Red Pine: Dancing With Words

Roy Hamric

“All great texts contain their potential translation between the lines; this is true to the highest degree of sacred writings.”
—Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator.


[W]hen I first saw Red Pine’s translation of “The Poems of Cold Mountain,” I remember thinking, “This is something important — who’s this Red Pine?”

That was 1983. Two years later came the book that really shook up the Buddhist literary community, Red Pine’s stunning, self-published translation of The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, a tough-spirited book of enlightened free verse — 300 poems chronicling the pains and pleasures of Zen hermit life. The Stonehouse (Shih-wu) and Cold Mountain (Han-shan) translations put a spotlight on Zen autobiographical poetry unlike any books before.

Red Pine’s elegant hand-sewn, self-published translation of “The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma,” in a Chinese red cover, followed in 1987.

Over the years, I avidly bought each new Red Pine translation: Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom (Sung Po-jen); Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching; and his own Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, which put contemporary flesh on early Zen hermit life.

My curiosity about the man who calls himself Red Pine grew with each new book. But facts about his life were clouded in dust jacket blurbs: he lived in the mountains overlooking Taipei in a small farm community called Bamboo Lake; he was connected somehow with Empty Bowl press in Port Townsend, Washington.

Eventually his American name, Bill Porter, appeared on one of his books. Red Pine: Bill Porter. But, no more — none of the American Buddhist magazines, which proliferated during the ‘80s and ‘90s, were of any help.

From the first, his translations seemed inspired. I held his books differently. There was a feeling of verisimilitude, rare in translation. His choices and love for the writers he translated filled a hole in my view of Chinese Zen writers. I felt connected to his poets as real people.

My admiration grew for the role of the translator who passes on obscure, subtle Zen texts and poetry. The translator is the invisible presence in the equation between writer and foreign reader. In translating (trans-relating) a text from one language to another, they serve as a supreme amanuensis who bridges language and brings writers and foreign readers together. Red Pine’s out-of-the-main-stream work is canny and clearheaded, and it has immeasurably enhanced Zen/Taoist literature and practice.

Then last year came his stunning translation of The Diamond Sutra, with commentaries by Red Pine and Buddhist writers from over the centuries. The fruits of Red Pine’s years in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, his travels in China, and his quiet devotion to Buddhist study and practice shine through the work. The translation occupies a unique place in Buddhist literature–serious, scholarly, but with the smell of experience. Work you can trust.

After living 22 years in Asia, Red Pine returned to live in America in 1993, settling in Port Townsend. A coastal town of about 8,000 people on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, it’s a laid-back mix of Victorian houses, fishing boats, artists and writers, and a cottage industry of tourists.

His tie to the town was forged through a band of artists, poets, tree- planters and Asian connoisseurs who earlier had started Empty Bowl press, the imprint he used for three of his self-published books. The books are now collector items. With first printings of 1,000 copies, he sent the books from Taiwan to friends in America. “They would sell them in about a half-dozen book stores and send me some money,” he says.

Red Pine’s audience today is still small, but fervid. “Typically, the first year a book will sell two to three thousand copies then start averaging 500 to 1,000 copies a year,” he says.

With royalties as almost his only source of income, Red Pine lives frugally. He’s trimmed the fat from his life, in order to be able to translate and publish his books. In the acknowledgments of his recent books, he thanked the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program. “It was not tongue in cheek,” he says. “I couldn’t get by without it. I have a good life, but it takes commitment. I just don’t do anything. I’m perfectly content to do my work everyday.”

Red Pine was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 1943. He was sent to boarding schools in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “I had good schooling, but emotionally I wasn’t ready to go to college,” he says. “I entered the University of Santa Barbara in 1961, but I flunked out because I didn’t have a clue. Often on Friday nights, I’d take what’s called a ‘piggy back’ freight train to San Francisco for the weekend. I spent all my time mooning over this woman and flunked out of school. I did the same thing at two junior colleges.”

After receiving a draft notice in 1964, he voluntarily enlisted and served a three-year Army tour in Germany. He returned to Santa Barbara to major in anthropology and was soon reading The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, and Introduction to Buddhism by Edward Conze. “It was then that I finally felt I’d found something that made sense to me about what was going on in this life. But, I was really still looking on these books as something I was doing on my own, on the side.

“I graduated in ‘70, and applied to grad schools. The only one that gave me any money was Columbia University. I had checked the box on an application for a language fellowship, and I penciled in ‘Chinese’ — and I got it.”

At Columbia, Red Pine studied language and anthropology, approaching it from the point of view of what it could teach about the truth of life. He spent his junior year at the University of Goettingen in Germany. “Everything I was studying then started to dovetail with Buddhism,” he says. “They all were saying the same thing to me in terms of how to discover what’s real. I was ready for Buddhism when it came along. But the thing about Buddhism was that it was so much broader in scope, far more poetic as well — a way of life as well as a way of thinking.

