Stonehouse in Lent

It is the Christian season of Lent when Christians are supposed to renew their spiritual life, monks included. This is not the weird stuff that pop religiosity focuses on; rather it involves an intensification and refocusing of one’s spiritual path. I can think of many “helping hands” for this work, but this Lent my favorite is this Chinese Zen monk from many centuries ago who went by the name of Stonehouse.

So Stonehouse is the name of a Chinese poet and Zen monk who lived in 13th Century China. Unlike my favorite Chinese Zen-poet monk, Han-shan, Stonehouse is very little known even among the Chinese. Over the centuries his poems appear in a few anthologies, and he is mentioned by more than one literary figure as “someone special.” But it is somewhat of a miracle that so many of his poems have come down to us considering so little is known about him. He was born in 1272 and received the traditional Confucian education; he was headed to be an official of state. But when he was 20 he quit his studies and became a novice Zen monk. After 3 years he was ordained a monk and sought further instruction. In 1312, at the age of 40, he left established monastic life and became a hermit living in a mountainous wilderness.


Interestingly enough, unlike other Buddhist monks and Indian sadhus, Chinese Zen monks refused to beg for food but worked for their upkeep. Life was hard in the mountains, but Stonehouse lived there almost 20 years as a hermit when his reputation caught up with him and he was talked into becoming an abbot of a monastery temple. He did that for 7 years and then returned to his wilderness abode and the hermit life. He died at the age of 81.


Red Pine, who had done such a splendid job of translating Han-shan (and others), is the one who makes Stonehouse somewhat accessible to us. Not easy to do, but many thanks to him! Stonehouse does not appear at first glance as vibrant, as acute in his observations, and as “poetic” as Han-shan (I don’t know if that would be true in the original Chinese.) In fact at times he seems almost dull. But when you give him time his poetry begins to reveal an especially acute spiritual sensibility and a depth of heart that is hidden in the “ordinariness” of life. Let us listen to him a bit. (All translations are by Red Pine.)


“Don’t think a mountain home means you’re free                                                                                      

a day doesn’t pass without its cares

old ladies steal my bamboo shoots

boys lead oxen into the wheat

grubs and beetles destroy my greens

boars and squirrels devour the rice

things don’t always go my way

what can I do but turn to myself”


Comment: Stonehouse is nothing but down to earth–again and again he is that in his poetry. He is also at the same time very subtle. His list of problems in living in the mountains is simply a metaphor for all the aches and pains of life. “Being spiritual” will not necessarily mean that things go well for you; quite the contrary. The Gospel puts the same view in its own Semitic language and imagery. But regardless of what happens the road inward is always open, and in certain circumstances it is the only road available!


Stonehouse again:

“My hut is at the top of Hsia Summit

few visitors brave the cliffs and ravines

lugging firewood to market I slip on the moss

hauling rice back up I drip with sweat

with no end to desire less is better

with limited time why be greedy

this old monk doesn’t mean to cause trouble

he just wants people to let go”

Comment: Here he sounds very much like that earlier remarkable hermit, Han-shan. Slight echoes of the Desert Fathers here also. There is a very nuanced dialectic of inner and outer here–solitude and company; slipping, struggle, endless desire and greed. The solution: simplify and see into your situation.


Stonehouse again:

“The streams are so clear and shallow I can see pebbles

my gableless hut is surrounded by vines

gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down

few visitors get past the moss by the cliffs

the bamboos in my yard bend with spring snow

the plum trees on the ridge are withered by frigid nights

the solitude of this path isn’t something new

but grinding a brick on a rock is a waste”

Comment: The last line of this remarkable piece refers to a famous story in Chinese Zen. A Zen master walking outside came upon a young monk meditating. The master asked him what he was doing; he said he was trying to become a Buddha. The master sat down and started grinding a brick on a rock. The young monk asked what he was doing. The master said that he was trying to make a mirror. The lesson hit home with the young monk. In this tradition meditation is not some external tool or technique to “get” something; neither is solitude another “means” to some spiritual end. Again, very much in keeping with the spirit of the Desert Fathers.


Stonehouse one more time:

“A white-haired Zen monk with a hut for my home

the wind has torn my robe into rags

down by the stream I rake leaves for my stove

after a frost I wrap a mat around my orange tree

ultimate reality isn’t created

ready-made koans aren’t worth a thought

all day I sit by my open window

looking at mountains without lowering the shade”

Comment: A lot here. But I just want to point out Stonehouse’s subtle critique of his contemporary monasticism. It is prevalent in a lot of his poems, and it shows his very sober assessment of the spiritual life. Being a monk at a comfy monastery/temple does not impress him; and most of all he is critical of formulaic spirituality. Rather deal with what life brings you–this is the real matter of the spiritual journey.



“My home in the cliffs is like a tomb

barren of even one worldly thought

although I eat food and wear clothes

it’s as if I were dead but not yet cremated.”

Comment: Again, echoes of the Desert Fathers.


“I saw through my worldly concerns of the past

I welcome old age and enjoy being free

rope shoes a bamboo staff the last month of spring

paper curtains plum blossoms and daybreak dreams

immortality and Buddhahood are merely fantasies

freedom from worry and care is my practice

last night what the pine wind roared

that was a language the deaf can’t hear.”

Comment: The “deaf” here are of course “worldly people”–which includes monks also. Thus, when he says that he “saw through my worldly concerns” that also includes his monastic life. And it is not only a decadent kind of monastic life that he is referring to, but also to what one Tibetan lama called “spiritual materialism”–this penchant for turning the spiritual journey and one’s spiritual identity into another kind of possession or a concept in the head. Again and again Stonehouse returns to what’s in front of his nose.


Stonehouse again:

“I was a Zen monk who didn’t know Zen

so I chose the woods for the years I had left

a robe made of patches over my body

a belt of bamboo around my waist

mountains and streams explain the Patriarch’s meaning

flower smiles and birdsongs reveal the hidden key

sometimes I sit on a flat-topped rock

late cloudless nights once a month”

Comment: Stonehouse tries to hide the depth of his realization–doesn’t do a good job of that! He drops hints and clues to those whose heart is ready.


Stonehouse again:

“There isn’t much time in this fleeting life

why spend it running in circles

when my kitchen is bare I go look for yams

when my robe needs a patch I consider lotus leaves

I’ve put down the elk tail and stopped giving sermons

my long-forgotten sutras are home to silverfish

I pity those who wear a monk’s robe

whose goals and attachments keep them busy”


Comment: So obvious. But just to point out: the elk tail and the sermons refer to his time as abbot.


Stonehouse one last time:

“From outside my round pointed-roof hut

who would guess at the space inside

all the worlds in the universe are there

with room to spare for a meditation cushion.”


Comment: Recall the Desert Fathers: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Happy Lent!