This piece is part of the Excursions series.
The Ultimate Path is without difficulty;
Just avoid picking and choosing.
Just don’t love or hate,
And you’ll be lucid and clear.*
Old man Chao-chou often said this to his students. He lived for one hundred and twenty years. At eighty, he was still to teach for forty more years. He was a very famous teacher of the Way, who still teaches today about not picking and choosing. I think about these words most while working in the yard. Most of my work out here is cutting and uprooting, and all of it is picking and choosing. It is a sweet tonic to say just avoid picking and choosing while picking and choosing.
I wonder what that would be like, not picking and choosing. Old man Shih-t’ou was called the Stone-top Monk because he built a hut on a mountain in southern China. He wrote about his home in “Song of the Grass-roof Hermitage”:
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in–covered by weeds.**
I wonder what he ate. I imagine he often ate rice and fermented vegetables, but some of the old mountain dwellers, who yet had paper and ink with which to write, wrote about eating wild greens and chestnuts and acorns. I’ve done this a little myself. Be careful when picking up chestnuts, as their husks are very prickly. And acorns don’t have thorns, but you still have to choose which to eat. Some are wormy, some are not.
Working in the yard is wholesome activity. Young bush honeysuckle has beautiful light green leaves and is easy to uproot. I enjoy pulling up the creeping spurge from the sidewalk because it has a long, thin taproot that’s satisfying to uproot. Yet sometimes I let it go because its sprawl is so lovely. Purslane I spare as often as I can because it is beautiful and tasty and nutritious. Long ago I gave up trying to uproot dandelions, and I consider myself lucky when I can get at least part of the tricky curved root of the trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans. I like to learn the names of the weeds I pull, but many I don’t know. But I pay attention to them and learn from them. I also enjoy gathering the weeds I pull to make compost of them. But they will compost whether I gather them or not, for that is the nature of things. Sweet, wholesome compost. Birth and Death. Undivided activity.
As I weed, I know that my work is endless. But I rest as often as I can in the present moment. The walnuts are turning yellow, and the sassafras and poison ivy have been reddening for a while now; fall is coming. I think back to the beginning of my work in the spring. Each year I go out with the grand plan that if I do my work right, there will be less work in the future. I don’t know. I seem to do just as much weeding every year. Or, at least I can’t tell if I’m doing more or less. Of late, my practice is to not think about what is left undone and realize that this activity will go on in some form or other forever. But I still carry a design in my mind where the edges between the wild and cultivated blend, where choosing and not choosing are one, but I know that is already here and always will be.
*The opening quote is taken from Cleary’s translation of The Blue Cliff Record, p. 11.
**The quote from “Song of the Grass-roof Hermitage” is taken from The Roaring Stream, edited by Foster and Shoemaker, p. 40.
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.