Bill Porter (Red Pine): The Translator of Chinese Poems and Promoter of Zen Buddhism
Bill Porter was born on 3 October 1943 in Los Angeles, California. His father, William A. Porter, was a convicted bank robber who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Michigan in the 1920s. During this unfavourable time, William’s sisters Pearlie and Pauline moved to Michigan to be closer to their brother. Both Pearlie and Pauline worked as waitresses in an upscale restaurant where the Michigan governor at the time often dined. Both women seized this opportunity to tell the governor about their brother. Fortune started to shine on the Porter family when the governor decided to issue a pardon for William A. Porter. By the time he was released, William A. Porter only served six out of the 20-year prison sentence.
After his release, William A. Porter secured a job in the hospitality industry and eventually became a wealthy man by establishing his hotel chain. Following his success, William A. Porter became a big sponsor of the Democratic Party and a close friend of the Kennedy family. Porter grew up in a privileged environment. He attended prestigious boarding schools in Los Angeles and San Francisco but unlike most privileged children, Porter became disillusioned with wealth. He could see the superficiality of many people who surrounded those with money.
In his later years, misfortune came back to haunt his father William A. Porter. William’s marriage ended in divorce and his hotel business was crumbling from a series of lawsuits. He quickly lost most of his wealth, and his family was back to experiencing financial hardship. However, instead of lamenting the misfortune, Porter was relieved that he did not have to inherit a vast fortune. He was happy to be released from the social pressure of having to act like people with money. In his later years, Porter revealed his feeling about the loss of his father’s fortune:
Meeting powerful people and seeing what facades their characters were, how false they were. I didn’t realise what I was being introduced to, but I realised that money and fame are not worth seeking and are even worth avoiding. I still remember how good I felt when I realised my father was losing all his money because then I realised I wouldn’t have to inherit it. Not that I couldn’t use a little money right now, but at the time I was so turned off by it because of all these fake people I met all the time as a child.
After he finished high school, Porter enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1961. However, he was not mentally ready for college and consequently, he dropped out from the university and two other junior colleges. In 1964, he received the draft notice and subsequently joined the military. He went on a three-year tour to Germany in his capacity as a medical clerk. After completing his military tenure, Porter went back to the University of California, Santa Barbara to major in Anthropology. It was in college that he developed an interest in Buddhism after having read a book by Alan Watts titled The Way of Zen and another book by Edward Conze titled Introduction to Buddhism. Porter recalled his thoughts when reading the two books:
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.
After obtaining his bachelor degree, he enrolled at Columbia University as a graduate student in anthropology and Chinese language. He spent his junior year at the University of Goettingen in Germany and realised that his real interest was Buddhism. Porter recalled his feeling then:
Everything I was studying then started to dovetail with Buddhism. 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 he came back to Columbia University, his interest in anthropology had waned. He found it challenging to write papers, and felt that the subject would not serve his purpose to find the meaning of life. He started to attend meditation classes taught by a Hua-Yen Buddhist monk, Ven. Shou Yeh, on weekends at a temple that was located north of New York City. He was never able to communicate properly with Shou Yeh because he could not speak fluent Chinese, and Ven. Shou Yeh only spoke limited English. However, Porter enjoyed observing Ven. Shou Yeh’s calm and peaceful demeanour.
In 1972, Porter made a decision to drop out of Columbia University to join a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. His schoolmate informed him of a newly established monastery in Taiwan, Fo Kwang Shan Monastery. He wrote a letter to the monastery to express his interest in joining them. Much to his surprise, the abbot of Fo Kwang Shan agreed to let him stay. Porter’s supportive father bought him a one-way ticket to Taiwan and gave him US$200 to enable him to fulfil his desire to study Buddhism.
