to see a poor man heading from the cliffs to stay awhile at Kuo-ch'ing. At the temple dining hall is a similar man named Shih-te." I made a bow, and went to Kuo-ch'ing. I asked some people around the temple, "There used to be a Master named Feng-kan here, Where is his place? And where can Han-shan and Shih-te be seen?" A monk named T'ao-ch'iao spoke up: "Feng-kan the Master lived in back of the library. Nowadays nobody lives there; a tiger often comes and roars. Han-shan and Shih-te are in the kitchen." The monk led me to Feng-kan's yard. Then he opened the gate: all we saw was tiger tracks. I asked the monks Tao-ch'iao and Pao-te, "When Feng-kan was here, what was his job?" The monks said, :He pounded and hulled rice. At night he sang songs to amuse himself." Then we went to the kitchen, before the stoves. Two men were facing the fire, laughing loudly. I made a bow. The two shouted Ho! at me. They struck their hands together—Ha Ha!—great laughter. They shouted. Then they said, "Feng-kan—loose-tounged, loose-tounged. You don't recognize Amitabha, (the Bodhisattva of mercy) why be courteous to us?" The monks gathered round, surprise going through them. "

"Why has a big official bowed to a pair of clowns?" The two men grabbed hands and ran out of the temple. I cried, "Catch them"—but they quickly ran away. Han-shan returned to Cold Mountain. I asked the monks, "Would those two men be willing to settle down at this temple?" I ordered them to find a house, and to ask Han-shan and Shih-te to return and live at the temple.

I returned to my district and had two sets of clean clothes made, got some incense and such, and sent it to the temple—but the two men didn't return. So I had it carried up to Cold Mountain. The packer saw Han-shan, who called in a loud voice, "Thief! Thief!" and retreated into a mountain cave. He shouted, "I tell you man, strive hard"—entered the cave and was gone. The cave closed of itself and they weren't able to follow. Shih-te's tracks disappeared completely..

I ordered Tao-ch'iao and the other monks to find out how they had lived, to hunt up the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs—and also to collect those written on the walls of people's houses. There were more than three hundred. On the wall of the Earth-shrine Shih-te had written some gatha (Buddhist verse or song). It was all brought together and made into a book.

I hold to the principle of the Buddha-mind. It is fortunate to meet with men of Tao, so I have made this eulogy.


  • A documentary Cold Mountain :  Han Shan  https://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/2457/Cold-Mountain  Director: Mike Hazard & Deb Wallwork | Producer: Mike Hazard  | Produced In: 2009 |
  • Han-shan, Cold Mountain Poems  Translated by Gary Snyder - In 1953, Gary Snyder returned to the Bay Area and, at age 23, enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, to study Asian languages and culture. He intensified his study of Chinese and Japanese, and taking up the challenge of one of his professors, Chen Shih-hsiang, he began to work on translating a selection of 24 poems.  It  was published in the 1958 issue of The Evergreen Review, and is now on Kindle as well.
  • A useful website - https://terebess.hu/zen/chang/hanshan.html#f


Of the 600 poems he is thought to have written at some point before his death, 313 were collected and have survived. Among the 57 poems attributed to Hanshan's friend, Shide, seven appear to be authored by Hanshan, for a total of 320.  Hanshan's poetry consists of Chinese verse, in 3, 5, or 7 character lines; never shorter than 4 lines, and never longer than 34 lines. The language is marked by the use of more colloquial Medieval Vernacular Sinitic than almost any other Tang poet. The poems can be seen to fall into three categories:

  • the biographical poems about his life before he arrived at Cold Mountain;
  • the religious and political poems, generally critical of conventional wisdom and those who embrace it;
  • and the transcendental poems, about his sojourn at Cold Mountain.

We have collected a selection from a number of sources the names of which are given in the observation.  It is worth noting that he is especially loved by the Japanese, who know him as Kanzan.


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