In the Analects, Confucius writes: “What I call a great minister is one who will only serve the emperor when it can be done without infringement of the Way, and as soon as this is impossible, resigns.” (11.23)
Here resignation is not opting for an alternative career or pursuit. Officials were deemed disloyal, even treasonous, if they refused the plaudits of the palace. Nor were there other options outside of court in any case, for everything in society was controlled from the top. The import of the statement is directed at the heart of personal integrity in a corrupt world. The official may have heard a word or seen a gesture or come to a personal decision, but in any case will have to dissemble in order to exit gracefully. Even later, in retirement, the recluse was often hunted up by existing officials to be persuaded or summoned back to court. Officials who reclused plead infirmity, family need, or even — like Tao Chien — alcoholism, in order to avoid service.
From the Analects of Confucius comes this hallmark statement of reclusion: “Best of all is to withdraw from one’s generation; next to withdraw to another land; next to leave because of a look; next to leave because of a word.” (14.39)
Reclusion (withdrawal) is most successful when understood as one’s statement about society as such, “one’s generation.” Next best is to recluse from one’s community or province or to go to another where one is not known, “another land,” with the implication of a sense of escape from a social crisis. For ancient China this meant disappearing not necessarily into mountains but into villages of another province. The last two phrases are specific to a court official who foresees trouble: a menacing glance or a verbal hint dropped with or without doubt as to meaning. The first two motives for reclusion are best for the reflective person concerned with integrity. The latter two are at least options for the stubborn and proud who have nevertheless finally realized their expendability in the eyes of the powerful.
In his classic Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura describes the tea house as no more than a cottage or thatched hut. The original ideographs for “tea house” meant literally “Abode of Fancy,” the name Basho used for his hut: “Unreal” or “Phantom” dwelling. Okakura also calls it “Abode of Vacancy” or emptiness, reminiscent of Bodhidharma’s saying about the essence of Buddhism: “Vast emptiness.” Again, Okakura also calls the tea house “Abode of the Unsymmetrical” or what we would today call “Asymmetrical.” Here the concept approaches wabi. He writes of the tea house’s designer who goes about “purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.” Wabi is the aesthetic of dwellings reflecting “extreme simplicity and chasteness … of decoration.” The aesthetics of wabi is a plastic or sense expression of Zen philosophy, which the tea house should embody.
Two unusual sights: a spotted Eastern skunk and a gray fox. Despite years living at this location, we had never seen a skunk. When traveling, the skunk seems very small, but rearing up to scout about like a squirrel is a clear signal to back away. Foxes, on the other hand, have been glimpsed from afar, trotting away without lingering. This one crossed our path on a dusk walk, turning a moment without fear, then deliberately crossing the road just a few meters ahead. The gray fox is a slip of a dog, its color and diminutive shape like a shadow, especially in the approaching dark of twilight.
Outside, fresh water in the ceramic “saucers” and stone bird bath is a summons to all kinds of birds to drink and bathe. Among the drinkers are bluejays, woodpeckers, flickers, even a raucous grackle. Bathers seem to line up: cardinals and sparrows. A polite rufous-winged sparrow perches nearby, preferring to wait out the crowd.
Inside there have been wayward insects — thirsty, too, perhaps. The other day an irritable hornet had come into the house attached to clothes on the line. It flew straight to a window where with angry buzzing it insisted on getting out. It was uneventful business to coax the hornet onto a thick rag, quickly (but gently) cover it with another rag, and then escort the hornet out of the house. It flew away in a huff. A few days before it had been a rather large and noisy bumblebee and yesterday a simple beetle. (Beetles are easy.) But none of these insects wanted to be indoors anymore than we wanted them to be. An amicable solution prevailed in each case.