In Inside the Grass Hut, a new book from Wisdom, you can enter the mind and practice of Zen, applying the insights of one of Zen's classic poems to your life—here and now. Buy The Grass Hut on Amazon and read an excerpt below.
Living Simply in the Changes
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
A grass hut is a home but not a very durable one, especially considering it was built in an era when great pagodas were constructed and in a culture that formed an immense wall of stone, thousands of miles long. A storm could surely reduce it to a thin green veil disappearing in the wind. Our poet Shitou is inviting us into his home, and this is the kind of home he built: one that makes the absolute minimum claim to permanence.
The earliest Buddhist teachings continually point us toward the subject of impermanence, of facing this reality. As Buddha said, “Everything that comes to be must pass away; make your peace with this and all will be well.” Suffering arises from trying to turn away from impermanence; liberation arises from facing it fully. It was the pain of seeing the suffering at the end of life, of sickness, of old age, and of death that motivated Siddhartha Gotama to pursue his quest for liberation. His teachings say that directly engaging with this most difficult aspect of human existence is the way to let go of, or hold more lightly, both the small day-to-day aggravations and the wrenching, life-changing griefs: struggling to make deadlines, arguing with a child, spilling our coffee, profound illnesses, and the loss of our loved ones’ lives. Though this is a poem that describes a life of profound ease and moment-to-moment engagement with life, it starts not by saying our poet has built a perfect sanctuary, but that he is instead simply living with uncertainty.
Can you think of something permanent? Is there anything that has always been and will always be? Anything that has come into being that will never change? I cannot find anything that fits this description. Sometimes I think that the total dynamic activity of all energy and matter that has ever been goes on forever, but I really don’t know if it will or if it ever actually “began.” I can’t see those end points. If I use my senses, my eyes, my nose, my ears, my tongue, my body, my mind, I cannot find anything that is permanent. I can imagine things and I know many believe in things such as an everlasting God, but I do not know if such exists. I know that when I observe, what appears before me is change.
I own a big house in south Minneapolis. It’s always in the process of falling apart. I go out in the yard and pick up chunks of siding that blew of in the wind. I had to replace the water heater a while back. Sometimes I experience unhappiness when yet another part of this house falls off, but really it’s a guarantee: our stuff falls apart. And when it happens, that’s just the world doing what it does. As my teacher Tim Burkett recently said, “If your bodies weren’t falling apart you’d be dead. Who came up with this system?!” We don’t like it, but here it is. This book is not going to be about a fairy land, or take you to someplace where everything is perfect; Buddhism is not a tradition about going to some other place where things are how we like them. We’re getting a invitation into this little hut, it’s got a stone slab floor with some ragged reed mats, we’ll probably have to rebuild it next year, and it’s long, long gone thirteen hundred years after this poem was written.
Shitou builds a grass hut to encourage us to let go of the story that we can somehow go against the fundamental fact that nothing lasts and everything is always changing. Our minds are conditioned to relentlessly tell us this story. I bought a nice big house and it cost a lot of money; shouldn’t it provide security? We might not phrase the question this way, but when we are upset this is the underlying message on which our mind operates. Really, when the pipes burst and water is spraying around the kitchen, how often do we operate from the understanding that this is a natural part of the process of change? We sometimes do experience and live from this understanding, and sometimes it happens spontaneously, but for most of us it takes practice. This book is about that practice that promotes living fully engaged with change.
How many times has something ended that you enjoyed, and so you found yourself suffering? When the lunch break with friends ends, and you find yourself back at work watching the clock? When a lover leaves you? When death comes and takes away the mother that you love so much or perhaps with whom things have always been so hard? This always-endingness of things is hard to take, and Shitou begins by saying, “I am accepting it; I am going to sit right down in this impermanence. This is where I make my home, in a hut of grass: permeable, ephemeral. This is not a metaphorical hut. It’s a little house. It’s green. It’s sitting on the side of a small, lush mountain in China, and inside is an old man who says, ‘Come in, I’ve made this choice to live in and with the inexorability of change and I would like to tell you a bit about how this is, and how it is so very good; please join me.’”