Let me start by saying that I am not some sort of all-star recluse. I live in a cramped apartment with four other roommates, one of whom is my girlfriend, in a busy section of San Francisco, the most tech-crazed, screen-dazed, app-happy city in the world. I have a laptop that I use five or six days a week. I have several episodes of Seinfeld loosely memorized. I have a bank account and a library card. I even have a habit of feeding the neighbor’s cat little flakes of tuna from time to time.
But let me also say that I don’t own, and have never owned, a cell phone. And that on Super Bowl Sunday I took a 25-mile hike and watched coyotes instead of commercials. And that when Osama bin Laden was shot I didn’t hear about it until a full three weeks after the fact. And that all my heroes are iconoclasts who turned their backs and at least partially walked away from “the red dust of civilization.”
Some folks read the newspaper with their morning coffee—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. I prefer to gulp mine down with ancient Ch’an recluse poetry.
Am I out of the loop? Well, that depends. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I’d argue that I’m in the loop, the loop that Hsieh Ling-yun and Meng Hao-jan and Wang Wei and Han Shan and Su Tung-P’o and Shih-wu and countless others call home. It’s a bigger loop, an older loop, a far more stable and enduring loop. Dating back 3,200 years, the Chinese poetic tradition represents the longest continuous literary movement in world history.
I think of my reading as drawing water from some bottomless, timeless well. In goes the bucket. The rope slides through my hands. I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, the French press on the coffee table, a book open in my lap, a chipped mug balanced on my knee. The city is asleep all around me. The sun is asleep beyond the earth’s curve. And now up comes a cherry tree in blossom, the tolling of a distant bell, a burning stick of incense, a small man in a wooden boat on a perfectly calm lake at dusk. The images are plain and clear, refreshing. I drink deeply, then lower the bucket for more.
So here’s the question: What exactly am I? What do we call a guy who practices waking before dawn and getting jazzed on caffeine and Buddhist nature poetry? A guy who loves how the wisdom of simplifying and slowing down and not buying useless junk resonates across the centuries? A guy who has been awake for hours, sitting in silence, and is just now hearing the first screaming police sirens of a brand new day? What do we call a guy who closes the book of poems and opens his computer and talks with his girlfriend and has Seinfeld lines running through his head? A guy who loses his library card and curses a blue streak? A guy who has taken no vows and owns no prayer beads?
The point in asking is not to put me in a box called Alternative or Normal or Wannabe Recluse or American Consumer or any other kind of box with any other kind of name. In fact, the point is the exact opposite. It strikes me that the real essence of reclusion has more to do with a fundamental quality of separation than it does with holing up in a backcountry shack or a monastery cell. The writer and solitary Fenton Johnson put it nicely in a recent Harper’s essay when he wrote, “The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Take the example of T’ao Ch’ien—“Recluse T’ao”—whom the translator David Hinton describes as a revered, grandfatherly figure positioned at the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition. Did T’ao live in a cave all winter, lost in some meditative trance, shivering in a threadbare robe? No, far from it. A dissatisfied bureaucrat, he quit his job and retreated to his hometown at the foot of Lu Mountain to grow chrysanthemums, hang out with his wife and kids, and generally get back to the basics.
In 417 CE, T’ao wrote a series of 19 “Drinking Wine” poems, one of which begins with a few lines that summarize his domestic arrangement: “I live here in this busy village without / all that racket horses and carts stir up, / and you wonder how that could ever be. / Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself / a distance place.” That’s Hinton’s translation. An alternative version of the last line, made by Arthur Sze, reads: “A distant mind leaves the earth around it.”
What’s important is the idea underlying the specific words, the idea that physical proximity to noise and bustle doesn’t necessarily make for a noisy, bustling consciousness. During a panel discussion based on the prompt “Poet as Hermit or Social Being,” Sze prefaced a reading of T’ao’s poem by saying that he’d rather set the two qualities—the hermetic and the social—in apposition rather than opposition. Put them side by side. Let them converse. “When you go far in your mind, you can find a kind of wilderness inside of yourself,” he explained.
Plunging the French press, pulling the bucket from the timeless well, drinking up the day’s first poems, I do sometimes feel like I’m setting off on a backpacking trip. Each line of verse leads me farther into forests, river valleys, brushy ravines. Gold light falls on beds of green moss. A crane cuts the sky overhead. The screaming sirens soften and fade until they’re heard as if through a dream.
This exploration is thrilling. For starters, there’s the excitement of moving into the older loop, the loop where the clouds drift and the poets in thatch-roofed huts contemplate sorrow, delight, the passing years, the cycling seasons. There’s also the satisfaction of turning my back and leaving behind, if only temporarily, the red dust of civilization. Of flipping some small bird to the newsflashes and sports scores and relentless advertising. Of casting my vote, in a sense.
Am I arguing that people should become modern-day T’ao Ch’iens or read Ch’an poems on the couch like me? Certainly not. This isn’t about prescribing. This is about the joy of considering our options, that’s all. As the writer and cultural critic John Berger once said in an interview: “The books that mean most to me are the books that teach us subversion, of course. Subversion in the face of the world as it is. Books that suggest the honor of an alternative.”
Drawing water from the ancient well is one such alternative. In my reading of recluse poetry, I myself enact a form of everyday reclusion. It’s a quiet subversion, a subversion that’s just a few words, a few sips of predawn wisdom, a lowering of the bucket for more. It’s nothing special—no big deal. And yet I cherish it. With each poem I remind myself that I can choose, at least to some degree, what I admit into that special space I call myself.
So here I am again, sitting in silence. Here I am on Monday. Here I am on Friday. Here I am in spring and in autumn, in winter and summer, the saggy couch getting saggier beneath my rear end, Seinfeld lines mingling with dew drops and bamboo. The ash falls from the tip of a stick of incense. The mist-tangled crags come and go. I flip the page and a lonely bell rings out across smooth water that has pooled under the commotion and racket and bustle and rush of the so-called normal life—water that is waiting there in the bottom of a well that has no bottom and is available to us all.
For a moment, the water is my mind. Then I close the book, setting it aside until tomorrow, and head to the kitchen to brew up a second pot of joe.
Leath Tonino’s essays and interviews have appeared in Orion, Sierra, The Progressive, and The Sun. A freelance writer, he has also worked as a blueberry farmer in New Jersey, a wildlife biologist in Arizona, and a snow shoveler in Antarctica. Reprinted from Tricycle (Fall 2015), a quarterly independent journal of Buddhism in the West.