Two Decades in Asia
Fo Kwang Shan and Hai Ming Monastery
Initially, Porter wanted to stay longer at Fo Kwang Shan Monastery because the monastery offered many classes on Buddhist teachings and sutras. However, as a western Buddhist practitioner who lived in the monastery, he attracted unwanted attention. Porter felt distracted by the visitors who were curious to see him. He recalled:
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…
Therefore, after staying at Fo Kwang Shan Monastery for only one year, Porter decided to move out and enrolled himself at the College of Chinese Culture majoring in Philosophy. He lived in the dormitory together with other students, and took classes on philosophy, Chinese arts and Taoism. He particularly liked the classes taught by Prof. C.H. Wu who had published an English translation of Tao Te Ching, a fundamental Chinese text on Taoism. It was in this university he met the woman who would later become his wife, Ku Lien Chang. After about one year, Porter became disinterested with academic life. He dropped out of college and joined Hai Ming Monastery, about 20 km outside Taipei, Taiwan.
At the time, Hai Ming Monastery’s abbot was Ven. Wu Ming, the personal master of Chiang Kai Shek. Ven. Wu Ming had previously written commentaries and published the poems by the Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain, also known as Hanshan. Although not much was known about Cold Mountain’s personal life, he was regarded as an emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Cold Mountain is believed to have written over 600 poems, out of which only over 300 poems survived to this day. Porter was very much attracted to the Cold Mountain’s poems and decided to translate them. He recalled:
Cold Mountain really spoke to my heart. It was the first deep voice I had encountered who spoke so simply and so truly about living a simple life and not being distracted or seduced by the things that bothered me when I was younger, wealth and power and all that sort of stuff.
Porter was given the name Victorious Cloud at the monastery, where he would spend most of his time studying and meditating. He recalled, “I had got hold of all these classic texts with both Chinese and English characters, and I went through most of the sutras.” He also improved his grasp of the Chinese language by doing the translation of sacred Buddhist scriptures and Cold Mountain’s poems. He ended up studying there for about 2.5 years. During his stay in the monastery, Porter was still courting Ku Lien Chang and would travel to Taipei on weekends to see her. Ku introduced him to intellectuals who gathered at the Astoria Bakery / coffee shop. When the time came for Porter to decide whether or not to become a monk, he decided to leave the monastery. Before he left however, he took the lay precepts vows, to commit himself to Buddhism. The lay precepts are the basic ethical code of conduct for lay Buddhist practitioners.
Becoming Red Pine
After he left the monastery, Porter rented a stone farm house in Bamboo Lake, Yang Ming Mountain. Around this time, he decided to adopt the pen name ‘Red Pine’. He recalled:
…one day I’m coming down the mountain on a bus, and it came to a stop right next to a billboard advertising Black Pine Cola. I say ‘that’s the name!’ But black is not a Chinese colour. Red is a Chinese colour. Red Pine! That’s my new name.
Several months later, Porter found out that Red Pine was also the name of a great Taoist master, the rain master of the Yellow Emperor. He used the name Red Pine because he was inspired by Chinese poets such as Cold Mountain or Stonehouse who used symbolic names.
After many years of courtship, Porter finally married his long-time partner, Ku Lien Chang. In 1982, the union bore a son named Red Cloud and in 1987, a daughter named Irish. The financial pressure of a growing family led him to take a full-time job as a national news editor at the International Community Radio in Taipei.
During his stay in Bamboo Lake, Porter continued to translate Cold Mountain’s poems. He submitted his translation work of Cold Mountain’s poems to several publishers such as Shambala, Weatherhill and Tuttle, but he was rejected by all three. Refusing to give up, Porter sought an advice from a famous writer and translator, John Blofeld (1913 – 1987), who would become his mentor. Blofeld encouraged Porter to translate all the surviving poems by Cold Mountain and helped him by giving valuable feedback throughout the process. Upon completing the translation of Cold Mountain’s poems, Porter submitted his work to Copper Canyon Press to be considered for publication. This time he was successful. In 1983, Cold Mountain’s translated poems were published as a book titled The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain under his pen name, Red Pine. Blofeld wrote an introduction to the book. Although the quality of the translation was good, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain was not a best seller book.
Excerpts from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain:
Today I sat before the cliff,
sat a long time till mists had cleared.
A single thread, the clear stream runs cold;
a thousand yards the green peaks lift their heads.
White clouds – the morning light is still.
Moonrise – the lamp of night drifts upward.
Body free from dust and stain,
what care could trouble my mind?
