by Bob Schwartz

Thomas Merton hermitage

Four Walls

Four walls
Three doors
One window
One ceiling
One floor.
How simple
How deep.
Walls layered
And filled.
Behind two doors
Filled too.
One door
Is different.
Goes out
Comes in.
Out there
The same.
In here
The same.
But not.

Hermitage has been in and on my mind. While not exactly a hermitage, the poem above describes the room in which I write.

When I first started reading Thomas Merton, I learned about his building a hermitage on the grounds of the Kentucky abbey where he lived. Merton was a sublime conundrum, who committed himself to relative silence and disciplined orthodoxy as a monk, yet whose spirit (the Spirit) would not allow him to be quiet and stop exploring. So he wrote and discovered. Thank goodness for us.

Sandokai is a famous poem by the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Master Shitou Xiqian (700-790), who is known in Japanese as Sekito Kisen. I have long been reading and studying this, as have many Zen students. Of all the essential texts available, there are few more concisely powerful than Sandokai.

There is another poem by Sekito that is a little less known, but equally compelling. It is a description of his hermitage, a grass hut. There, he tells us, is nothing and everything.

Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage
by Shitou Xiqian

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in – covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines –
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.

(from Taigen Daniel Leighton, Cultivating the Empty Field)