The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Ben Connelly’s Notes from the Road

by Lydia Anderson
December 3, 2014
Wed, 12/03/2014 - 10:00 -- landerson

We are so pleased to welcome our special guest blogger, Ben Connelly! Ben is the author of Inside the Grass Hut, and has just completed a tour across the US. Today he shares his memories and experiences of his time on the road and the inspiration for his book.

Song of the Grass Hut, Notes from the Road

A warm smile, bright eyes, palms pressed together, and above her shoulder a spray of decorative grass and yellow flowers on the altar. So new, a familiar sight now, though a face I've only known for a couple hours, an altar never seen before today, familiar as in, like family, like coming home. Traveling across the US the last few months to share Shitou's eighth-century “Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage” and the book I've written about it, Inside the Grass Hut, has been a joy and an inspiration. 

Shitou's grass hut song, though timeless and time-honored, has a message of particular resonance for our times and for our nascent forms of Western Buddhism. At almost every place of practice I have visited in my travels with this song, there has been at least one person with no experience with Buddhism at all, and at least one person who has been practicing longer than I, often thirty or forty years. The song is simple, and even someone with no knowledge of Buddhism can hear it once and get a felt sense of the peace and connection the practice it upholds offers, yet it is full of profound insights to those deeply familiar with Buddhist practice. It subtly refers to a wide and comprehensive array of Buddhist teachings from the fifteen hundred years that preceded its creation.

Shitou's simple natural imagery carries a minimum of technical and sectarian language so that its message can resonate across the wide waters of the many ways of practice, belief, and not-knowing within Buddhism. Most, though not all, of my visits have been to Zen practice places, but they have been so varied: a small room borrowed from a church, or a complex of many large and beautiful buildings; long, lovely, austere services of chanting, bowing, incense, and candlelight, as well as casual groups who assemble with no discernible ritual. As we explore what our practice is like—and will be like—in the West we can benefit from texts that allow room to uphold many diverse expressions.

“The Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage” shows that a simple life can be complete and connected with all things, that a life with a bare minimum of materials need not be bereft but is a wondrous way to be free and happy. In this time of environmental peril this message is one we cannot hear enough. I have found that across the country this message of changing our environmental course is resonant with so many people's concerns and their investigations of a harmonious life.

Every group has met me with enormous warmth and heart, with palpable curiosity, and with a deep well of energy for realizing that this life is a profound opportunity to offer some peace to the world. They have shared their practices of simple meditation but also of bringing peace into prisons, environmental work, art, and the self-transformation that heals their families and their own hearts. We have shared this all in the language of Shitou's ancient song. The ancient dharma is alive. We have met it in these moments together: finding that we are family, though we just met, through a bow or a hug, a warm welcome or a goodbye, through sitting together and still in the fields of Iowa, and through the low roar, the siren wail of Midtown Manhattan, on a black cushion in the glow of a candle in a young temple at the foot of a vast and ancient mountain.

To learn more about Inside the Grass Hut, click here.