Following on from the modest success of his first book, Porter persevered in his effort and continued to translate other Chinese poems. His subsequent works, P’u Ming’s Oxherding Pictures and Verses in 1983 and From Temple Walls: The Collected Poems of Big Shield & Pickup in 1984 were published by Empty Bowl Press. Empty Bowl Press specialised in publishing artistic and bohemian writing works targeted at a unique audience.
Porter started to receive serious acclaim after his book The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse containing a collection of poems by Stonehouse was published by Copper Canyon Press. The process of translating Stonehouse’s poems made a deep impression on Porter. He felt a strong connection to and was moved by the poems that described the life of a Zen hermit with all the hardships and happiness. Stonehouse, born in Changshu, China in 1272, was a Zen master, hermit and poet who eventually became a highly respected Dharma master in the Chinese Zen Buddhist tradition.
The following is the excerpt from The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse:
Snow-filled nights a fire is my lone companion
frost-covered dawns I hear a gibbon howl
my tattered monk’s robe isn’t easy to mend
I cut a new patch when a cloud rolls in
From outside my round pointed-roof hut
who would guess at the space inside
all the worlds in the universe are there
with room to spare for a meditation cushion
The poems that Stonehouse composed elegantly describe his Zen hermit lifestyle and, in an honest and humorous way, describe his experience when meditating on a mountain. The poems often mention the tiny stove that was used by Stonehouse during his solitary retreat to provide warmth and to make tea and simple meals. Stonehouse’s rare poems, combined with Porter’s ability to express the poet’s intention in his own words, made The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse a big success in the heart of its readers and secured positive reviews for Porter.
After the success of The Mountains Poems of Stonehouse, Bill Porter soon returned to work. He translated the teachings of Bodhidharma for his next book titled The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived between the 5th and the 6th centuries and is often regarded as the practitioner who brought Chan Buddhism to China. Although not much is known about this monk, he is often depicted as a big-eyed and bearded man who hails from Central Asia.
Bodhidharma’s teachings focused on the Lankavatara Sutra and meditation. In Japan, Bodhidharma is known as Daruma. The first edition of The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma was published by Empty Bowl Press in 1987 and the second edition was published in 1989 by North Point Press.
Porter confessed that The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma is the first book translated in his own voice:
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.
Porter regards the Chinese language as abstract and telegraphic, and many Chinese authors focus more on the substance and not the form. Therefore, good translators should be able to understand the meaning and context of the words prior to executing the translation to their native languages.
Porter on translating Chinese poems:
It’s like I see a beautiful woman dancing on the dance floor and I’m so attracted [and] I want to dance with her but I don’t hear the music. I’m deaf. I have no idea what’s impelling her to dance but I want to dance with her, so I do. But I would never want to put my feet on top of her feet to dance.
This is what most people think is translation – dancing with your feet on top of someone else’s feet. That way it’s literal and it’s accurate but it’s not because it kills the dancer. And you can’t dance across the room either. You have to get close enough to feel the energy.
After Porter completed the translation of Cold Mountain’s and Stonehouse’s poems, he wondered if Buddhist hermits still exist in modern times. To fulfil his curiosity, Porter applied for a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to engage in research in this area. However, before he heard the news from the Guggenheim Foundation about the status of his application, he had a chance to interview the son of the wealthiest man in Taiwan, Winston Wong Wen-Young from Formosa Plastics, one of largest plastic companies in the world. Porter informed Wong that he was waiting to hear from the Gunggenheim Foundation about the grant to research about Buddhist hermits. Wong told him that if Porter did not obtain the grant, he would be happy to help. As it turned out, the Guggenheim Foundation rejected Porter’s application, leading Wong to help to fund his research. In total, it took him 1.5 years to complete his first book, Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. The book was published by Mercury House in 1993.
After completing Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, Porter had another project in mind. He wanted to research the origins of Chinese culture, and he contacted Wong to request the necessary funding which was around US$9,000 to pay for his three-month journey to China. Once again, Wong agreed. During his research, Porter focused his attention on the Yellow River and the surrounding areas in China because he believed that they were the centre of cultural assimilation between the native Chinese and other nationalities who came to trade via the Silk Road route.
