Living in a hermitage deep in the mountains,
On a lonely peak under a thick pine tree.
I would meditate contentedly in a monk’s hut,
At ease in this tranquil place.
Although masters and patriarchs through the ages have said that Ch’an practice should not be separate from the normal activities of daily life, Yung-chia says that there should be an extended period of time during which one practices away from society. After this stage of solitary practice is completed, the practitioner can return to society and ordinary, day-to-day life.
During the T’ang and Sung dynasties, Ch’an practice flourished in the mountains, not in the cities. The Fourth Patriarch, Tao-Hsin, and the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, lived in the mountains at Huang-mei. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, visited Hung-jen at Tung-shan mountain, and then went south to Kwang-tung province. The Emperor of China invited Hui-neng to the capital, but he declined, preferring to live in the mountains at Ts’ao-hsi. Most practitioners of that time practiced in the mountains or in a quiet, secluded area. Even though it is said that one can practice Ch’an anywhere, even in the streets, this is only true for a person who has a deep understanding of Ch’an. Such a person can practice well in any environment. The frenetic pace of a heavily populated city would not adversely affect his practice. But such a person is rare. It would not be easy for a beginner to practice in the streets of New York City.
When we first started holding retreats in Queens, people would go outside to practice slow-walk meditation after dinner. The neighbors did not like seeing people walking in a daze past their houses. One retreat participant lay on the grass in someone’s yard. People thought he was crazy. They wanted to know what went on in the Ch’an Center. They even threatened to call the police. That is what happens when you practice Ch’an in the streets. People think you are insane. Of course, if our center were in the heart of New York, say Times Square, then we would not have to worry. There, anything goes, and nobody cares.
Practicing in the mountains means living in isolation and without material and emotional attachments. While in the mountains, a practitioner does not stay in a hut; rather, he sleeps in a cave or underneath pine branches growing close to the ground. Han Shan (Cold Mountain), the great Ch’an poet, lived like this. A practitioner might go as far as to build a primitive shelter with a thatched roof to prevent rain from leaking through; but shelters are usually kept simple, because practitioners only live in them for a day or so, and then move on. They do this because they understand how easy it is to grow attached to a home, even if one lives there for only a couple of days. Home and daily life generate attachments and responsibilities. Without a home, one is relieved of the anxiety arising from one’s desire for comfort and security.
The territorial instinct is as strong in humans as it is in birds or dogs. When a bird builds a nest, it will drive off intruders. Dogs are protective of their territories, and will attack strangers who trespass. We are like birds and dogs, protecting our little homes. A practitioner in the mountains must be careful not to let his straw lean-to become a home.
— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng Yen (page 118)