“When I went back to Columbia, I found I couldn’t write papers. My anthropological underpinnings had been wiped away. Suddenly, I was thinking everything was an illusion, or all categories are fictions. I was meditating on weekends with a Buddhist Hua-Yen monk, Shou-yeh, who had a temple north of New York city. Finally, I threw in the towel and decided to go to a Buddhist monastery.

“I knew another student who had been to a monastery in Taiwan, and he knew of a monastery that was just starting. I wrote them a letter and they said, ‘Come on over.’

His father gave him a one-way ticket and $200, and he arrived in Taiwan in 1972. He stayed for a year at the Fo Kwang Shan monastery with master Hsing Yun.

“They had classes,” he says. “It was sort of a Buddhist training monastery with Sanskrit classes and the study of different sutras, all in Chinese. I had been studying Chinese intensely for two years, but they sort of let me slide through. I had a nice room just off the Buddha Hall.

“All the people there thought it was the strangest thing to have a foreigner studying Buddhism. It was like being on a foreign planet. When the public came through the monastery it was sort of touristy, and I got tired of being gawked at so I decided to go to a monastery in Taipei.”

He eventually landed at the College of Chinese Culture where he became a graduated student in philosophy. He lived in the dorm with Chinese students and took classes in Taoism, Chinese art and philosophy.

“A professor offered a course on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead,” he says. “The Chinese woman who later became my wife sat behind me in that class.” While at the college, Red Pine studied the Tao Te Ching with Prof. John C. H. Wu, who in 1961 had published a valuable English translation of the work.

After one year, he was unhappy with academic life, and a friend suggested he go to Hai Ming Temple, a monastery 20 km south of Taipei. “Wu Ming was the head Rinzai monk. I stayed there 2-1/2 years. Wu Ming was Chiang Kai-Shek’s personal master. That place had an artistic sense. He told me if I had any questions to ask, but I’m the kind of person who’s not very curious. So I just studied and meditated. I had got hold of all these classic texts with both Chinese and English characters and I went through most of the sutras.”

Red Pine was still courting his future wife, Ku, and on Saturdays he often took the train to Taipei to see her. She introduced him to a coterie of intellectuals who met at the Astoria Bakery/Coffee shop.

“When it came time to decide if I wanted to be a monk, I decided to move out of the temple,” he says. “But before I left, I took the lay precepts. Then I found this place on the top of Yang Ming Mountain near where all the rich people lived overlooking Taipei. I rented a converted stone farm shed in Chu Tzu Hu, or Bamboo Lake.”

About this time, he adopted “Red Pine” as his Chinese name, only to discover later it was also the name of the Yellow Emperor’s Rain Master, a famous Taoist. After seven years, he and Ku married. A son, Red Cloud, was born in 1982, and a daughter, Iris, in 1987. For about six years he worked at International Community Radio in Taipei as a national news editor. “That’s the only full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says.

Married 21 years, Red Pine and Ku only recently have been able to live together full time. Ku’s parents placed a condition on their marriage that she continue to take care of her parents, and she’s done that.

At Bamboo Lake, Red Pine began translating Cold Mountain poems. He sent about 100 poems to Shambala, Weatherhill and Tuttle publishers. They all turned him down. Frustrated, he sent some of the translations to John Blofeld, a renowned writer-translator, and asked him if he’d look at them. Blofeld replied he’d like to see more and a friendship formed. He became Red Pine’s mentor.

“He asked me to start sending him the poems,” he says, “and he went over them with me and encouraged me to translate all 350 poems. That was my trial by fire. I never intended to be a translator — it just sort of happened.

“I have a couple of hundred letters,” Red Pine says. “I’d send the poems each week and he returned them with comments and asides.” They corresponded regularly for two years.

When Copper Canyon Press accepted the book, Red Pine asked if Blofeld would write the introduction, and Blofeld invited him to visit him at his home in Bangkok, where he spent a week. Later, Blofeld visited Red Pine several times at Bamboo Lake, the last time in 1987 as Blofeld was confronting cancer.

“He was a very sincere Buddhist who practiced every night for several hours and loved what he did,” Red Pine says. “I don’t think he ever stopped learning.”


His Cold Mountain translations garnered attention, but The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, was the real revelation for most readers. A poet few people had ever heard of, Stonehouse’s singular poem-journal outlined Zen hermit life in chilling and thrilling clarity.

“Rare is the Chinese who’s ever heard of Stonehouse,” Red Pine says. “He’s a much better poet than Cold Mountain, but he didn’t have the fame Cold Mountain had. Within 100 years, Cold Mountain had a real reputation.

