On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

October 01, 2013

Record of the Thatched Hall on Mount Lu

Po Chu-i (816)

K'uang Lu, so strange, so superb it tops all the mountains in the empire! The northern peak is called Incense Burner Peak, and the temple there is called Temple of Bequeathed Love. Between the temple and the peak is an area of superlative scenery, the finest in all Mount Lu.

In autumn of the eleventh year of the Yuan-ho era (816) I, Po Lo-t'ien of T'ai-yuan saw it and fell in love with it. Like a traveler on a distant journey who passes by his old home, I felt so drawn to it I couldn't tear myself away. So, on a site facing the peak and flanking the temple I set about building a grass-thatched hut.

By spring of the following year the thatched hall was finished. Three spans, a pair of pillars, two rooms, four windows—the dimensions and expenditures were all designed to fit my taste and means. I put a door on the north side to let in cool breezes  to fend off oppressive heat and made the southern rafters high to admit sunlight in case there should be times of severe cold. The beams were trimmed but left unpainted; the walls plastered but not given a final coat of white.

I've used slabs of stone for paving and stairs, sheets of paper to cover the windows; and the bamboo blinds and hemp curtains are of a similar makeshift nature. Inside the hall are four wooden couches, two plain screens, one lacquered ch'in, and some Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist books, two or three of each kind.

And now that I have come to be master of the house, I gaze up at the mountains, bend down to listen to the spring, look around at the trees and bamboos, the clouds and rocks, busy with them every minute from sun-up to evening. Let one of them beckon, and I follow it in spirit, happy with my surroundings, at peace within.

One night here and my body is at rest, two nights and my mind is content, and after three nights I'm in a state of utter calm and forgetfulness. I don't know why it's like this, but it is.

If I asked myself the reason, I might answer like this… In front of my house is an area of level ground measuring ten chang square. In the middle is a flat terrace covering half the level ground.

South of the terrace is a square pond twice the size of the terrace. The pond is surrounded by various types of indigenous bamboo and wildflowers, and in the pond are white lotuses and silvery fish.

Continuing south, one comes to a rocky stream, its bank lined with old pines and cedars, some so big that ten men could barely reach around them, some I don't know how many hundred feet in height. Their upper limbs brush the clouds, their lower branches touch the water; they stick up like flags, spread like umbrellas, rush by like dragons or serpents.

Under the pines are many clumps of bushes or thickets of vines and creepers, their leaves and tendrils so interwoven that they shut out the sun and moon, and no light reaches the ground. Even during the hottest days of summer the breeze here is like autumn. I have laid a path of white stones so that one can go in and out of the area.

Five paces north of my hall the cliff rises up in layers, heaped in stones and full of pits and hollows, bulges and projections. A jumble of trees and plants blanket it, a mass of dense green shade with here and there festoons of red fruit. I don't know what they're called, but they stay the same color all year round.

There is also a bubbling spring and some tea plants. If you used the water from the spring to brew tea, and people with a taste for such things happened along, they could amuse themselves for a whole day.

East of the hall is a waterfall, the water tumbling down from a height of three feet, splashing by the corner of the stairs, then running off in a stone channel. In twilight and at dawn it's the color of white silk, and at night it makes a sound like jade pendants or a lute or harp.

The west side of the hall leans against the base of the northern cliff where it juts out to the west, and there I've rigged a trough of split bamboo to lead water from the spring in the cliff, carry it across to my hall, and divide the flow into little channels so that it falls from the eaves and wets the paving, a steady stream of strung pearls, a gentle mist like rain or dew, dripping down and soaking things or blowing far off in the wind.

On four sides these are the sights that meet my eyes and ears, that my shoes and walking stick take me to: in spring the blossoms of Brocade Valley, in summer the clouds of Stone Gate Ravine, in autumn the moon over Tiger Creek, in winter the snows on Incense Burner Peak.

