Posted on February 6, 2023
There is heaven above, and Su-Hang below… and it is here in Hangzhou, China, where I returned after a three-year absence.
Truth be told, this was the heaven I needed after the past three years. Eight days of quarantine bliss, where the only voices I had to deal with were my own. A perfect recipe to re-enter a country where I had spent much of my adult life.
Speaking of perfect recipes, the first meal in my room: DongPo Rou 东坡肉, a famous Hangzhou dish named after the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi. And for someone who doesn’t get poetry, I sure spend a lot of time trying…
Su Shi’s poem: Drinks at West Lake through Sunshine and Rain (饮湖上初睛居雨) has significance, as it was written about Xi Shi, one of the four beauties of ancient China, and West Lake is said to be the reincarnation of her.
“The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies,
The blur of color across the hills is richer still in rain.
If you wish to compare the lake to the Lady of the West,
Lightly powdered or thickly smeared, she is the best.”
~ by Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101), aka Su DongPo
Returning to Hangzhou set the stage for one of those magical moments that pop up in life, where once again, the only thing is to relax, step into something new and see where it goes.
Decades ago, as a young man, I was told when the moon was just right late at night, the swaying willow trees of West Lake would transform into a beautiful goddess. I imagined her to be the ancient beauty Xi Shi.
Poets and lost souls would become enraptured by the sight of her alongside the lake and willows, and with imagination, it was almost possible to touch heaven.
There were many drunken nights where I stumbled around the lake, only to wake up humbled by the morning sun and a mouthful of willow leaves…
With this memory, my first stop out of quarantine was easy, visit West Lake to chase the ancient Chinese beauty Xi Shi once again. This myth I’ve been pursuing for the past two decades.
For most Chinese, visiting West Lake is something one must do, just like in ancient times: to experience West Lake is to experience the epitome of Chinese culture.
Poets, artists, and lovers flock here to live through the stories from Song dynasty greats comparing Xi Shi’s beauty to the lake. One famous Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, wrote about her entrancing beauty, including her in a renowned idiom: 沉鱼落雁 ~ Upon seeing Xi Shi’s reflection in the water, fish would forget how to swim… Fortunately, I am a pretty strong swimmer.
During the month I spent in Hangzhou, it was impossible to walk around the streets without imagining I was in the Song dynasty, around me a blend of achievement while not forgetting the Daoist nature of compassion and being one with nature.
Over its 2,100-year history as “the Heaven on Earth” for its culture, beauty, and romantic feel, Hangzhou and West Lake have fueled many dreams.
In times we have now, where the world is spinning wildly with epidemics, war, politics, and challenging business, it is good to have a place to escape to, to wrap ourselves up in the culture of romance.
West Lake holds the subtle Daoist culture of romance and oneness between man and nature. As cold and calculating as the world can be, Daoist thought reminds us of the flip side: art, culture, and nature to balance our lives.
West Lake is where Lao Zi’s philosophy of Daoism impacted my life, specifically part of verse 67:
慈故能勇；俭故能广；不敢为天下先，故能成器长。Lao Zi, Dao de Jing, verse 67
I have three treasures of the Dao to hold and protect.
The first is compassion.
The second is self-discipline.
The third is humility.
From compassion comes courage. From self-discipline comes generosity.
From the humility of putting others ahead comes leadership.
The advice is rooted in simplicity, which contradicts today’s modern world. We often wish to have a simple, enjoyable life, but in an age of hi-tech, where everything comes at increasingly fast speeds, we are forced to react just as quickly and move at such a pace.
We work with technology all the time, and it is easy to forget that in between all technology is human interaction. Human interaction requires compassion; it is where love is derived, and we build relationships that guide us into becoming better people.
Compassion creates a deep-seated love, giving us the courage to defend all that is good in the world. It is the creed of a great society and great people, and I do not know anyone who would not do anything to defend what they love.
At the end of the day, if there is no compassion, there is nothing.
My West Lake journey was a perfect reminder of how compassion allows people to connect with others and their culture, and from this, happiness takes seed.
Compassion towards ourselves allows us to reconcile with all beings in the world. How can we live in peace if we aren’t at peace with ourselves? At peace with ourselves, we have the self-discipline to be generous, to avoid petty arguments, prejudices, and irrelevant gossip that can veer the spirit from growth.
With a generous spirit and self-will, we broaden our thoughts. Ridiculous biases of the past are tossed aside, and we embrace the simplicity of the world. We develop the patience to be compassionate and seek a greater understanding, a genius.
Genius is not only for the few; it can strike anyone, anytime. All we need is the patience and awareness to let it happen.
Awareness… this is a bit of a problem even with me. Staring at our mobile phones, snapping photos at each moment we see, we speed through life without taking the time to enjoy the calm.
