Shan-shih: the Hermit House of Stonehouse

The "Mountain Poems" (Shan-shih) of Ch'ing-hung (1271-1352), or, Stonehouse, share many similarities with the poems of other Chinese and Japanese Zen-monk hermits. But the voice of Stonehouse is exceptional in revealing many details of a hermit's daily life and his hut.

Stonehouse was not a wanderer, artist, or formal poet, nor a reclused official or fugitive. He was a monk, educated and well-studied in Buddhism under several masters. For a while he served as a meditation master and for many years as a monastery abbot, acquiring an excellent reputation. But nothing suited him like the freedom of the mountains -- in this case the Hsiamushan (or Zhongnan) in eastern China -- and it was here, towards the end of his life, that he composed one-hundred and eighty-four verses he called "Mountain Poems."

Ch'ing-hung wrote the "Mountain Poems" in a burst of inspiration, fired with memory and insight, a sudden productive feat. In the preface, he notes:

Some monks have asked me to recall what I find of interest on this mountain. I have sat here quietly and let my brush fly. Suddenly this volume is full.

The poems are a mix of mundane and lofty, though Stonehouse never intends his pithy advice as lofty. Yet the mundane becomes lofty beneath his experienced gaze. The more outstanding reading, however, may be of the details of his life and hut. Daily life and survival from building to planting to food, clothing, nature and the seasons, are all well represented.


Stonehouse moved to his hermit hut in spring of 1312, on "Red Curtain Mountain and Sky Lake Spring," the latter a clear spring of water beside which he built his hut. Stonehouse's "ungabled," thatch hut lay "deep in the clouds," "perched above a thousand peaks," in a place where, he says, "nothing but mountains meet my eyes."

From the top of Hsiawushan
my hut  peeks through the clouds
cool in summer beside bamboo
warm in winter facing the sun.

Weather at this elevation is unpredictable. When it rains the hut gets soaked, but it dries well with sunshine. A heavy gust of wind rips out his paper windows -- oiled, translucent paper that served as shutters keeping out wind, rain, and snow.

Stonehouse describes the dimensions of his hut variously as "less than three mats wide," and "three rafters wide," and "not quite ten feet on a side." From the outside the hut looks cramped, he admits, but he does not mind because he owns so little.

Stonehouse mentions an occasional new fragrant grass mattress. His pillow is a slab of wood. He has a gilt statue of the Buddha (and three clay ones fashioned by his own hand).

I move my bookstand to read sutras by moonlight
I honor the buddhas with a vase of wild flowers.

Stonehouse keeps an oil lamp, and several ritual objects: incense, a gong, and a bell.

The hermit has a tea-stove "black with soot," and a cooking pot, "a broken-legged pot on a pile of dry leaves." His other utensils are equally simple.

a strainer with holes that doesn't strain rice
and a broken ridge bowl to mash fresh ginger.

Daily work is hard,, as these evocative passage shows:

plowing and hoeing make up my day
half a dozen terraced fields ...

in the mountains I'm never idle
but I've learned what others don't know
how to channel a spring across a slope
how to start the morning fire with rocks
how to hull mountain rice and chop wood.

Stonehouse sometimes hauls wood to the village market for grain, his only contact with people except for occasional visits of monk acquaintances or friendly farmers and wood-gatherers. One year he ran out of rice before spring, but another year he had so much he did not know what to do with it all. But Stonehouse learned to grow his own "fragrant mountain rice" and built a water wheel to hull it.

I don't stop moving all day
long before sunset I'm done
back home I wash off my feet and sleep
too tired to notice the mountain moon's passage
birds wake me up from a distant grove
the red sun's disc shines through the pines
today and tomorrow don't differ
the years are all the same.

But as Stonehouse grew in mountain skills, he discovered that "three or four naps a day still don't exhaust my free time."


