The Tradition of Mountain Ascetic Zen
- By Fa Lohng (Koro Kaisan)
- Aug 27
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Among the most admired of Zen masters are those who have eschewed the temple life and opted instead for the life of a Mountain Ascetic. Asceticism is a cross-cultural, cross-religious and multidisciplinary practice. Like nearly all forms of spiritual practice, asceticism covers a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices and hardly any religion has been without some of its forms or features. Related Reading: Silent Partners: Asceticism in Chan Buddhism by Chuan Zhi
I entered the mountains and learned to be silent
I'm usually too tired to open my mouth
I don't point out the mistakes of others
My own faults are what I try to alter
The tea is done and the stove is red
The moon is up and my paper windows glow white
Who sees through this illusory world?
Yen Tzu-ling sits alone on his rock.
Among the most admired of Zen masters are those who have eschewed the temple life and opted instead for the life of a Mountain Ascetic.
Asceticism is a cross-cultural, cross-religious and multidisciplinary practice. Like nearly all forms of spiritual practice, asceticism covers a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices and hardly any religion has been without some of its forms or features.
According to the historical narrative, the Buddha adopted an extreme ascetic lifestyle after leaving his father's palace where he had lived in decadent luxury, but soon discovered that extreme asceticism was as much as an impediment to achieving enlightenment as was the velvet-lined trap of material wealth. It was only after abandoning his extreme ascetic practices that he was finally able to achieve enlightenment. He found that a lifestyle that meets ones needs without crossing over into luxury and indulgence was the only consistent way for a person to avoid both the trappings of wealth and the unnecessary suffering of extreme asceticism. This position became known as the Madhyamaka or Middle Way, and became one of the founding principles of Buddhism. However, by today's standards even the Buddha's comfortable Middle Way would be considered a form of asceticism.
Asceticism comes from the Greek askesis which means "to exercise" or "to train" and is usually understood as a lifestyle of practicing restraint when it comes to luxuries and incorporating a regime of physical disciplines. The ascetic voluntarily adopts a personalized method of training and/or a way of living with the aim of transforming spiritual awareness through a process of mind-body disciplines and practices. The ascetic lifestyle is most often equated with living outside normal patterns of the culture of origin and quite typically in isolation. This can often be viewed as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, but is actually recognition of the simpler pleasures of life that have been overlooked or discounted by those who prefer the indulgences of comfort and society.
People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don't reach Cold Mountain
In summer the ice doesn't melt
and the morning fog is too dense
How did someone like me arrive?
Our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here
-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
In addition to a spectrum of intensity or graduated severity of practices, asceticism can include two classes of ascetics which we call "worldly" and "otherworldly". These terms are often misunderstood as representing earthly and ethereal, but their original meanings are actually in reference to society: "worldly" means someone who practices while remaining engaged with society, while "otherworldly" simply means practicing outside the normal social networks. Worldly ascetics are reclusive while otherworldly ascetics are called monks or hermits (those who live alone). When a group of otherworldly ascetics choose to live together they create what is known as a monastery and are still known as monks, even though they are often living together in large numbers.
Buddhist history is most often reflected in the stories of larger communities, temples and monasteries, but there has always been an outlaying contingent of the otherworldly practitioners who forego the temple or Sangha life for the freedoms that come with the forest trail and mountain path. From the wandering forest monks of India and Southeast Asia to the mountain hermits of China, Tibet and Japan, the solitary ascetic is as fundamental to the history of Buddhism as the canonical records of the greatest monasteries and temples. The archetypal image of the hermit sage sitting in his forest hut or on a rocky mountain top is as vital to the story of Buddhism as any grand architectural
stupa or elaborate temple complex.
A resolute will can't be rolled up
you should know that I am no mat
To wander the woods and mountains
or lie on a boulder alone
Sophists come to entreat me
offer me jade and gold
Chisel through rock to plant brambles
what a waste of time
-- Han Shan
This is especially true in the Zen (Chan) tradition where the legendary founder of this entire branch of Buddhism, Bodhidharma, lived and practiced in a mountain cave for nine years. Along with his particular flavor of Buddhist philosophy, Bodhidharma brought the ascetic practices of frugal means, solitary meditation and the physical disciplines that have become the hallmarks of Zen practice. It is said that in addition to the teachings and practices that have become what we know today as Zen, Bodhidharma was also the founding teacher of both Kung Fu and Tai Chi.
Like Bodhidharma, both Hui-ko and Seng-ts'an (known as the second and third patriarchs of Zen) also eschewed the temple life and retreated to the mountains to live as mountain ascetics and for most of their lives "wandered with no fixed abode." However, it is fair to note here that most Zen masters of this period were living as recluses in the forests and mountains, mostly as a chosen lifestyle but also to avoid persecution. Zen was still considered a Daoist folk practice among the orthodox Buddhist institutions and those who practiced Zen were still often considered radicals and rebels. However, it was through the living example of this radical lifestyle that these early masters attracted students from both the general populace and the pre-existing monastic orthodoxy.
We meet to part again
I have now words to respond
to this double
falls on every peak
A single monk walks
along the only road,
you strike your chime
Though a smoky village,
begging noon rice,
and spark the lamp in a stone room,
chanting poems at night
a chapter of monks
has asked you to come and live,
continuing the lineage
of the southerner
- We Chao
So from humble beginnings, the solitary mountain hermitage has been the birthplace of Zen temples and monasteries. What begins as a small hut and garden occupied and maintained by a single mountain ascetic, soon grows into a monastery or temple complex as students seek out the sage advice of the one who found enlightenment through his ascetic practices. A student builds a second hut nearby, and as more students arrive this grows into a bunkhouse, then a hall for group meditation is needed, followed quickly by a community kitchen and then before too long- Lost Mountain Hermitage becomes Lost Mountain Temple. This is why most ancient temple monasteries are found in the mountains and why temples are still referred to as mountains, even when they are in valleys or the center of cities. For this same reason, the title of the monk that founds a new temple is called a Mountain Founder.