“As soon as Cold Mountain was published, I was dissatisfied with what I’d done. Stonehouse gave me a chance to reconfront the art of translation. It was so much more poetry.”

Red Pine says he’s still learning the art of translation with each new work.

“When I was translating Cold Mountain, I definitely didn’t have my own voice,” he says. “With Stonehouse it was somewhere in between. I think I didn’t really discover my translation voice until I did Bodhidharma, which gave me a chance to find the rhythms of my language.

“Every project I’ve engaged in taught me an entirely different way of translation,” he says. I don’t view Chinese poetry today the way I did then. I use to count the words in my English lines and try to do my best to do the same thing they did in Chinese. I was also intrigued about things you can do in English that reflect the Chinese, not to make the English sound Chinese but to do things with it that to me at least seemed unique.

“I tried to do things that I saw happening in Chinese — the Chinese language is a very telegraphic, terse language — time is almost irrelevant, their subject is also dispensed with. A line can be very ambiguous. So I started to play with that in English and still make sense.

“Words carry a lot on their surface, but a lot is under the surface that we don’t see when we see the word — a lot comes from contextual familiarity.

People identify words with context. I was intrigued by the nature of Chinese poetry and its brevity — there were these flashes of meaning.

“What I do now is more of a performance,” he says. “Before, I was usually sort of reading the lines like an actor, but now I perform the book — what I do now is closer to dance. The words have to follow along my physical feel for the rhythm, the feeling of what’s happening in the Chinese poem. I don’t see the Chinese as the origin anymore. The Chinese was what the authors used to write down what they were feeling.

“I’ve gotten so used to the words I don’t have to think about them anymore. I’m more concerned with the spirit. I don’t think I have a philosophy of translation, but you have to be very open.

“You’re trying to get into the heart of another person. I’m fortunate I’ve found materials that present deep hearts. That’s the way I’ve responded with the passion I have. I’m fortunate to have run into the Buddha, Bodidharma, Cold Mountain, Stonehouse and the other Buddhist poets.”

Red Pine lives in a two-story Victorian house on a high hill overlooking Port Townsend. To the south is the Olympic Mountain range. Through the largest window in his workroom he can see the sea. From another window he can see the branches of a plum tree he planted. From another window he can see pine trees and bamboo. On the walls are bamboo paintings, a Buddha tanka, and a painting with a Wang Wei poem. The room is lined with books. He works almost every day with few breaks.

“I have an extensive library for me, but probably no bigger than what a college professor has in their office,” he says. “I’ve never been interested in knowing everything about everything. I only translate what I want to learn about. For the Tao Te Ching, I had about 40 commentaries.

“I only buy books that relate to the projects I’m working on — a couple of those books will usually be on the time period it’s written in. I hardly have any books at all in English.

“I’m not interested in what a Westerner has to say about these things, because that’s a secondary source. My library is in primary source material — a bunch of sutras, poems, commentaries.”

Red Pine’s interest in primary sources took a physical turn in 1989, when he began wondering if Buddhist hermits still survive in China. His Taiwan friends doubted real Buddhism existed in China. By chance, he had a conversation with Winston Wang, the son of one of the richest men in Taiwan. Wang was fascinated by the idea of searching for Chinese hermits, and he gave Red Pine $3,500 to finance an exploratory trip. His first trip was for one month, and he went back two more times.

“Most people who translate don’t have a clue to where things happen,” Red Pine says. “They really don’t have an awareness of the landscape. I visited the grave of every significant poet, and I’ve been to every significant Zen temple, but before that I’d never paid attention to it. I discovered the place, and that was exciting to me and since then I make sure I know where the work was done.

“I’d never been to China before,” he says. “We got there at the beginning of the Democracy Movement. We were caught in huge demonstrations. There were a lot of spies, informants, and we could tell something was about to happen.” It was one month before Tiennanmen Square. The search for hermits centered around the Chung Nan Mountains in southern Yunnan.

The trip brought home the true meaning of hermit life, Red Pine says.

“I’ve never heard of any great master who has not spent some time as a hermit. The hermit tradition separates the men from the boys. If you’ve never spent time in solitude, you’ve really never mastered your practice.

“If you’ve never been alone with you practice, you’ve never swallowed it and made it yours. Now I can see the part it’s played in the history of China. If you don’t spend time in solitude, you don’t have either profundity or understanding — you’ve just carried on somebody else’s tradition.

“The hermit tradition is like graduate school — undergraduate school is the monastery — you should go through the first to get to the second.

The hermit tradition plays into the Chinese attraction to anarchism, he says. “If I could choose one word to describe the Chinese character it would be anarchism — they don’t respect authority unless it comes with power. It’s very Chinese to want to set up your own shop — the opposite of the Japanese. They’re very much like the cowboy. They respect people who are on their own, but to do that you have to be completely confident in what you’re doing.”

