"There are four kinds of wisdom ... giving, kind speech, beneficial deeds, and cooperation."

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

About that hut

Over the last eight years, I've been experimenting with living part time in a hut. I want to talk about this for a few posts, because I think there is some resilience/knowledge value in what went on there.

I'm retired, on a fixed income, so it's a luxury, time-wise, I can afford. In the days when I worked full time at the university, this was a level of simplicity I could not have explored fully. There's a dress code, after all.

But now that there's little constraint, if I want to hole up in a hut wearing a bathrobe, it's my call.

About 1994, I put up the 8x10' building, with the help of my son, using scraps and salvage, as a playhouse for the children. It was located at the far end of the acre, just downhill from a growing Douglas fir tree and on the bank of a dry wash that becomes a creek in winter.

The young ones made use of it for a decade or so, and then it sat empty until I retired, in 2009. For the next few years, whenever I was not hammering and sawing at our easily-condemned farmhouse or working on the garden and in the orchard, I wrote books -- not bad ones -- not earth shaking either -- you can find them all in PDF form at the top of the right hand column.

And then there was a shift.

A longtime environmental activist, I had been reading some articles by a friend, Bodhi Paul Chefurka, about thermodynamic overshoot. His conclusions as to our future as a species were grim but I felt the math checked out. His advice to his readers was to continue doing all the right things anyway, but also, to find out what you really want to do, and do it. He then described his own inward spiritual journey as his own response to the situation, gently intimating that some of his readers might try something of the sort, as, say, an outgoing hobby: meditation. Hospice meditation, one could say. 

As it happened, one of my hobbies over most of the preceding six decades had been to read all I could get hold of on Taoism and Buddhism, specifically Zen Buddhism. This meant that for many years I had been mostly exposed to literature about Rinzai Zen as a kind of existential philosophy, as presented by D.T. Suzuki and some others.

While reading Heinrich Dumoulin's history of (largely Rinzai) Zen, I had come across a chapter on Eihei Dogen. Dogen, already well trained in Tendai and in Rinzai Zen, had traveled from Japan to China in the decade after the Chinese Lin-chi School (in Japanese, Rinzai) was brought to Japan, discovered the less popular (at the time) dharma lineage of the CaoDong School (Japanese Soto) there, and brought it back to Japan as its sole Japanese proponent.

Soto became a thing after a couple of generations, so Dumoulin devotes a chapter to its founder, but then turns away from it to his primary interests. But at the end of the biography within the chapter he sympathetically offers a translation of one of Dogen's last poems:

To what indeed shall I liken
The world and the life of man?
Ah, the shadow of the moon
When it touches in the drop of dew
The beak of the waterfowl.

I had read, and been very much affected by, this poem (and Dumoulin's descriptions of Zen hermits), at an early age -- perhaps nineteen -- and so became interested in Soto Zen as it was transplanted to San Francisco by Shunryu Suzuki (no relation to D.T.). I had considered going there to investigate, but marriage, family, work and events intervened.

In 2012, after spending six months in Florida with my parents, who were in hospice, I heard of an old friend, whom we had known in our early homesteading years, returning to the area after becoming a Zen teacher in the Suzuki lineage. I asked for an interview and became involved in her sangha, attending monthly all-day silent retreats (zazenkai).

It is in this context that it occurred to me to convert the playhouse into a hermitage, so as to carry out my long-deferred investigation. 
My motivation in launching this series of posts is, however, not to try to interest others in Buddhism but to discuss some aspects of hermit life.  

To be continued.

I always wanted to go to East Cliff, 
more years than I can remember, 
until today I just grabbed a vine 
and started up. Halfway up
wind and a heavy mist closed in,
and the narrow path tugged at my shirt: 
it was hard to get on. The slickery
mud under the moss on the rocks
gave way, and I couldn’t keep going.
So here I stay, under this cinnamon tree, 
white clouds for my pillow,
I’ll just take a nap. 
-- Cold Mountain (Han Shan), tr. J.P. Seaton

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Stony Run Farm: Life on One Acre