To glorify the Way what should people turn to

by Shiwu (Stonehouse)

English version by Red Pine
Original Language Chinese

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 mountain

-- from The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th Century Chinese Hermit, Translated by Red Pine

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I had to read this poem a few times and let it grow in my mind before I finally recognized just how much I actually liked it. If you didn't have a strong reaction to this poem, try reading it again, savoring and contemplating the lines, and see if it grows on you...

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


These opening lines touch on one of the great challenges of the spiritual path: We all hunger for something... or many things -- experiences, accomplishments, loves, money, stuff... Pursuing a certain amount of these aspects of life is normal, perhaps even healthy, but at some point the pursuit of these desires becomes a compulsion that distracts us from the deeper, more important goals of life. When do we have enough of those experiences and things we crave that we give ourselves to simply open? When are we satisfied?

There's the rub! They aren't satisfying, not in any lasting way. A great life goal is met, and a day, week, a month later, there is something new we hunger for. Ultimately, these sorts of psychological hungers are never fed through acquisition or experience. Craving is self-perpetuating and never satisfied though the experiences we feed it.

This discussion of hunger and greed inspires me to go off on a tangent... When I am out shopping at the supermarket, sometimes I will turn down the cereal aisle just to stare agog at the row upon row of brightly colored boxes of sugary cereals we market to our children. I can't imagine eating a single bite of that stuff without shuddering at the intense sugar they contain. Yet, when I was a child, I was obsessed with sugary cereals. Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Crispies. (I know.) To keep my voracious hunger for sugar in check, my mother had a rule that I could only eat one bowl of cereal a day. I clearly remember one afternoon, when I was perhaps eight, desperately trying to convince my mother that she should let me eat all the sugary cereal I wanted. I reasoned that I would eat so much that I would get sick and never want to eat it again. My supremely reasonable logic of addiction did not move my mother, for which I am now thankful. She well knew that, to a child fixated on sugar, "oceans of greed never fill up."

Whether we're talking about addictive patterns or general desires in life, at some point we have to recognize that real fulfillment does not come in that way. We decide the amount of energy that is appropriate to the pursuit of surface goals and satisfactions, and beyond that we begin to learn new ways of inhabiting reality that awaken real fulfillment--

a plum tree in bloom purifies a recluse
a patch of potatoes cheers a lone monk


But, to make sure we haven't missed the point, Stonehouse gives us one final twist:

but those who follow rules in their huts
never see the Way or get past the mountain


What is important is not that we construct the "right" rules for ourselves and then follow them perfectly. Guiding our behavior through rules and rituals may be helpful at certain stages of our growth, but simply adhering to rules alone cannot lead to either fulfillment or enlightenment. What is truly necessary is that we come to rest in the present moment, that we become present with awareness. The truly necessary element is ourselves. That is when a plum tree in bloom or a patch of potatoes reveals to us the full and blissful reality that is alive all around us.

Have a beautiful day. (And watch out for brightly colored boxes of sugary cereals.)



Recommended Books: Shiwu (Stonehouse)

The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th Century Chinese Hermit
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To glorify the Way