Translated by Andrew Yang
On Vegetable Roots, a Zen classic containing maxims and aphorisms written by the late Ming philosopher Hong Yingming (1572-1620), has this to say, “A man’s life should not be too idle, lest rambling thoughts crop up. It should not be too busy either, lest there is no room to reveal his true nature. The gentleman, therefore, must not be unconcerned about his body and mind, nor should he be not revelling in the pleasures of nature”.
However, how many people who are used to a busy, hasty life are indeed idle enough to have rambling thoughts? On the contrary, most of them are too busy to let their true nature reveal itself. Living in one of these crowded high-rise buildings, where opening the window may not provide a view of the sky, how are they likely to be indulging in the pleasures of nature? Amid busy street traffic where one moving a bit slow could be hollered at, how would they find leisure to relax and enjoy the roadside palm trees, or listen to the sound of a gurgling fountain in the nearby square?
That said, however, people today should still try to imitate the ancients and learn to cultivate a love of nature by putting away daily chores at hand, to make the time for a stay at a Buddhist temple away from the hustle and bustle of city life. There, while cleansing themselves of vulgarities of worldly living, they could take part in monastic meditation that helps nurture one’s spirituality. Indeed, it serves the dual purpose of relieving the pressure of urban dwelling while recalibrating their body and mind.
Buddhists throughout the centuries, monastic and lay alike, have loved to pay leisurely visits to temples situated often high up in the mountains. One prominent travelling lay Buddhist is the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (772-846). In his writings we read of the joys of mountain living. Let us consider a few of his verses now so the reader may appreciate the pleasures felt by these itinerant Buddhists.
Bai Juyi composed more than a few lasting masterpieces while sojourning at a secluded monastery. Come April, he would call at Dalin Temple up the picturesque Mount Lu and stay for a week or two. For him, resting in a clean, solemn Buddhist monastery to worship Buddha in pursuit of Zen is a joy nothing else beat. On one occasion after the morning session, while strolling outside the Hall of Buddha, he saw peach trees in full bloom and penned “Peach Blossoms at Dalin Temple” that is filled with Zen and the joy of living in the mountains,
“In April flowers elsewhere start withering.
On the hill the temple peach begins to blossom.
Having always resented saying farewell to spring,
Without knowing I find myself amidst the bloomsome.”
The temple’s founding monk, Master Tanshen (361-440) of the Eastern Jin dynasty, is said to have planted a large number of peach trees outside the lecture hall. Over time, the trees grew into a lush thicket, hence the name Dalin, meaning “big grove”. In April each year, once peach blossoms elsewhere had faded, those at the temple began to flourish. As it was cooler and fresher on the mountain, the flowering there lasted longer. Thus, the poet says, “In April flowers elsewhere start withering. / On the hill the temple peach begins to blossom”.
Ancient poets, while praising the beauties of spring, often lament its transience, thus Bai resents “saying farewell to spring”. Those making a living among the world’s hurly-burly long for a moment of peace, as a poet misses the smell of spring when it passes by. But how would a bygone spring season come back to Earth? Hence the poet’s passionate bemoaning in his “farewell to spring”.
“Without knowing I find myself amidst the bloomsome,” a reference to the world’s mortals struggling with the rush and commotion in their endless pursuit of fame and fortune, and the fact that even the least ambitious among them cannot escape the entanglement of lust, resentment and illusion or the torture of birth, sickness, ageing and death. It is better, implies the writer, to let go of all worldly attachment and make a mountain temple home, where there is always a breath of spring accorded by the nurturing peace, tranquility and harmony of a simple, detached monastic life.
Bai Juyi, our poet, had stayed at many Buddhist temples, among them the White Cloud Spring as well, an ageing monastery in Mount Tianping, Suzhou adjacent to a clear brook. There, after lunch, he would sit holding a rosary and meditate at the stream. Once, as he stared attentively at the bubbling creek, his mood brightened up, and out of a mind deep in meditation flowed these lines of an eponymous poem,
“Up Mount Tianping at the White Cloud Fountain,
Water is taking it easy, and clouds in a free mind.
Why need they go rushing down the mountain,
To add nothing but ripples to the human world?!”
