Hermits and householders in the mud (a talk by Leland Shields, February 12, 2023

Posted by on Feb 1, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Hermits and householders in the mud (a talk by Leland Shields, February 12, 2023

In the end of the third century CE, historical sources documented the prominent place of Buddhist and mostly Taoist  hermits in the culture of China. Though it appears hermits long preceded this period, a book on the history of the later Han Dynasty summarized the way of hermits like this:

Some retired to achieve their ideals; some bowed out to maintain their principles; some chose quiet to still their passions; some chose escape to preserve their lives; some to shame others into changing their ways; some to cleanse themselves.

Pine, Red. Road to Heaven (p. 24). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

These hermits are diverse, some going towards, some fleeing what they’ve left, some motivated to influence others, and some to open mind and heart. Or perhaps these all describe one hermit over the diversity of days and years.

At an earlier time in the contemporary life of translator Red Pine, he let his interest in these hermits take him to China to see if the tradition remained. He found that it did, with much retained from centuries of history, and much influenced by the more recent culture and politics of China. Striking to me was that he learned that the Chinese hermit tradition was not generally a life-long choice. More often, Taoists  deepened their practice through several years as hermits, then returning to roles and settings with a greater degree of interaction with others. Many who lived in periods of seclusion, also had periods of public service.

I’m reminded of the last of the 10 ox herding pictures and the return to the marketplace. It seems we are describing states, not traits when we describe ourselves as householders and as hermits.

There is a poem from 300 BCE that captured the story of Ch’ Yuan, one would-be hermit:

when Ch’u Yuan was banished
he wandered along rivers
he sang on their banks
weak and forlorn
till a fisherman asked
aren’t you the Lord of the Gorges
what fate has brought you to this
and Ch’u Yuan answered the world is muddy
I alone am clean
everyone is drunk
I alone am sober
and so they sent me away
and the fisherman said a sage isn’t bothered by others
he can change with the times
if the world is muddy
splash in the mire
if everyone is drunk
drink up the dregs
why get banished
for deep thought and purpose
and Ch’u Yuan said he had heard
when you clean your hair
you should dust off your hat
when you take a bath
you should shake out your robe
why should I let something so pure
be ruined and wronged by others
I’d rather jump into the Hsiang
and be buried in a fish’s gut
than let something so white
be stained by common dirt …
the fisherman smiled and rowed away singing
when the Tsanglang is clear I wash my hat
when the Tsanglang is muddy I wash my feet
and once gone he was heard from no more

Pine, Red. Road to Heaven (pp. 25-26). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

Poet and shaman Ch’u Yuan had been critical of the ruler he served in the court of the state of Ch’u, so he left. Before finding a hermitage, Ch’u Yuan threw himself into the Milo River and was lost.

My interest in the topic is not historical. I see it as our story when we choose a day, an hour, and a week of isolation for contemplation. We all dance with seclusion and public service through our days and years. During a day of seclusion we vow to the public service of saving all beings, breaking the distinctions between seclusion and service.

I find vitality in the exchanges of the fisherman and the court minister. Ch’u Yuan had done what he thought he could and despaired that it came to naught. A pause for contemplation may have helped him recognize that something white is white, and common dirt is pure as common dirt. How could they be wronged by anyone? He was not ready to hear the fisherman’s advice about laying right down in the world of mud, here.


At this moment I am Ch’u Yuan, railing at injustice – greed, hatred, and ignorance. In anger I reject the middle way and demand purity and principle of myself and others. Nothing else could be justified. We spend our days checking off groceries on a list, filing records for taxes, keeping up on the news, and caring for loved ones We respond to the tears of the one right here, and the many everywhere. There is no end of it. There is no time for it.

I am the fisherman, unnamed and without rank. In dance with wind and current, my hook and line fall to the water surface and move downstream without hesitation or rush. I offer the hook diligently as my part; the fish has the part of biting in its own time. I live at the pace of sun and river – there is no end of time.

Red Pine met a hermit in China who said most were there to practice, while some cared for shrines and temples to receive their bowl of rice. We all have our pursuits in hope of having a bowl of rice and cover from the rain. And we are here today for something else. We sit with contemplatives everywhere.

In his practice instructions, Hongzhi Zhengjue advises us in this way:

Contemplating your own authentic form is how to contemplate Buddha. If you can experience yourself without distractions, simply surpass partiality and go beyond conceptualizing. All buddhas and all minds reach the essential without duality.

Zhengjue; Cheng-chüeh. Cultivating the Empty Field (Tuttle Library of Enlightenment) (p. 38). Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Who are you, before conceptualization? Who are you before  house holder and renunciant, competent and incompetent, confident and insecure? Meet me here and we can see, you and I. Of one thing, I’m sure: we are here in the mud and the mire with a lot of company.

Of the hermits met by Red Pine, some cried tears of loneliness; some expressed contentment, volunteering they were not lonely, because of having one companion. Many worked all day in gardens for food, and for something to sell for occasional needs in town. I’m reading words of another about a time far away, but it seems to me that hermit and householder, we are of one species.

Outside of categories, we can tend a garden to receive a bowl of rice at day’s end. To do so may take a kind of discipline of body and mind, persisting in a task hour after hour. And we can fully engage with one weed, and one weed, outside of time and without goal. Holding the focus is not automatic and takes its own attention, and perhaps we can say discipline.