After the hermit book, Red Pine started working on Chinese classics. He published Guide To Capturing A Plum Blossom, an ingenious picture-prose inventory of perception, in 1995; Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, in 1996 and The Diamond Sutra last year.

“The Plum Blossom is the oldest art book ever printed,” he says. “It has an amazing concept of picturing and describing a plum blossom from so many points of view — like in deconstruction, it takes it apart — and it’s important in terms of its cultural connection and what it says about the Chinese spirit.”

The Tao Te Ching, although known worldwide as a central text in Chinese philosophy, is only part of the Taoist world view, Red Pine says. He doubts Taoism has had a major influence on Buddhism or Zen.

“All the early Chinese Buddhist disciples were not necessarily Taoists,” he says. “But they were mostly Confucianists. I think Confucianism has had a much greater role to play. Taoism itself is a religion that calls on people to become one with the Tao — it’s a religion that focuses on the dialectic of the yen and yang, whereas, at the core, Buddhism is non-dual. Its interest is in transcending duality.

“The Taoist concept of emptiness is totally different from Buddhist emptiness. Taoist are interested in the creation of an immortal spirit body that becomes one with the Tao — you have to do something — it entails doing something, but in Buddhism you have to not do something. It’s always been a current that’s run through Taoism. Every master has his own take on what the Tao is. Lao-tzu’s Tao was ethical, moral Taoism — about what to do in this life, not about the abstract state of how to become successful. And Lao-tzu’s Taoism is a very different Taoism than Chuang-tzu’s.”

Red Pine seriously started translating the Diamond Sutra in 1999, shortly after he took a position teaching Buddhism and Taoism in exchange for room and board at The City of 10,000 Buddhas near Ukiah, California. He lived there two years before returning to Port Townsend.

“I had tried to translate the Diamond Sutra before, but it still didn’t make sense to me as a coherent whole,” he says. “But when I was in Taiwan I ran into this grammatical study of the Sanskrit in Chinese, and I saw things I’d never seen before — it all seemed to fit together. I based my translation on the Sanskrit text, but translated a lot of the commentaries from the Chinese masters.

“I always give sutras the benefit of the doubt and assume they were spoken by the Buddha. It [the Diamond Sutra] couldn’t have occurred at the beginning of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It was maybe when he was around 60 to 65 years old.

“Most people assume the Buddha’s teaching is about emptiness where the Diamond Sutra is just about the opposite of that. Most of the Perfection of Wisdom texts take this point of view, whereas the Diamond Sutra takes the opposite point of view. I sort of think the Buddha was thinking that day that maybe a lot of people are getting attached to emptiness, so today I’m going to teach everything is a body, but everything is also a part of the body of Buddha.

“This is a very big body — but the Buddha is trying to teach people that through the body of the Buddha you gain a great body of merit and that will be your body and this body is also no different than the body the Buddha gained when he became enlightened. But that body itself can become an attachment if you don’t get beyond that. All of it is based on the idea that the quickest way to practice is about giving, about being compassionate.”

A highlight of the sutra’s commentaries are the words of Te-ching (Han Shan te-ching, not to be confused with Han Shan aka Cold Mountain).

“He’s not widely known or translated in the West,” Red Pine says. “But all the Chinese put him on a pedestal. I used his commentaries on the Tao Te Ching and the Diamond Sutra. He certainly ranks as an equivalent to Hui- neng. I always turn to him first. He was fearless and very unique in his insights.”

Recently, Red Pine finished translating the classic Chinese poetry anthology Poems Of The Masters from the T’ang and Sung, which will be published by Copper Canyon in 2003.

He’s now cautiously testing the waters of the Lankavatara Sutra, a project he says could take three years.

“The books I work on are like lovers,” Red Pine says. “You learn a whole new universe — a different way of feeling. Right now, I’m still flirting with the Lankavatara.”

A bibliography of Red Pine’s books:
P’u Ming’s Oxherding Pictures and Verses, Empty Bowl, 1983;
Cold Mountain Poems, Copper Canyon, 1983;
Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, Empty Bowl, 1985;
The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Empty Bowl, 1987 [trade edition, North Point, 1989];
Road to Heaven: Encounters With Chinese Hermits, Mercury House, 1993;
Guide To Capturing A Plum Blossom, Mercury House, 1995;
Lao- tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Mercury House, 1996;
The Clouds Should Know Me By Now, co-translated with Michael Conner, Wisdom Press, 1998;
The Zen Works of Stonehouse, Mercury House, 1999;
The Diamond Sutra, Counterpoint, 2001.

All books, except Empty Bowl editions, are still in print.

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Roy Hamric

Author's Bio

Roy Hamric is a writer who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand