Arise and Go Now: A Chosen Fate

J. D. Walker

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there . . . .
. . . for always night and day
I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

from "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W. B. Yeats


One of my favorite branches of lore is hermitage literature: the stories, legends, and poetry handed down from generations of hermits across the world. Perhaps its fascination lies in the metaphor of the house as an image of the householder, or of the particular kind of life lived within its walls. I picked up a bamboo paint brush for the first time one day in my early twenties and discovered the idea of the hermitage standing in it, smiling, as if it had just been waiting for me to open that door.

When decades later I declared my intention to follow the ancients to the mountain for a solitary retreat in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this decision was met with joy and support on the Buddhist side of my life, and astonishment and dismay, deepening to outright protest, on the Western side. Some said I was not suited to the enclosed life. Zeus said he would not permit me to go if he had anything to say about it. Listening to my litany of reasons, "Too much 'me' in it!" he rumbled. Some acclaimed the virtues of the active life and opined that to make such a retreat was to shirk responsibility. One even insisted that East and West ought never meet.

When one commits oneself to a sacred task or spiritual purpose, the commitment seems to activate fate in a sometimes most trying way. Things unaccountably change; things or places or people long known and loved may fall away, at least temporarily, until nothing remains of familiar touchstones. One finds oneself in a condition of unknowing and can only follow where the inevitable leads. Like yeast that acts inexorably according to its nature to leaven or raise the loaf, so this commitment leavens one's life. It is subtle but produces an irresistible transformation. If fate, or karma, informs the realm of action, then commitment could be called the engine of fate's fulfilment.

One goes or is carried, whether or not one understands precisely why, exactly where one is needed, with exactly the gifts that the fate requires. Fate itself is always flowing on, driven by what Buddhist texts call the red wind of karma. It is in our bloodstream; our minds and our speech are full of it--yet, until we choose it we have no power to navigate the currents and shoals of the river, like Jonah running from his calling until the belly of the great fish became inevitable. When one chooses to respond, life begins again on a new footing. We learn, sooner or later, to recognize our fate when it comes, as a signpost of our personal purpose or destiny.

The world and the hermit's hill called back and forth to each other through my heart for many years, as I meditated and pondered and made any small retreats I could, both East and West. At forty-six I wrapped up my life in California and headed for the East Coast, where I had been offered a place to make my hermitage. A generous household had bought the house across the road from our lama's meditation center. When he got a look at the room over the garage, he thought it would be ideal for someone to enter the traditional three-year retreat, far enough from the house for solitude, surrounded by miles of state and regional forest. I would meditate, and they would provide the room, wood for the woodstove, and weekly grocery shopping. Together, as Milarepa sang, patron sand hermit would use their karmic connection to walk the path toward enlightenment.

By that time, I had become at last a bit like my new forest home, cut to the bone to feed the furnaces of a steel mill in the valley, now decades gone. Like my hill, my life, not protesting too much, fed the monster of modernity, puffing out the smoke and fumes of what passed for progress. Busy among the grey pavements, I slowly ceased to inhabit my "deep heart's core" and the inward hill with its imagined hermitage. And perhaps that loosing was a necessary prelude to my eventual finding.

Maryland's Catoctin Mountain is to my Sierra-formed California eye a mere rocky hillock, but local custom insists on calling it a mountain. Its forest is new, the hill having been logged to the last tree and replanted perhaps eighty years ago. I have lived here, a backyard hermit, for seven years. This was, I now think, inevitable, given another hill that intervened in my fate twenty years ago. I fell finally and irretrievably in love with a hermit's hut and its lore during the four years I lived in Taiwan, studying and practicing in theCh'an Buddhist tradition, the ancient school that is the mother of Japanese Zen, now so familiar to us in the West.

Dharma Cloud Ch'an Temple stands among its pines and gardens nearly at the top of a vertical mountain clad in primordial bamboo forest, leaping sheer out of a remote river valley in central Taiwan. Beyond the temple, nestled in a shaded clearing just below the peak, was the tiny cement and brick hut of a hermit, its wide red-painted wooded doors facing a bit of grass and a simple flower garden. The hermit, named Mr. Lin, had been a soldier in his youth, one of the many men who found themselves stranded on Taiwan after the painful Chinese civil war that brought Mao to power. He claimed to have become a Buddhist "by accident," having had a spontaneous inner experience that led him more and more deeply into the practice of meditation.

As students of the same master, Mr. Lin and I had met before in the city, but I had not yet taken up his invitation to see his mountain retreat. The invisible hut on the mountain drew me somehow, steeped as I had become in the work of the poets and painters of China's great periods, when the hermitic life also flourished both as an ideal and as an actual way of living. Tang poet Wang Wei(699 -759) wrote of his retreat at Mount Chung-nan:

My heart in middle age found the Way,
And I came to dwell at the foot of this mountain.
When the spirit moves, I wander alone
Amid beauty that is all for me.
I will walk till the water checks my path,
Then sit and watch the rising clouds
And some day meet an old woodcutter
And talk and laugh and never return.

In his own middle age, Mr. Lin had made his hermitage here among fruit trees on the site of an older hermitage gone to ruin long before. A companion  and I set out to visit him at the end of a day's sunshine, pursued by black clouds that we did not take seriously enough. Up the winding path from Dharma Cloud we went, until suddenly, as happens in those mountains in the rainy season, we were soaked and covered with red mud to our knees between one step and the next. We had gone too far to turn back easily, so on we sloshed, singing in the rain.

Although the arrival of two drenched American women on his remote door step must have been surprising, he welcomed us warmly and set about making us comfortable. Soon, wearing his old clothes and wrapped in blankets while our clothing dried on a large upturned basket over his fire pot, we were deep in cups of good tea and laughter and dharma talk. We sat by the open doors of his two-room hut watching the rain cascade off the wide eaves, chuckling away down the brick walk and dissolving the day into mist.