These stories bring life to dedicated people of the way, whether millennia ago or in present time, monk, nun, sadhu, or householder. All these stories include the rubbing of person against person. The vow to save all beings places us squarely in this realm of differences and strife. Purity is no salvation; not for long.

In my old field of auto safety, we worked diligently, daily, to understand the causes of vehicle injuries and fatalities and how to reduce them. Over decades vehicles and roadways have become substantially safer. Fatalities per miles travelled in 2020 dropped to less than a third of what it was in 1965. We also knew the only way to avoid all injuries and fatalities is to have no vehicles. This tradeoff can be a community decision, and can be a personal one we each make today in this real world of transit as it is today. We can and should do all we can to reform police departments, even as we recognize the only way to have no police brutality is to have no police, perhaps trading off police abuse for crime.

Purity is a complaint against the Tao. It is like arguing with the sea for the wave that capsized my boat, saying the world as it is right now should be different already. Living in the Tao is operating my boat on this sea, as it is.

Someone I know described reluctantly finding wisdom from the loss of the love of her life, and again in fear of a man yelling and threatening.

What she said was very close to a portion of the Greek play Agamemnon, by Aeschylus. Robert Kennedy extemporaneously used one translation when speaking on the day Martin Luther King died. Here is another translation.

In visions of the night, like dropping rain,
Descend the many memories of pain
Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole
Comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul-
A boon, I wot [know], of all Divinity,
That holds its sacred throne in strength, above the sky!

Aeschylus, written 458 B.C.E, Translated by E. D. A. Morshead

Aeschylus In this poem, and the woman who lost a loved one, each took wisdom from riding the waves of the sea just as it is.

Our tradition leaves nothing out, and directs us back to the simple and the present. I recently re-read the Diamond Sutra, and was struck by an introductory paragraph about the moment before Buddha began the exchange with Subhuti that becomes the rest of the sutra.

One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe, picked up his bowl, and entered the capital of Śravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on his appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

Pine, Red. Three Zen Sutras (Counterpoints) (pp. 11-12). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

In the practice of the middle way there is no error in taking care of the practical aspects of life. What do you think was the state of mind of the Buddha in the routine outlined above? What is possible for you and me in our routines today?

We can recognize the practice beyond conceptualization when there is no time and there are no categories, even as a weed flops into a bucket, and eyes look to the clouds as stiff legs straighten. The weeds don’t offer comment, perhaps making it a little easier to reach for the next weed without a need to justify the action. We are participants in the change of light and shadow with the sun moving east to west.

The fisherman’s reply to Ch’u Yuan takes us from the garden back to the marketplace as well.

and the fisherman said a sage isn’t bothered by others
[s]he can change with the times
if the world is muddy
splash in the mire
if everyone is drunk
drink up the dregs
why get banished
for deep thought and purpose

Pine, Red. Road to Heaven (pp. 25-26). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

If we take this literally, it’s at best  confusing; I don’t know anyone who isn’t bothered by others. But there is something very appealing about this poem anyway. I’m reminded of Muzhou breaking Yunmen’s leg in a slammed door, and Yunmen SHOUTING in agony. Somewhere in the unambiguous explosion of pain and unimpeded scream – Yunmen’s conceptions fell away. Screaming too is changing with the times, and is finding oneself nowhere but here, in the mire.

We don’t live in Han or Tang dynasty China, yet the hermits, current and ancestral, remind us how we can live our lives now, fully engaging. Whether working in a home garden, in a corporate farming operation, or on a hermits plot of land, there is one way. Whether we manage others or work alone there is one way.

How contrasting are the perspectives of the fisherman and disgraced minister Ch’u Yuan! Ch’u Yuan said:

I alone am clean
everyone is drunk
I alone am sober

The unnamed fisherman, speaking without any recognized credentials, said:

if the world is muddy
splash in the mire
if everyone is drunk
drink up the dregs
why get banished

It’s not difficult to understand how Ch’u Yuan could feel as he did – he was just rejected by the world he knew. Of course it’s difficult to set that aside and recognize who he is, even now. I’d be bereft and angry, I’m sure. He can’t find his place anywhere, not in himself, not with others.

How sad that Ch’u Yuan was not able to slow down for a time, to let the fisherman’s message sink in. The fisherman was not separate from mud, drunks, or anyone else.

We also know the urge to withdraw. Even if not throwing ourselves in a river, we are disappointed by each other, and evade our own thoughts by watching YouTube, eating, or writing Zen talks. When sitting silently together in a day of Zazen, a wandering mind is recognizable. Whether here, chatting over lunch, or on hold with customer service, it is also possible to “experience yourself without distraction.”

We wouldn’t be here listening, bowing, walking, and breathing, if not already encouraged due to feeling bothered, wanting something pure, and feeling drawn to something beyond either bothered or pure.

If you can experience yourself without distractions, simply surpass partiality and go beyond conceptualizing. All buddhas and all minds reach the essential without duality.

Zhengjue; Cheng-chüeh. Cultivating the Empty Field (Tuttle Library Of Enlightenment) (p. 38). Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition.


In the quiet of our Zazen, you know what to do. In the slow walk of kinhin, you know what to do. Carry it with you through lunch and all the way home.

In homage to the Sabbath as an essential complement to lives of building and doing, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath, p. 3

When walking with Martin Luther King, Heschel wrote that when “…I marched in Selma my feet were praying.”