After Porter came back from his research, his superior at the radio station in Taiwan, Bryan Curtis, was offered an opportunity to become the head of a new radio station, Metro News. Curtis asked Porter to come with him, and Porter agreed. In Hong Kong, Porter pitched his idea to produce his own radio series on Chinese history called Yellow River Odyssey. The idea was accepted and he signed a two-year contract. In total Porter successfully wrote and produced five radio series covering Silk Road to Islamabad, the tribes who lived on the hill in southern China, Jiangnan region, and the Three Gorges. After working in Hong Kong for two years, Porter saved enough money to return to the United States with his family and put a down payment on the house the family is now still living in.
In 2014, Porter rewrote the radio scripts into a book titled Yellow River Odyssey. The book includes photographs of his travels and information about religious sites that are connected to Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuang Zhou.
Returning to the United States
After working in Hong Kong for two years, Porter saved enough money to return back to the United States with his family. In 1993, Porter and his family moved to the United States and settled down in Port Townsend in Washington State, a coastal town of 8,000 people. Prior to this move, Porter had visited the city several times before because Copper Canyon Press that published many of his books was based in Port Townsend. He was particularly enamoured with the fresh and peaceful nature that the city offered. The family bought a house for US$93,000 and they have been living in that house ever since.
Initially, the family experienced financial hardship. For some time, Porter had to work two jobs in a bakery and a restaurant as a waiter to support his family. Juggling two jobs was challenging and left Porter too exhausted to do his translation and writing works. After one year of focusing on his jobs, Porter realised that he missed writing and translation work, and decided to prioritise these over his two jobs. He started using credit cards to pay for his family expenses. Although his literary aspirations were fulfilled, debt quickly accumulated and although he was able to write book, however, the proceeds from the book royalties were insufficient to cover his family’s living expenses.
At the time, Porter had 15 books in print and he was able to sell 1,000 books a year on average. He earned US$1.50 per book as his royalties, and therefore was making US$15,000 per year on average. For some time, the family lived frugally and relied on food stamps. In interviews, Porter has seriously and sincerely thanked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Stamp Program and the Port Townsend Food Bank for providing meals for his family.
Bill Porter’s View on Zen Buddhism
Porter is very much interested in Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is a branch or school of Mahayana Buddhism that teaches its practitioners to exercise self-control and meditation. It encourages practitioners to understand the nature of Lord Buddha so they can also practise their understanding of every aspect of their daily lives for the benefit of sentient beings. The teachings of Zen Buddhism are believed to have been brought by Bodhidharma to China during the 5th or 6th century.
Porter has previously expressed that he agrees with the idea of Zen Buddhism to free one’s mind from concepts, languages and attachments. Porter’s belief that Zen Buddhism is more a way of life than a religion, has compelled him to write and translate books related to the subject, such as The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, The Zen Works of Stonehouse, The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma and Zen Baggage. To Porter, the belief that Zen Buddhism is more a way of life has fuelled his interest in Buddhist Zen hermits because their commitment to live in isolation to meditate is the true essence of Zen Buddhism.
A Conversation on Zen Buddhism with Bill Porterhttp://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/ConversationwithZenMaster.flv
Or view the video on the server at: http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/ConversationwithZenMaster.flv
Bill Porter’s Impact on Modern Chinese Readers
One fateful day, Porter met Tang Xiaoming, the manager of Beijing Reader Publishing in the Cypress Grove Monastery, Beijing. Porter was visiting the monastery to do research for his upcoming book, The Zen Baggage. At the time, Tang Xiaoming had started to become interested in Buddhism, and he was impressed with Porter’s work and how he conveyed the substance of Chinese poetry and writers. As a result, Tang Xiaoming was interested in publishing Porter’s works, although Beijing Reader Publishing usually only publishes business-related books.
