We are all hermits now: Song of the Grass Roof Hut

Thomas Merton hermitage in Kentucky

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.

Hermit—one who lives in solitude—is from Greek erēmia desert, which is from erēmos desolate. In the fourth century, Christians dissatisfied with the artificial complexities of the Church fled to the Egyptian desert to be alone and closer to God. Thus began Christian monasticism. On the other side of the world, Buddhists in China went to the mountains, also to be alone.

Both the Christian desert fathers and mothers and the Buddhist hermits left behind a treasury of wisdom. Centuries later, in another part of the world Thomas Merton fled the chaos of civilization to build a hermitage of his own in Kentucky, and similarly provided an inspiring record of his experiences.

The following Song of the Grass Roof Hut is the work of Shitou Xiqian [Japanese: Sekitō Kisen] (700–790, China).

Song of the Grass Roof Hut

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.

Shitou Xiqian

(translation by Taigen Daniel Leighton)