In this world of clicks, likes, and social media influencers, being bold and gregarious are traits we are taught to exemplify. There is not much self-discipline or generosity in this art – where success lacks compassion.
We understand this. See it in existence, and we can all agree that something is missing here. Yet here we are…
The irony of the above selfies and my participation is not lost. I understand the triviality of sharing the world’s beauty at the expense of not fully experiencing it as I should 🙃.
The younger me would shake his head – it’s a delicate balance to manage.
Self-discipline is needed to keep things simple. Simplicity is harder than complexity; it takes effort to think clearly.
Hiking around West Lake, I thought of all the great Chinese and Western artists and philosophers. The one thing they had in common was spending time in nature. It was part of their thought process: hiking up mountains, through fields, or around lakes. Humbled by their surroundings, they developed the discipline to unravel an idea.
Truth cannot be forced. Humility requires self-discipline and patience. From humility comes the inevitable arrival of an answer, a form of leadership. This is a strange contradiction when aligned with the high-pressure, running-with-your-hair-on-fire attitude of the modern world.
Always in a rush, we never get the answer or the spark of genius because we never let the mind relax and “be” which allows us to enjoy hidden smiles to brighten up an evening.
In this world where everything happens instantaneously, it is easy to forget we are on a humble journey. Our current evolution of having an attention span of a gnat creates superficial happiness at the expense of depth – the expense of developing emotional roots in our own lives.
I’ve mentioned this before in my writing, and again I am amazed at how important the words my sister, Sandi, wrote in a journal she gave me over twenty years ago: “Take it slow, keep it simple.” In essence, be humble.
I often forego this simple tenet, but I understand the importance of reflecting on these words… take a deep breath, roll back time, and start again.
Taking a deep breath helps when I lose sight of the simple joys life can bring and how easy it is to accomplish by sitting down and enjoying the harmony of life.
Modern life appears not to appreciate humility or simplicity. But nature does not care what kind of car you drive, what phone you use, or the diamonds and pearls you wear… Instead, sit next to a lake, stretch out on the soft grass with friends, and watch the magic of a setting sun. Nature by your side.
Without the basics of compassion, self-discipline, and humility, it is impossible to achieve the potential of who we are as humans. To over-achieve and find happiness in the simplest of things.
West Lake still holds magic for me. Its history and beauty, and the romance of culture it creates. It is where I fell for my favorite verse of the Dao de Jing. It is at the heart of who I want to be. To become.
I suppose this person is someone Xi Shi could be impressed with, and just maybe, if I can become such a man when I ascend to heaven, I can sit with her and have a cup of tea… or perhaps 一杯白酒.
When one is humble, one can be brave.
* Special thanks to my niece Miu Miu Qiu who helped with the photos, and Happy Year of the Rabbit to all on this Lantern Day Festival.
Category: China, Dao De Jing, Lao Zi, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Travel in Asia Tagged: China, compassion, Dao de Jing, Hangzhou, Humility, Inspiration, Laozi, Nature, Philosophy, photography, Self-Discipline, Su Shi, West Lake, Xi Shi, Zhuangzi
Posted on September 21, 2013
Years ago, my Dad and I were sitting in a duck blind in Eastern Oregon prior to dawn and I mentioned how much I wanted to live near the Oregon Coast. The gist of my reasoning was that the Oregon Coast is beautiful, and having water around was comforting.
There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of water; roar of an ocean or babble of brook. The response from my Dad surprised me; he preferred the high desert and mountains…
It was not the first time I have been surprised by such a response, as my ex- felt the same way, where I always envisioned a place on the water, she felt the opposite.
My dad laughed at my incredulous look, and said he loves being at the pond (one of his favorite places on earth), and it is made better because it is located in Eastern Oregon (which is why he chose Pendleton). He also laughed at the situation with my ex-, saying that my Mom’s thought on the subject is also the opposite of his and, like me, she would rather live next to the ocean.
Why I bring this up, is that there is a special connection to water that inspires me, calms me. I will not think twice to pay more for a sea view room, while others cringe at the thought as they do not see the same value: some people can’t believe someone else would pay so much more for a house (or flat) with a water view, while others cannot comprehend why not.
The beauty of differences in human nature.
Among us all, however, is a tremendous respect for water, and it is an inherent respect as we flowed like water from conception onwards. Beyond the most obvious reason that the majority of our body is made up of the stuff, it is the nature of water that intrigues.
Water is pure: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. It has no desire other than to be itself.
Natural properties that we should emulate.
Water is resilient. Soft yet incredibly strong. An analogy which is often repeated, is how over time water can turn stone into sand with its relentless flow, creating such marvels as the Grand Canyon. Water never ceases in its pursuit of life…it just keeps on flowing, bending when necessary, and without question follows its nature.