Stonehouse enjoyed a variety of food, harvested and grown. "In twenty years on the mountain," he writes, "I've never been cheated by a hoe." He successfully grew rice, millet, and wheat -- and "pea pods on terraced banks," perhaps soy. He planted "eight or nine" pine trees for future beams of his hut, but even they provide food, as will be seen. He describes "green and yellow fields of vegetables and grain," but his garden provided most of the former: melons, eggplants, yams, and cucumbers.

Stonehouse says he has no time for flowers but he added an "immense hibiscus hedge," plus gardenias and pawlonias. "Chrysanthemums along a fence perfume the dusk." To his orchard he has added peach, plum, pear, and chestnut trees. In a garden pond he cultivates lotus and water chestnuts.

Stonehouse derives many foods from harvesting on the mountain. He gathers edible thistles and herbs such as pigweed, fiddlewood, wormwood, and Solomon-seal. He also gathers vine buds, pine nuts and pollen, and especially tea leaves.

From these and other foods, Stonehouse describes a typical meal:

A meal in my mountain kitchen
the spring provides the perfect sauce
behold a stew of preserved bamboo
a pot of fragrant hard-grain rice
blue-cap mushrooms fried in oil
purple-bud ginger pickles.

Stonehouse figures that he has eaten "a hundred crocks of pickles," presumably cucumbers.

In harder times, there is pigweed soup, gruel, cakes of mashed pine nuts and pine pollen, and "wormwood tea for guests," none of which is unpalatable. In better times, a visiting monk brings seaweed as a gift.


For clothing, Stonehouse wore a simple robe made of whatever was available, depending on the season. In summer he wore short-lived mulberry paper or lotus-leaves, but otherwise a sturdy hemp, which grew in wild abundance along with mulberry. He describes "a patched robe over my body, braided bamboo around my waist." The patchwork he would accomplish with willow thread using a pine needle. "My once-padded robe is not padded anymore," he laments in one passage, and further,

my underclothes have no drawstring
my pants have no legs
and half my robe is missing.

Once, after getting soaked in rain, he could point out "a monk's ragged robe dries on rocks." Working, he often wore a cloth coat of coir (coconut fiber) and a leaf hat.

Stonehouse wore grass shoes and carried a bamboo staff. With the approach of cold, he gathered a store of pine and mulberry logs but by winter's end he was burning leaves and pine needles. This meager source was his warmth by the stove, plus a paper quilt now replaced by an unspecified equivalent of cotton.

Huddled in his winter hut, the hermit reflects.

It's been so long sine I went to the gate
the moss and lichens must be layers thick.

In his mountain hut, Stonehouse is in the midst of wild nature. He mentions the howl of gibbons, the laughter of tigers (which kept him indoor much of a day once), and the usual deer, squirrels, rabbits, and birds from cranes to crows. Stonehouse reads or rereads the Lankavatara sutra, Tao Chien, and Han-shan (or at least remembers the latter two), but he regrets that his books have become home for silverfish.


So many pithy sayings in the "Mountain Poems" place the eremitical experience and the hut itself in the center of Stonehouse's spirituality. Yet the sayings are infused with his characteristic modesty. "I built my hut on a lonely peak," he writes, "and pass my days in karma's wake." He admits that he does not know if he is "a fool or a sage."

More than forty years I have lived as a hermit
out of touch with the world's rise and fall.

Stonehouse feels no obligation to chart or participate in this perpetual "rise and fall" because in hermit life is freedom.

Nothing is better than being free
but getting free is not luck.

"Getting free" is work, as his daily life shows, but it is also not freedom for the sake of chasing after one worldly pursuit or another. Rather, the hut that represents his freedom is

a humble place free from care
quiet untroubled days
who can do as well
nothing to do or change.

The acceptance and perspective suggested by the last line confers the hermit's freedom. Life becomes what is should be.

A hundred years slip by when you are free
ten thousand cares dissolve when you are still.

And the hermit's hut is the symbol of this consciousness:

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
how much space do you think is inside
all the worlds of the universe are there ...

Bibliographical References

The "Mountain Poems" are translated into English in The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a Fourteenth-Century Chinese Hermit; translated by Red Pine [i.e., Bill Porter]. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1999.