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As this pandemic progresses, I increasingly turn to my heroes, the Chinese and Japanese poet-recluses. I’ve found myself obsessively pulling from my bookshelves works of and by devoted meditators who practiced Chan and Zen in threadbare robes. The poet-recluses eagerly chose a life of simplicity, quiet, and separation, deeming it the finest method for pursuing the Way. Self-isolation? Shelter in place? These guys are, quite literally, the masters.
I’ve always loved how the translator Red Pine concludes his preface to a collection of mountain poems by the 14th-century Chan teacher Stonehouse [Shiwu]: “Say hello to your new best friend.” To me, the Buddhist poet-recluses really do feel like friends—funny, thoughtful, honest, unpretentious, and (when necessary) prickly, challenging, and insistent. We know that friends greatly improve our quality of life, but the global pandemic has forced many of us to cancel plans, stay at home, and embrace limitation. Reading old hermits such as Stonehouse provides a useful perspective on solitude’s difficulties and rewards. Plus, there’s the sheer charm of the conversation, the companionship.
Below are a handful of potential buddies with whom, in these uncertain, uncomfortable times, you might spend five minutes, five hours, or five weeks. Poet-recluses often kept the “brushwood gate” closed, signaling to would-be visitors that their withdrawal was not to be interrupted. However, by applying ink to paper, committing experience and advice to the page, one gate after another was, in essence, propped open to posterity. Why not swing by for a visit? It’s as easy as settling into a comfy chair, pouring a cup of tea, and cracking a book. And get this: the standard social distancing recommendation of six feet does not apply!
1. Han Shan (7th century)
Han Shan, a.k.a. Cold Mountain, is probably the most famous Buddhist poet-recluse and, accordingly, he serves as an introduction to the tradition for many readers. I’m no exception: my senior year in high school, a teacher noticed me browsing that North American classic of radical hermitry, Thoreau’s Walden, and recommended I check out Gary Snyder’s translations of a mysterious Chinese wilderness eccentric who, legend has it, carved his verses onto rocks and trees. “Go ahead and let the world change,” wrote Han Shan, “I’m happy to sit among these cliffs.” Also: “I’ll sleep by the creek and wash my ears.” Snyder said that Han Shan’s poems touch us because they express “the absolute pleasure in being in the great world ‘with a sky for a blanket.’”
Here are some of Han Shan’s poems as they appeared in Tricycle’s Spring 1995 issue (excerpted from translator Burton Watson’s Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan):
I came once to sit on Cold Mountain
And lingered here for thirty years.
Yesterday I went to see relatives and friends;
Over half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Bit by bit life fades like a guttering lamp,
Passes on like a river that never rests.
This morning I face my lonely shadow
And before I know it tears stream down.
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 cares could trouble my mind?
The clear water sparkles like crystal,
You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free from every thought,
Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.
Since it cannot be wantonly roused,
Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.
When you have learned to know in this way
You will know there is no inside or out!
2. Xie Lingyun (385–433 CE)
My favorite biographical detail about Xie Lingyun (sometimes spelled Hsieh Ling-yun)—an aristocrat-politician from one of China’s elite families who underwent a Buddhist awakening and retired to a rural estate—is that he invented a unique type of mountaineering clog. Dedicated to rambling the high country ridges, Xie Lingyun is known to have undertaken a rugged monthlong trail-cutting exploration—key word rugged. He perhaps misled the reader slightly by describing his post-politics life breezily, as follows: “I offered myself to this tranquil repose of dwelling, / and now nurture my lifework in the drift of idleness.” Then again, strenuous hiking can itself be a manner of meditating, of idly drifting, if we comprehend that “serenity is everywhere apparent.” Xie Lingyun once advised, “Walk humbly and it’s all promise in beauty.”
Here’s Xie Lingyun’s “Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-chia,” from Tricycle’s Winter 2002 issue:
Taking a little food, a light walking-stick,
I wander up to my home in quiet mystery,
the path along streams winding far away
onto ridgetops, no end to this wonder at
slow waters silent in their frozen beauty
and bamboo glistening at heart with frost,
cascades scattering a confusion of spray
and broad forests crowding distant cliffs.
Thinking it’s moonrise I see in the west
and sunset I’m watching blaze in the east,
I hike on until dark, then linger out night
sheltered away in deep expanses of shadow.
Immune to high importance: that’s renown.
Walk humbly and it’s all promise in beauty,
for in quiet mystery the way runs smooth,
ascending remote heights beyond compare.
Utter tranquility, the distinction between
yes this and no that lost, I embrace primal
unity, thought and silence woven together,
that deep healing where we venture forth.
3. Saigyo (1118–1190 CE)
Translator Burton Watson nicely described Saigyo—the quintessential wandering Japanese priest, a role model for the haiku virtuoso Basho—as a man who “was not ashamed to confess his unending passion for blossoming cherries and the moon in the night sky.” He lived through a violent period during the transfer of power in Japan from court nobles to samurai warriors, and one suspects that this backdrop of civil war shaped his pursuit of a lonely, peaceful existence in a hut made from sticks or grass. The first Saigyo poem that I encountered was quoted in a book by Jack Turner, an ecophilosopher from Wyoming who has himself lived for decades in off-the-grid shacks: “How timely / the delight / of this snowfall, / obliterating the mountain trail / just when I wanted to be alone!”
The following Saigyo excerpt appeared in Peter Levitt’s review of Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing, from Tricycle’s Summer 1993 issue:
alone beneath a blanket
of cold moss
remembering what is learned
only from dew and stone
4. Ryokan (1758–1831)
Ryokan referred to himself as “Great Fool,” and indeed, this beloved Japanese recluse-poet wrote about walking barefoot into a nearby village with a begging bowl and empty stomach, then getting distracted from his quest for dinner by neighborhood kids, with whom he enjoyed playing games like hide-and-seek. Aware of the transience that undergirds daily life, he encouraged readers to appreciate the here and now: “Children, / let’s go to the mountain / to view violets. / If they scatter away tomorrow, / what can we do?” For the record, the only library book I’ve lost in three decades was Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan (trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi), but that loss turned out to be a boon because after I bought a replacement copy the original turned up, and ever since Ryokan has been at my side.
The following excerpt from a poem by Ryokan appeared in Tricycle’s Spring 1995 issue:
At Entsu-ji so long ago—
How many times has winter given way to spring?
Beyond the gate a thousand homes,
Yet not a single acquaintance.
When my robe was soiled, I washed it;
If food ran out, we begged in the town.
I pored over the lives of eminent priests
And came to understand their praise of holy poverty.
5. Shiwu (1272–1352)
At last, we arrive at Stonehouse, or Shiwu (sometimes Shih-Wu): Chinese master, subsistence farmer, resident of a mountain summit called Hsiamushan. Bill Porter, who translates under the name Red Pine, wasn’t kidding—this guy really will become your new best friend. Why that is, though, remains tricky for me to say, even after reading The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse cover to cover half a dozen times. I suppose it has to do with Stonehouse’s openness and availability, not merely to those of us who are searching for insight, for wisdom, for a bit of guidance through the mess and muddle of existence, but also to his own immediate surroundings. “To glimpse the fluttering of shy birds,” he wrote, “I don’t always close the door I made.” Hanging out with Stonehouse, the world comes toward us and we are able, at least for a moment, to accept what comes. “The Way finds me without me trying.” Thanks for the reminder, buddy!
This Stonehouse poem was published in Tricycle’s Winter 1999 issue:
You run around waving scissors and tape
busy all day with needle and thread
when you’re done measuring others
do you ever measure yourself?
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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