He would not hear of us slipping and sliding back down to the temple in the dusk, so he cooked us a simple vegetarian supper. After we had cleaned up our bowls and chopsticks, the storm had passed by and the night was fragrant with the flowers in his small garden. The temple bell below us sent its one hundred and eight deep tones across the steep valleys, as temple bells have done for centuries of evenings. Local legend has it that, when it first rang out, the voice of that bell converted all the local people around to the Buddha dharma.

My hermitic future was sealed as Mr. Lin turned on the single dim light bulb that hung concealed among the leaves of a tree outside his door, and in his grey cotton robes proceeded with his nightly practice of Tai Chi Chuan in its shadowy light. This all seemed like an old ink painting come to life, a poem breathing its original breath into my heart with a breath taking familiarity. As his movements flowed seamlessly, contemplatively one into another, I silently vowed that someday I too would have a hut of my own. Fate was as ever listening, but the hut would be a long time coming.

A true fate needs to be fed. In the course of reading every account I could get my hands on about retreats and hermits and huts, I devoured poems inscribed on paintings of solitary dwellings among wild mountains, and the life and songs of the Tibetan poet-sage Milarepa, the early Christian desert Fathers and Mothers, Sufi tales, and the stories of the eighty-four Mahasiddhas of the early periods of Buddhism in India. In the accounts of those great enlightened adepts of India, I found that my backyard hermitage is not by any means the first in Buddhist history, however uncommon it may be in the present-day West. The following tale about a weaver, for example, illustrates how a fate may wait to be discovered and fulfilled until all the conditions are right.

The weaver Tantipa lived a long and very successful life, amassing great wealth, which he passed on in time to his sons and their wives. As he grew old and senile, his daughters-in-law built him a little grass hut in his garden and fed him there, so as to avoid the embarrassment of his decrepit presence. There he stayed, and one evening, perhaps by chance, a wandering guru approached the weaver's sons for food. They invited him to stay, and because he would not sleep under a roof, they offered him a place in the garden.

The old weaver heard a stranger's voice in his quiet refuge and called out to see who it was. As the old man recounted the story of his familial woes, the guru suddenly interrupted and asked Tantipa if he wanted the Dharma. The weaver replied, "I want it." Thus he met his master and his exile became his retreat; the thatched hut in his garden served by his children became his perfectly open, perfectly concealed hermitage. He committed his teacher's instructions to memory and practiced them secretly for twelve years, attaining many qualities unobserved by anybody, until late one night, having forgotten to take him his meal, one of his daughters-in-law entered the garden and observed a brilliant light within the backyard hut.

To her amazement, the old man appeared surrounded by celestial maidens and many delicacies. She fetched her husband and his guests, who ran to see, and by morning word had spread and all the citizens of the town came to do reverence to the old weaver. He came forth, transforming his body into that of a sixteen-year-old youth, gleaming with rays of light. He became famous everywhere and did numberless deeds for the benefit of living beings.

Without the seeming chance of the guru's arrival there is no story. Buddhism claims that there is no such thing as chance, as nothing can exist without a sufficient cause, whether we recognize it or not. We tend to resist this idea, thinking that if something is fated, it must be predestined, and predestination renders life meaningless and devoid of flavor and spontaneity. But it is exactly fate--perhaps the term providence might suffice us better--that produces the sufferings and joys that often reveal the deepest meaning of life.

Fate is the source of all movement, story, myth. Being by nature inevitable,fate can only be. It acts as a lens that heats up the waters of unconscious habit we float in; it intensifies experience to the point where we must choose. Because of it, we act; and pushed beyond the limits of self, we come at last to wholeness. Without its commanding question, "Do you want this?" we would remain peacefully sitting in the garden, asleep, the slaves of permanence. Perhaps we need fate to fill a lack in ourselves.

Sitting in my own hermitage one day not long ago, telling a lama the story of how I came to be in retreat, I wondered at how it had found me, how all that was needed had somehow come, and all that was being held onto had almost automatically fallen away. "You decided!" he replied, as if I should have seen so obvious a thing. And like many others before me, having said "yes," I had to endure all that followed, for the sake of what that "yes" would open.

One last hermit tale I offer, in service of the most important element in the ever unfolding, demanding path of those who take the hand of fate. The Zen poet Basho made a six-month hermitage in the latter part of 1690, on a hillside overlooking Lake Biwa east of Kyoto. There he found an abandoned hut called the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling. This curious name repays reflection. The poet likens his fragile refuge to the nest of the grebe, a water bird that attaches its floating home to a reed so that the current will not wash it away.

The wanderer finds himself musing on his rootless ways, expending his feeling on flowers and birds, keeping company with his shadow by moonlight, and contemplating his wholehearted commitment to the poet's fate. He acknowledges without complaint that we all live in a "phantom dwelling" and concludes his account of his hermitage with a haiku:

Among these summer trees
a Formosan oak--
something to count on

Basho recalls us to what we already know--the thing we can count on is just this phantom dwelling, representing equally the flowing, changeful nature of fate and of the self we cling to like the little grebe's slender reed. What else is thereafter all to look to, if we do not trust in the gifts of fate--even the flood--as our homeward road? Thus does fate become our fortune: a blessing opening us into new worlds, an invitation to ripening. Arise and go now!

J. D. Walker is an artist in the Chinese ink painting tradition and a hermit in the Tibetan Drikung Kagyud tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Her article "A Poem in a Brushstroke" appeared in the Quest of March-April 2000.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there . . . .
. . . for always night and day
I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.