My favorite verse from the Dao de Jing is number eight which parallels water with human nature. If I had to summarize the words of this verse it is: be true to who you are, keep it simple and kind, and flow with your work and in life, without expectations, and you will not be disappointed.
Simple thoughts. Whenever life throws something at me, a trip to the coast (or a creek) is all I need to gain perspective.
As with all words of Lao-zi, they are words of poetry…which makes translation by any non-native speaker close to impossible. Below is the Chinese, and an old translation I made 15 years ago with a lot of help.
The greatest good is like water. Nourishing all in our world without effort, flowing to depths we ignore. Water is therefore like the Dao.
In living, be close to the land
In thinking, be simple from the heart
In dealing with others, be kind with sincere words
In politics and business, do not manipulate
In life, be effective and completely present
When you are content being yourself, your flow gains the respect of those around you.
I do remember when I was studying Chinese and the Dao de Jing, I asked many questions about this verse and finally the person I was studying with said the meaning of the verse “is just like a brook in the mountains: travels from high to low, nourishing, sincere, humble and true to itself…and most of all it sounds beautiful if you shut-up and take time to listen.”
Take the time to listen to what the water (and the world) is saying.
Category: China, Dao De Jing, Lao Zi, Philosophy, Photography Tagged: Chinese, Dao de Jing, Laozi, Nature, Tao Te Ching
Posted on August 10, 2013
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
This ancient wisdom by Lao-zi is one of the most famous pieces of advice from the Dao de Jing. No matter where you are in life or what difficulties you face, the philosophy is simple: begin resolving the issue by taking that first step.
The smallest of efforts, if consistently taken over time, can have unimaginable results, just as a tiny seed of rice can one day become a great field of grain able to feed a village.
As someone who would rather stay at home and read a good book versus going out to a club or party, I could easily spend my days sitting back over a cup of coffee to contemplate and dream.
Taking that first ‘single step’ is easy in dreams. To actually make an effort is another story. It is easier to keep the dreams internalized, until one day they vanish and are replaced by regret. That is the danger.
Not fun. I’m guessing everyone has experienced such moments to some extent.
Prior to my first trip to China, I received a journal from my sister that had a quote from Joseph Campbell:
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.”
Words that are a perfect complement to Lao-zi’s advice at the beginning of this post.
Forging your way through a dense, dark forest has many similarities with forging your way through life: bugs and mosquitoes buzzing around all the time, the occasional leech taking more than they give, but the reward of the adventure is the discovery of beauties that unfold and make life shine.
Creating a path will bring fear and uncertainty, but without those spices of life, is life really worth living?
These quotes of Lao-zi and Campbell rang true during my continued travel in Guilin, where I met people who lived life through those very words.
The previous days along the Li River, reliving the past with the mystical ‘Chinese Fisherman of Folklore’ had me in a reflective mood of the past and the present. Entering the Li River valley and agricultural lands, I began to see people who looked as though they were simply making it day-by-day.
Part of the population left behind during China’s rapid ascension to modernity and wealth. Hearing their stories was the highlight of the trip.
The stories all involved some description of their hardships in one manner or another and all ended with some variation of “we all must keep moving forward – each day, life’s journey begins with the first step.”
While I enjoyed these discussions, as with most older Chinese, it was impossible not to see in their eyes something they were holding back: dark times of the Cultural Revolution. Times I have never heard discussed.
Today is where they are, and in their control.
One strength of people I admire, is the ability to react and thrive in a crisis. No false bravado or panic, but their ability to find the opportunity imbedded in the crisis and move forward.
When John F. Kennedy was asked about his heroism in World War II, he simply said: “It was involuntary, they sank my boat.” He had to find a way to save both himself and his crew; to understand the crisis and take the necessary action to achieve the best resolution possible.
Every crisis brings stress and danger and, while cliché, it also provides opportunity.
The Chinese character for crisis is 危机 (Wei-Ji). It is made up of two characters: ‘wei’ (危) which means danger and ‘ji’ (机) which makes up the word for opportunity.
As my friends have told me, focus only on ‘wei’ (危), and you will miss the ‘ji’ (机), and the crisis can begin a downward spiral.
The people I met in the Guilin countryside seem to understand this concept of crisis quite well, and adhere to its philosophy. They can control “the now”, and therefore shut-off the worry of what has happened so they can take that fresh first step in their journey through life.
Often it is fear of this first step that is hardest to conquer. To forge ahead knowing you are facing the unknown. Much like finding a place in the forest, where it is most mysterious and dark, but the perfect spot to forge your own path.
There will be danger, yet take that first step and find the opportunities.
Category: China, Dao De Jing, Lao Zi, Philosophy, Photography Tagged: China, Dao de Jing, Joseph Campbell, Philosophy