The white clouds over Mount Tianping float with the wind in utter freedom, not caring a little about the surrounding majestic scenery. Likewise, the water from the spring flows non-stop, not lingering an iota for the enwrapping serenity. Without sentimental attachment, both are totally detached in their movement with absolute leisure and freedom. That is why “Water is taking it easy, and clouds in a free mind”.
“Why need they go rushing down the mountain, / To add nothing but ripples to the human world?!” If that is the case, then there would be no reason for this ever-flowing spring to leave this peaceful temple and dash down the mountain to create unnecessary undulations for the mortal world.
The famous Lingyan Temple of the Pure Land school is another major house of worship the lay Buddhist sojourned at, where he wrote this titular verse,
“Next to Xishi Palace at the millennium-old monastery,
Fountains and clouds are plentiful, but visitors are few.
Hearing the arrival of spring casts an absorbing melancholy.
Deep amidst blossoms returns a travelling bhikkhu.”
Lingyan Temple is located on Mount Lingyan near Mudu, Jiangsu in eastern China. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-256 BC), in order to please Lady Xishi, an exceptional beauty, the king of the State of Yue built an imperial palace for her on the mountain there, where the temple was constructed later. Hence, Bai refers to the “millennium-old monastery” as “next to Xishi Palace”.
“Fountains and clouds are plentiful, but visitors are few.” There are many murmuring streams around the mountain temple, with slippery stepping stones and misty clouds, while pilgrims are quite rare. When the writer came to this mountain temple, it was early spring and everything was lush and thriving, and it made him think of the days when Xishi the beauty was residing in the palace. Yet alas, the ancient king, his lady and palace yonder are all gone. The poet is touched by a fit of pensive mood that good times are no longer and what is left is impermanence. Just then, the shadow of a monk becomes visible among the flowers. It turns out to be a monastic coming back from travels. While time and space seem unforgiving, he is pleased to see, in reality, a sentient mendicant returning to the embrace of his home-base temple. Consequently, “Deep amidst blossoms returns a travelling bhikkhu.”
In his later years, Bai Juyi focused on the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, which stresses, in part, the repetition of the name of Amitabah Buddha. Often, he would summon a group of fellow lay Buddhists to jointly worship at Xiangshan Temple and sometimes attend a seven-day retreat. Because he spent so much time there, people started calling him “Mr Xiangshan the lay Buddhist”. It is here that Bai wrote another poem with a deep spiritual overtone,
“With an idle old man, the monastery is quiet.
I come and I go as do clouds or fowl.
Shelves full of books and bottles of home-made spirit,
Now half my life I spend at Xiangshan Temple.
I love to scale the canopy of pines among crags,
Or on rocks next to the moon pond I meditate.
Why not forge good karma with the streams and clouds,
So in another life I could live here as a mountain mendicant?”
The scenic Xiangshan Temple is located near Mount Longmen in Luoyang, Henan in central China, where an elderly Bai Juyi would retreat to. The simple life of cultivation as a lay Buddhist at a temple full of serenity and in the company of birds and clouds seems more meaningful to him than a career as a government official, in the hurly burly where an unscrupulous pursuit of power and glory amid personal and political conflict could not only harm the citizens he serves, but cost one his life. Yet here at the temple, he could worship Buddha and be a vegetarian while exploring the surrounding mountain ridges and lakes with an endlessly tranquil and carefree mind. As a result, he wonders, “Why not forge good karma with the streams and clouds, / So in another life I could live here as a mountain mendicant?” He wishes to take up residence in his next life as an ordained monk at the supernatural Xiangshan Temple.
Readers! A plain, modest residence at a mountain monastery could without doubt be pleasing and conducive to elevating one’s spirituality, with all its scenic serenity filled with enchanting ridges, creeks, flora and fauna, as is described above. All these are natural, beneficial causes and conditions for attaining higher wisdom through quiet, purging meditation. There, those who have made a busy urban livelihood for long may rid themselves of tedious worldly entanglement even if just for a while, climb deep into quiescent mountain mist, and participate in the worship of Buddha with Zen meditation. There should indeed be genuine joy!