The Gulf disaster and the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Tibet have highlighted the fragile ecosystem we inhabit and disastrous impact of our lifestyle choices. And yet, it seems far removed from our everyday life as we get on with the business of life as we want it to be. Around here, it was another weekend on the farm, consumed with getting vegetable patches ready for planting and violating the First Precept by killing an infestation of grain beetles that had taken up residence in a bag of wheat germ. To honor the call to action on Sunday, however, I made a determined attempt to look around at the world I inhabit, day after day.
We live on a farm outside the city. I can’t say that we moved here because of any great conscience about the state of the world. It was isolated and it allows us a way of life that is simpler than being on an intensely consuming grid of electrical and social power. Sometimes, I rant and rail against the isolation and the demands of travelling back and forth. But by the time I turn onto the gravel road, all I want is the silence and view of the maple-dotted ridge and the river where the herons gather. The house is about 90 years old and we’ve only done the bare minimum to keep it habitable. We often joke that, when we had horses, the barn was more a photo spread for House and Garden than the house itself.
On weekends, we drive from the farm into town along a route that takes us through the village and then winds into the quickly spreading suburbs. It’s a 30 minute drive into this part of town and, along the way, there are houses left abandoned for reasons only known within families: death, illness or the pull for newer and larger abodes. Markers of life in more difficult yet in some ways, simpler times.
Living the philosophy of a simple life is not so simple. It often involves taking a stand against prevailing attitudes, speaking to the truth of what is unfolding, accepting what is inevitable without giving in to it, and knowing there will be an ultimate intimacy with the earth. I’d like to share some of these perspectives over this week in the context of an interesting little book by Burton Watson titled Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life. The four householders – the huts are metaphors for being a householder – write of an eerily contemporary parallel in their perspectives and their struggles.
The first is Po Chu-i (also known in the familiar as Lo-t’ien) who was one of the most prolific and popular of the T’ang poets. Growing up in poverty, he ascended the ranks of the civil service only to run afoul of the government because of his tendency to be outspoken against the reigning policies. Sent to china’s version of Coventry, a remote area south of the Yangtze, he discovered Mount Lu and built a house which he called “grass-thatched hall.”
Three spans, a pair of pillars, two rooms, four windows – the dimensions and expenditures were all designed to fit my taste and means…. 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.
Po-Chu’i only lived there for two years but it seemed a restorative place in all its simplicity and he was content to live out his career as a lowly civil servant as a consequence for having taken the stands he did. What did it matter in the end that he was only a “marshal – a fitting post to spend old age in” if it gave him “Kuang’s Mount Lu, a place for running away from fame.”
A new thatched hall, five spans by three;
stone steps, cassia pillars, fence of plaited
The south eaves catch the sun, warm on
a door to the north lets in breezes, cool in
Cascades from the spring that drip on the
paving splatter it with dots;
the slanting bamboo that brushes the
window isn’t planted in rows.
Next spring I’ll thatch the side room to
fit it with paper panels and reed blinds for
my Meng Kuang.
I wonder. In these calls to action, how can we take the necessary stands, suffer the consequences, and not whine about the exile? Can we experience, in the reach of Mount Lu, the mountains and rivers and build thatched huts from which to enjoy them?
Thank you for practicing,