In 2001, Porter had published a book titled Secluded Orchids in a Deserted Valley about Buddhist hermits and other noble characters. In Tang Xiaoming’s opinion, the previous publisher of this book did not represent the text well. Thinking that the time had come for the Chinese to reconnect with their religious roots, Tang Xiaoming decided to re-publish the book in 2009. He was right. Secluded Orchids in a Deserted Valley received positive reviews in China and sold over 100,000 copies. Porter became a foreign sensation in China, and a page in Baidu Baike, the Chinese version of Wikipedia was dedicated to him. In addition, the book prompted hermit tourism in China. Porter believed the reason behind his book’s success was because many Chinese readers were eager to learn about their cultural heritage.
In 2009, Porter’s English versions of The Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra, along with his commentaries, were translated back into Chinese. The publisher felt that compared to the original Chinese version, Porter’s translations were easier to understand after being translated back to Chinese. In 2011, Tang Xiaoming released the Chinese version of Porter’s The Zen Baggage in China. The book received critical acclaim and 50,000 copies were sold. For the first time in his life, Porter received a commission and down payment to write a book based on his old radio show script in Hong Kong, Yellow River Odyssey. In 2012, it became known that Porter had earned US$30,000 from his book sales in China alone. After several years of struggle, he was finally able to provide for his family without relying on the government’s Food Stamp Program.
Awards and Grants
One of Porter’s books titled In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Yingwu was awarded the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant from PEN American Center. In 2010, the same book also won the American Literary Translators Association’s inaugural Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize.
In 2011, Porter received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation after being rejected seven times in a row. The grant was utilised to fund his research in 20 locations in China that are associated with poetry. Porter used the information from the trip to write a book about the ancient Chinese poets titled Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past. The book was released in 2016.
Now that Porter is in his 70s, he will soon be retiring from the literary world. Initially, he used Buddhist texts as a functional way to understand the Chinese language and had not planned on translating them into English. These days, Porter finds more meaning connecting with other people, instead of going around China to research for his books. He has plans to visit Europe where he used to serve as a medical clerk for three years, and to visit Taiwan. Although Porter does not plan to write or translate any more books, he will always be remembered as a gifted translator and prolific author who pours his heart into his works.
Promotional Video on Finding Them Gonehttp://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/FindThemGone.flv
Or view the video on the server at: http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/FindThemGone.flv
W.S. Merwin, a National Book Award-winning poet, once gave a thoughtful comment on the translation work of Red Pine, especially for his book titled The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse:
…they’re not like any others. Love of language, love of tradition, accuracy and power of language. I am so indebted to him (Bill Porter). I’ll be reading his Stonehouse translations for the rest of my days.
List of Bill Porter’s books:
|1.||The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (translator)||Copper Canyon Press||1983|
|2.||P’u Ming’s OXHERDING PICTURES & VERSES (translator)||Empty Bowl Press||1983|
|3.||From Temple Walls: The Collected Poems of Big Shield & Pickup (translator)||Empty Bowl Press||1984|
|4.||The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse (translator)||Empty Bowl Press||1986|
|5.||The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (translator)||North Point Press||1987|
|6.||Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits (author)||Mercury House||1993|
|7.||Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom (translator)||Mercury House||1995|
|8.||The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th-Century Chinese Hermit (translator)||Mercury House||1997|
|9.||The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China (translator)||Wisdom Publications||1998|
|10.||Secluded Orchid in a Deserted Valley (author)||Contemporary China Press||2001|
|11.||The Diamond Sutra (translator)||Counterpoint Press||2002|
|12.||Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse (translator)||Copper Canyon Press||2003|
|13.||The Heart Sutra (translator)||Counterpoint Press||2004|
|14.||Platform Sutra (translator)||Counterpoint Press||2006|
|15.||Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China (author)||Counterpoint Press||2005|
|16.||Lao-tzu’s Taoteching (translator)||Copper Canyon Press||2009|
|17.||In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu (translator)||Copper Canyon Press||2009|
|18.||The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary (translator)||Counterpoint Press||2012|
|19.||Yellow River Odyssey (author)||Chin Music Press||2014|
|20.||Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past (author)||Copper Canyon Press||2015|
|21.||South of the Clouds: Travels in Southwest China (author)||Counterpoint Press||2015|
|22.||South of Yangtze (author)||Counterpoint Press||2016|
|23.||The Silk Road (author)||Counterpoint Press||2016|
Sources of information:
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