Now sharply seen, now hidden, in clear or cloudy weather; concealed, revealed, in twilight or at dawn; undergoing a thousand changes, assuming ten thousand forms—I could never finish describing them or capturing them all in words. Therefore I say the scenery here is the finest in all of Mt Lu.

Ah, even an ordinary person, if he builds himself a house, fits it with bed and mat, and lives there a while, can't help putting on an air of boastfulness and pride. And now here I am, master of a place like this, with all these objects offering me understanding, each after its own kind—how could I be anything but happy with my surroundings and at peace within, my body at rest, my mind content!

Long ago Hui-yung, Hui-yuan, Tsung Ping, Lei Tz'u-tsing, eighteen men in all, came to this mountain, grew old and died here without ever going home. Though they lived a thousand years ago, I can understand what was in their hearts, because I'm here too.

What's more, when I think back, I see that from youth to old age, wherever I've lived, whether in a humble house or a vermillion-gated mansion, even if I stayed no more than a day or two I immediately began dumping basketfuls of earth to build a terrace, gathering fist-sized stones for a miniature mountain, and damming up a few dippers of water to make a pond, so great is this weakness of mine, this fondness for landscapes!

Then one morning I met with trouble and demotion, and I came here to lend a hand in the administration of Chiang-chou. The magistrate of the district treated me with kindness and generosity, and Mount Lu was waiting for me with these superb sights and wonders!

Heaven arranged the time for me, earth provided the place, and so in the end I've gotten what I like most. What more could I ask for?

But still I'm saddled with my post as a supernumerary official, and with other entanglements I can't get free of just now, so I come and go, not yet able to sit down and rest. Some day, though, when I've married off my younger siblings and served out my term as marshal, when I can stay or go as I choose, then you may be certain I'll take my wife and family in my left hand, gather up my ch'in and books in my right, and live out the remainder of my days here, fulfilling the wishes of a lifetime. You clear spring, you white rocks, listen to what I say!

Po Chu-i (816)

Excerpted from Four Huts – Asian Writings on the Simple Life translated by Burton Watson 1994

While this selection reads like a lyrical piece about a man retiring to a meditative life, and seemingly having little to do with us today, this is not a story about a recluse or one removed from ordinary concerns. Po Chu-i was a well known poet of the T'ang dynasty, balanced with many governmental positions, who challenged the policies of his time and therefore was demoted and sent to a remote area.

Because of this turn of events, this remote post turned into good fortune as he was able to make trips to Mount Lu which is a complex series of peaks and valleys and the site of numerous Buddhist and Taoist temples. Po himself was a Buddhist and did visit these temples to practice Zen meditation with the monks. He commemorates this time with the above piece. While he did long to live out his days there, he was transferred to yet another remote post and had to leave his thatched hut after two years

Nowadays the ideal of retreat to a thatched hut or mountain hermitage sounds dreamlike for most of us. So, how does this story relate to anything in our lives today? Does it read like a story of long days ago to which we wistfully sigh, and say, well, that's not possible for us? Or like many city dwellers throughout the ages, do we find a way to bring some of this mountain spirit into our own lives?

If there is a yard, there can be a corner for an outside meditation space with a statue of Buddha, a few flowering plants and a quiet place to sit. If there is a balcony or deck, there can be a section where flowers are grown in pots with a miniature shrine and place to sit.

Lacking those luxuries, we can find a corner in our home to recreate that place outside of time, our meditation space. Any wall can become a place of reminders to return to that spaciousness and equanimity. These become our refuges in the midst of the speediness of current times.

With Po’s efforts we feel a kinship with all humanity to balance living in this world with our work and very earthly pulls with our quest to go beyond the ordinary to the sublime.  Our actions, our responses, our commitments are manifestatiosn of the Way.  Through us today we keep the living Dharma alive.  Meditation in action is just what it says.

May our Way be clear!


Recent Journals

Journal Archives