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