But Mountain Ascetic Zen has never been about founding temples, it's been about getting away from them. To the Mountain Ascetic, Zen practice is about solitude, escaping "worldly" concerns, communing with nature and developing personal physical and spiritual disciplines. It's been about attuning oneself with the rhythms of life outside of society, including the society of monks that reside in the communities known as monasteries and temples. Some ascetics begin as monks within monastic communities leaving to enrich their practice, while others come directly out of society seeking the Way without detouring through the temple grounds. However it comes about, the Mountain Ascetic becomes a follower of the Way, by another way. The forest trail and mountain path become the corridors of his temple, tiled roofs are replaced by pine and cedar branches while stumps and stones become his perches for meditation.
Somehow I ended up beneath the pines
Sleeping in comfort on boulders
There aren't any calendars in the mountains
Winter ends but who counts the years
-- Tia Shang
If he stops long enough to build himself a hermitage, it might be a simple shelter with a lean-to roof and wattle walls, or maybe just a stack of fir bows covering the mouth of a small cave. If he chooses to be more industrious, he may build a stone walled cottage with a thatched roof and fireplace, but these are just amenities that accompany his practice, not necessities that he cannot do without. His excursions into the forest and mountains may last for years or may only be short trips that recharge his spiritual batteries. In either case they are escapes from the "worldly" confines of society, be it the bustle of the big city or the cloistered society of monks with matching robes and harmonious chants.
I retired to the edge of the forest
and choose the life of a farmer
Forthright in my dealings
no flattery in my speech
I prefer unpolished stones
You can have your jewels
I could never join the flock
of bobbing ducks on the waves
-- Han Shan
Many of the most famous Zen masters were practitioners of Mountain Ascetic Zen including Bodhidharma who practiced in a cave for nine years; Han Shan who lived in a thatched hut under a rocky overhang of Cold Mountain for most of his adult life; and of course, Hui Neng who lived in mountain seclusion for fifteen years before he was revealed as Chan's sixth patriarch. The Japanese poet monk Ryokan lived over 20 years as hermit in a thatched hut he named Gogo An (Half-measure Hut) and wrote the following verse in praise of his humble life;
"If your hermitage is deep in the mountains
Surely the moon flowers and maple trees
Will become your friends."
Men of the world passing this way are few,
Dense grass conceals the door
All night in silence a few woodchips burn slowly,
As I read the poems of the ancients.
-- Ryokan ( www.hermitary.com/articles/ryokan )
Yet these famous masters were not total recluses, they actually moved in and out of the mountains as the breath moves in meditation: sometimes they were hermits on mountains and sometimes they were great leaders within the Sangha. Stone House was a hermit for twenty years but also acted as the abbot of Fuyuan Temple. Hsu Yun spent three years (1900-1903) in a rubble stone hermitage he called Shihttzu Maopeng (Lions Hut) before beginning his famous meandering quest to restore Zen practice to China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. He came to understand that it was his responsibility to free those who had become lost in the Way. He wandered from temple to temple restoring both temple structures and people's faith in the Dharma. One day while resting outside a mountain temple he recalled his days as a mountain ascetic with this verse:
A summer day can seem long as a year,
Mountain people know this
I had forgotten it.
Because I'm simple and not very foresighted
I had destroyed my life's half-way house
This mountain pavilion was not a rest house for strangers.
Yet, a bamboo screen is as good for privacy as a ceramic screen.
I was just getting comfortable and had pulled out my pen
When I suddenly realized I was looking up at stars.
-- Hsu Yun
The practitioner of Mountain Ascetic Zen may plan to retire to a mountain or forest hermitage or may just be a day sojourner whose periodic ascetic disciplines make his path unique rather than following the over-worn path of others. Many like Han Shan made the mountains their home and solitary practice their way of life, while many others made occasional Mountain Ascetic Zen their practice while still generally living in the world of "red dust":
Unaware of Hsiangchi Temple
I walked miles past mountains of clouds
Ancient trees an empty path
Somewhere in the hills a bell
Stream sound murmuring around boulders
The sun through cold green pines
A silent pool in fading light
Where Zen subdued the serpent
-- Wang Wei
And although the Mountain Ascetic may be married and have a family and a home with a hearth and warm bed, he still finds an "otherworldly" life among the "worldly" pursuits of others who have lost the Middle Way. His life is not spoiled by living in the world because he never forgets the simple pleasures of life that have been forgotten and discounted by society. He never forgets that his practice is reflected in the way he lives his life and that his life is all there is to his practice.
The hermit monk Shih-t'ou (700-790), a contemporary of Ma-tsu, built himself a hut on rock above the land that would become the location of South Peak Temple. He lived there for twenty five years and became known as Shitou Heshang, the "Stone Monk."
A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the steams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf of nothing but books
-- Han Shan
From this tiny hermitage Shih-t'ou inspired many followers of Mountain Ascetic Zen. His teaching emphasized the identity of the Buddha and the Mind: "This very mind, just this is Buddha. Mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, perfect wisdom and the defiling passions - these are but four different names for one and the same substance." But more famous than his teachings of Buddha-mind was his poem Song of the Grass Roofed Hermitage which exemplified the life of the Zen hermit sage.
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 whole world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Mahayana 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.
-- Shih-t'ou, Cultivating the Empty Field
Translated by Daniel Leighton with Yi Wu
I would like to give special thanks to my dear friend Red Pine for his translations from the following publications:
The Zen Works of Stone House
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
The Clouds Should Know Me By Now
Except where otherwise noted these poems are from his translations.