Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Will this Hut Perish or Not?

I watched this little documentary about Buddhist hermits living in the mountains of China. It is beautifully filmed, and filled with dharma, so you should check it out if you have a chance. Maybe I will write about it more at a later time.

Watching the film reminded me of one of the poems I most enjoy chanting after meditation: "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" by Shitou. Shitou Xiqian lived in the 8th century. When he was young, he was a student of the great master Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. Like those in the documentary, Shitou was basically a recluse, and his lineage languished in obscurity for decades after his death. It was largely due to the rise of master Dongshan in the middle of the 9th century that we know of Shitou's work and life today.

So, a nice little piece of history, right? Well, I like history as much as anyone, but there's another reason for including this about Shitou. The title of this post is a line from Shitou's poem. Here are the previous two lines, in addition to the question.

"A great vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can't help wondering:
Will this hut perish or not?"

Ah, attachment. He's point right at it. Right at our deep attachment not only to things like the hut, but to life itself. You are the hut, I am the hut too! And beyond that, your legacy is the hut, and mine is too!

It doesn't appear that Shitou did much to cultivate a lasting reputation. He wasn't out there selling the teachings he had, building grand monasteries, and advising famous people. Although we can't know for sure, it seems that Shitou lived a very stripped down, simple life, devoted mostly to his practice. He had few students, and few distraction, and probably liked it that way.

Will this hut perish or not? How often have you asked some variation of this question to yourself, or to others? How often have you felt yourself wanting one side or the other of the answer to occur? It's not only that we wish to live forever in some way, even if by reputation or by what we've made, but also that we desire other things to die, to be gone and out of our lives.

I remember sitting next a guy a few days ago at a coffee shop who was chain smoking. I really dislike smoking for all the obvious reasons, but also notice how righteous my mind gets when I feel someone is disrespecting me in some way. This guy sat down and lit up right away. No check in with anyone around him. No wondering if someone might have asthma, for example, or if someone has just quit smoking themselves and wanted some distance from it. Nope, he just lit up, smoked, finished, lit up again, smoked, finished, and lit up a third time. And as this went on, in my mind came all the usual story lines about arrogant smokers, and health concerns, and should I say something or not. So, as he smoked, I smoked in a different way. An agitated idea would arise and I would either try to blow it off, or would blow it up into something much bigger. There's habit energy for you. Mine and his sitting right next to each other.

So, wanting things to perish. It's the other side of the question so many of us are wrestling with on a daily basis. And there is Shitou saying to us: "the question is useless! only the middling or lowly consider it."

I can almost see him pointing his finger at me and saying "Where's your trust, man!" Maybe if I could actually see him doing it, I'd be able to point at my chest and say "Right here, right here!" I'm not there yet. Trust is still pretty flimsy in this life. Not just the trust that someone will follow through on what they say, or that there will be enough money or whatnot, but more so the great trust in the functioning of the world as a whole, and my tiny, little part in that.

Shitou instructs us to "Turn the light to shine within, then just return." There is something a little mysterious about this phrase, even as it seems fairly plain on the surface a pointer to "study the self," as Dogen would say. I wonder what he means by "just return." Is it simply to keep coming back to yourself, your practice again and again? Or maybe it's pointing at the fact that when you turn inward, and really light up what is, that you simply returns? Gradual enlightenment, sudden enlightenment ... maybe that too isn't worth worrying much about.

"If you want to know the undying person in the hut," Shitou says,
"Don't separate from this skin bag here and now."

I can see his dust filled feet lifting and setting down on the path ahead. Maybe one day I will catch up for a chat. And maybe not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,
Thank you for posting this.
Deep bow,