While this winnowing of precepts goes on, I intend to spend as much time as possible walking, and idling, beneath trees. When not beneath those innumerable beautiful trees, I shall be reading poems. All the while (whether beneath trees or not beneath trees) I hope to be in a state of reverie, blissfully absent from the modern world. But I know full well that nothing will go according to plan, particularly the denouement of the ever-present matter at hand.
Speaking of the ever-present matter at hand, here is a fine precept with which to begin: "Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742). Or, translated differently: "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave." (Jeremy Collier, 1701.) Collier's version has a nice piquancy, and is both affecting and lovely.
This advice is neither doleful nor terrifying. Quite the opposite: it reminds us that the possibility of joy is present in each moment. Why not live? The commonplace is never commonplace.
Encountering Snow, I Spend the Night
with a Host on Lotus Mountain
Deep in green mountains.
The weather is cold,
This thatched hut is poor.
Out at the gate
Of rough brushwood
A dog barks.
Someone comes home
On this night
Of wind and snow.
Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing (c. 710 - c. 785) (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books 1987), page 165.
Anonymous, "A Field Gate in Moonlight"
"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave." If we pay heed to this precept, each moment becomes a miracle. Consider Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing's poem. Snow falls. A thatched hut in green mountains. A dog barking by a gate. Out in the night, a stranger returns home. After reading the poem, someone might say: "Nothing happens." Or: "So what?"
I would say: "Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing has presented us with a miracle." This leads to another precept: "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original) (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness, 1961). An alternative translation: "There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical." (Translated by C. K. Ogden, 1922.)
Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing, like all poets, must rely upon words. In doing so, he has created a thing of beauty. But a beautiful poem is a finger pointing at the moon (to borrow a phrase from Buddhist thought). I would not wish to live without all of these beautiful poems. Yet there is more in each moment, more in the World.
There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.
Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?
R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).
Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"
So. At each moment, we stand at the edge of the grave, surrounded by miracles that cannot be put into words. What shall we do? Live. With gratitude. A third precept comes to mind: "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene." Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 8 (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).
To a mountain village
at nightfall on a spring day
I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
from the vespers bell.
Nōin (988 - c. 1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.
James Leslie Brooke (1903-1973)
"Early Autumn, Castle Hill from the South-West"