“I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap…
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.”
— Shitou Xiqian
“I have a hut in the wood, none knows it but my Lord; an ash tree this side, a hazel on the other, a great tree on a mound encloses it… The size of my hut, small yet not small, a place of familiar paths; the she-bird in its dress of blackbird colour sings a melodious strain from its gable.”
— Irish, 10th Century, author unknown
When I first heard Shitou Xiqian’s poem Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage I immediately identified with its message. Although I do not live in an eighth century hut in China, but rather a ground floor flat in rural England in the third millennium AD, my life is limited to a small space similar to Shitou and the unknown Irish author. For both of them, their hermitage is out of choice. My own confinement is less voluntary.
During a week-long yoga course specifically designed for those with chronic illness, one of the instructors suggested our condition could be viewed as a choiceless retreat. Most of us reacted against this point of view but as time has gone on, I am beginning to see that there is wisdom in that. Illness may have limited my ability to do many things but it has provided time and space to contemplate life and spiritual practice in lieu of being able to work. Even more, the pain and uncertainty that comes as part of long-term ill health is a strong push to find a way out of suffering, or at least ways of living with it on amicable terms.
In hermitage, as in illness, life grows smaller and quieter. Within that, small things become more noticeable and greater sources of joy. This is just as true of Zazen – as the mind stills, we hear the call of birds or notice a leaf spiralling in the wind and glow of the sun on powder puff clouds. In our hut we see how the view from the window changes daily in tune with the weather and seasons. Growing plants and the phases of the moon chart the passage of time and putting out seeds and nuts for birds and squirrels offers companionship.
Hermits offer a way of living that mirrors the life of chronic illness. The poet monk Ryōkan would practice calligraphy in his hut and read poems of former masters. Although his own poetry does sometimes express loneliness, mostly he seems very content with his life.
“A thousand peaks covered with frozen snow,
Ten thousand mountain paths, yet no sign of human beings.
Every day, only zazen;
Sometimes the sound of snow blowing against the window.”
During bad times of illness, we have no choice but to take on this life of a hermit and we can either embrace it or fight against it. We may feel very limited in contrast to the expansive life we used to live but is life measured in terms of how far we travel and how much we do? Can a life be equally as fully lived in ten square feet as it can through regular travel and exploration of new things? I believe so and the lack of mental novelty can even be conducive to going deeper into life and our own experience. Dogen expresses this beautifully in Genjokoan:
“A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm.”
In comparing chronic illness to a hermitage, I in no way am saying that the cycles of pain, and other symptoms are pleasant and there are times that ill people just have to be sick in bed rather than enjoying some kind of retreat experience. I don’t at all wish to minimise anyone’s suffering or propose that chronic illness is some kind of golden idyll. It really isn’t. However, I would like to suggest is that having our life confined to a smaller space does not mean that we cannot live fully. As Shitou says “though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.” If each grain of sand contains the entire world, as William Blake writes, then a ten foot hut certainly does!
Instead of railing against the injustice of the size of life being curtailed, perhaps there is wisdom in exploring what we do have rather than bemoaning what we have lost. Our grass roof hut may be a room in a small rural house or a flat in a large city. Regardless, we can live in it as fully as we can, drawing on the past experience of those who learned to be content with a simple life in a small space.
“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.”