The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Mountain Poems

It occurs to me that the first section of The Zen Works of Stonehouse as translated by Red Pine could aptly be named “Poems for Retirement” instead of “Mountain Poems.” Perhaps that’s merely because the poems were compiled after he retreated to his mountain home at the age of 67. In a deeper sense, though, the poems offer the kind of advice that can only be practiced by someone who has “retired,” either in the sense of retiring at the end of a career or in the sense that a monk “retires from society.”

Admittedly, I’m feeling a little hypocritical about presenting these ideas while I’m in the midst of repainting our bedroom and making some other “much needed” changes to our house before the first year anniversary of our move. The hectic schedule we’ve been maintaining the last few days hardly fits the spirit of this work, though perhaps reinforcing Stonehouse’s advice.

There were so many poems whose advice I enjoyed that I had a hard time limiting myself to four selections, but I think these are representative of Stonehouse’s key ideas.

The first of the five selections could actually serve as a brief summary of all the poems:

To glorify the Way what should people turn to
to words and deeds that agree
but oceans of greed never fill up
and sprouts of delusion keep growing
a plum tree in bloom purifies a recluse
a patch of potatoes cheers a lone monk
but those who follow rules in their huts
never see the Way or get past the mountainsp>

Again, as in his previous work I discussed, Red Pine’s notes provide an excellent key to reading Stonehouse’s works:

Confucius said, “A man can glorify the Way, but the Way does not glorify a man” (I. unyu: 15 .28) When Tzu-chang asked how he should act, Confucius replied, “To your words be true, in your conduct be sincere” ” The plum blossom’s association with purity and seclusion was immortalized in the poems of Lin Ho-ching, a Sung-dynasty recluse who lived outside Hangchou. Zen masters often summarize the Buddhist path with the saying, “When I first entered the Way I saw mountains. After a while, I saw that mountains were not mountains. Now I see that mountains are mountains.”

I particularly liked the phrase “oceans of greed never fill up” because it increasingly seems to me that the greatest barrier to happiness, and certainly to “enlightenment,” is greed and its many manifestations. As you’ve probably noticed, I also have a personal prejudice against rules and traditions, preferring to seek any enlightenment I can find not in the practice of traditional religions but, rather, in the immediacy of life itself.

I’m afraid my recent attraction to the art of blowing bubbles also attracted me to this:

This body’s lifetime is like a bubble’s
may as well let things go
plans and events seldom agree
who can step back doesn’t worry
we blossom and fade like flowers
we gather and part like clouds
earthly thoughts I forgot long ago
withering away on a mountain peak

The Diamond Sutra ends with this gatha: “All dependent things / are dreams or illusions, bubbles or shadows / they’re dew or they’re lightning
/ regard them like this.”

My recent brush with cancer for a second time and my increasing awareness of how fragile life really is have reduced me to short-term planning. While others may make plans for next summer, I find myself planning for next month or the month after that. I’m limiting myself to the kinds of plans I four-year-old can understand, a trip to Disneyland with a grandchild in September or October. For now, I’m content with enjoying the day, even if that includes sore muscles from painting overhead too long.

I certainly agree with Stonehouse when he says:

Scorpion tails and wolf hearts overrun the world
everyone has a trick to get ahead
but how many smiles in a lifetime
how many moments of peace in a day
who knows a toppled cart means try another track
when trouble strikes there is no time for shame
this old monk isn’t just talking
he’s trying to remove your obstacles and chains

One of the first measures enacted by the First Emperor when he unified China in 22, BC was to standardize the axle length of carts so that all tracks would be the same width.

The Five Obstacles include desire, anger, tiredness, anxiety, and doubt. And the Ten Chains include shamelesness, sensitivity, envy, meanness, regret, laziness, over-activity, self-absorption, hate, and secretiveness.

Despite commercial messages to the contrary, “scorpion tails and wolf hearts” insure that most commercial transactions seldom end in smiles. If you want “smiles” and “moments of peace” you’re going to have to find them on your own, not in the worlds of things that others would foist on you.

Though I’m not sure how generally true it is, I agree with:

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Most of the time I smile
old men can relax
my mind is free of troubles
nothing but mountains meet my eyes
the P’eng soars into the sky
a leopard blends into mist
I’m more like the flowering plum
I wait for the year-end cold

The P’eng is the great bird in the first chapter of Chuangtzu, where it is used as a symbol of transcendence. It is so big it must climb ninety thousand miles into the sky before it has room to turn south. ln the Yiching: the leopard that can change its spots is used as a metaphor for the person who succeeds in eliminating his vices through the cultivation of virtue. The P’eng represents the goal of Taoist practice, while the spotless leopard represents the goal of Confucian cultivation. The flowering plum, meanwhile, is China’s symbol of perseverance in the face of hardship, blossoming during the coldest period of the year.

I’ve certainly found that I can “relax” in ways that I could never relax while teaching. Although I sometimes am a little embarrassed by how little I “get done,” not having to get things done has set me free in ways that I have never known before.