Record of the Pond Pavilion

Record of the Pond Pavilion by Yoshishige no Yasutane, in Burton Watson’s translation from Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life. The author was an official and poet in 10th century Kyoto. I’d thought to include only a portion of this piece but discovered there’s no easily found full version online. That’s a shame so here one is.

For the past twenty years and more I have observed the situation throughout the eastern and western sections of the capital. In the western part of the capital the houses have become fewer and fewer till now it’s almost a deserted wasteland. People move out of the area but no one moves in; houses fall to ruin but no new ones are ever built. Those who don’t have any other place to move to, or who aren’t ashamed to be poor and lowly, live there, or people who enjoy a life of obscurity or are hiding out, who ought to return to their native mountains or countryside but don’t. But anyone who hopes to pile up a fortune or whose heart is set on rushing around on business wouldn’t be able to stand living there even for a day.

In years past there was one mansion there, with painted halls and vermilion doors, groves of bamboo and trees, rocks and fountains – a spot so superb it was like a different world. But the owner was sent into exile because of some affair, and fire broke out and burned the buildings down. There were thirty or forty families of retainers living nearby, but one after another they moved away. Later the owner of the house returned, but he never tried to rebuild; and though he had many sons and grandsons, they didn’t remain in the area for long. Thorns and brambles grew till they covered the gate, and foxes and raccoon dogs dug their burrows there in peace. From all this it is clear that it is Heaven that is destroying the western sector and no fault of men.

In the eastern sector of the capital, particularly in the area northeast and northwest of Shijo, live huge crowds of people, eminent and lowly alike. Towering mansions are lined up gate by gate, hall in sight of hall; little huts have only a wall between them, eaves all but touching. If a neighbor to the east suffers a fire, neighbors to the west seldom escape being burned out; if robbers attack the house to the south, the house to the north can’t avoid the shower of stray arrows. One branch of a family living south of the avenue is poor, another branch north of the avenue is rich, and though rich relatives may have no special virtue to boast of, poor relatives still must suffer shame.

Then there are the humble folk who live in the shadow of some powerful family: their roof is broken but they don’t dare thatch it, their wall collapses but they don’t dare build it up again; happy, they can’t open their mouths and give a loud laugh; grieving, they can’t lift up their voices and wail; coming and going always in fear, hearts and minds never at rest, they’re like little sparrows in the presence of hawks and falcons. And how much worse when some great mansion is first built and then begins bit by bit to broaden its gates and doors, swallowing up the little huts all around. Then how many of the poor people have occasion to complain, like sons forced to leave the land of their father and mother, like officials of paradise banished to the dusty world of mortals. In the worst cases, so great is the squeeze for land that a whole family of poor commoners ends up being wiped out.

Again, there are those who elect to build their houses along the eastern bank of the Kamo, but if a bad flood comes along, they find themselves keeping company with fish and turtles. Others move out into the fields to the north, but if a drought occurs, they may perish of thirst before they find any water. Aren’t there any plots of empty land left within the two sectors of the capital to settle in? Why do people have to be so stubborn? Along the river and in the fields to the north they not only build row on row of houses but also lay out vegetable gardens and rice paddies, the old gardener settling down on the land and piling up ridges between the fields, the old farmer constructing embankments along the river and leading water into his paddies. But year after year now there have been foods, the river overflowing and breaking down the levies; and officials charged with keeping the river in check who yesterday boasted of their achievements today leave the breaks sitting as they are. Do they expect the citizens of the capital to turn into fish?

I have privately checked into the regulations and find that in the area west of the Kamo, only the Sushin-in is permitted to have rice fields; in all other cases they are strictly prohibited because of the danger of flood damage. Moreover, the area east of the river and the northern fields represent two of the four suburbs of the capital, where the Son of Heaven goes to greet the seasons or to enjoy an outing. If people take it on themselves to build houses there or start growing things, why don’t the authorities prohibit and put a stop to it? What about the ordinary citizens who would like to stroll about and amuse themselves? Summer days when people want to enjoy the cool, they find there are no more banks where they can fish for little ayu trout; in the autumn breeze when gentlemen want to go off hunting, they find there are no more fields where they can loose their young falcons. Season by season people scramble to move out of the city, and day by day the area within the capital becomes more deserted, until the wards in the southern section are turned into a vast wilderness of weeds, where only “the ears of grain droop down.” Leaving the rich and fertile lands, people go off to barren and stony ground. Is Heaven causing this as well, or is it the madness of men themselves?

Originally I had no house of my own but stayed in someone else’s house at the Toto Gate. Constantly aware of the disadvantages of such an arrangement, I decided I didn’t want to live there forever, and in fact, even if I had wanted to, it would have been impossible. Estimating that I could buy two or three set of land for ten million cash, I finally chose a barren plot north of Rokujo, where I put up a wall on four sides and constructed a gate. I selected the kind of out-of-the-way spot that Prime Minister Hsiao would have approved of, and at the same time aimed for the clean, spacious grounds of Chung-ch’ang T’ung. In all, my land measures some ten or more se. Where the ground is high I made a little artificial hill, in the sunken part I dug a small pond. West of the pond I built a small hall to house the Buddha Amida, east of the pond I put up a little building to hold my books, and north of the pond I constructed a low house for my wife and children. In general the buildings cover four tenths of the area, the pond three ninths, the vegetable garden two eighths, and the water-parsley patch one seventh. In addition I have an island with green pines, a beach of white sand, red carp, white herons, a little bridge, and a little boat. Everything I’ve loved all my life is to be found here. In particular I have the willows on the eastern bank, in spring misty and lithe; in summer the bamboos by the northern door, clear breezes rustling through them; in fall the moon in the western window, bright enough to read a book by; and in winter the sunlight by the southern eaves, just right for warming my back.

So, after five decades in the world, I’ve at last managed to acquire a little house, like a snail at peace in his shell, like a louse happy in the seam of a garment. The quail nests in the small branches and does not yearn for the great forest of Teng; the frog lives in his crooked well and knows nothing of the vastness of the sweeping seas. Though as master of the house I hold office at the foot of the pillar, in my heart it’s as though I dwelt among the mountains.” Position and title I leave up to fate, for the workings of Heaven govern all things alike. Heaven and earth will decide if I live a long life or a short one like Confucius, I’ve been praying for a long time now? I do not envy the man who soars like a phoenix on the wind, nor the man who hides like a leopard in the mists. I have no wish to bend my knee and crook my back in efforts to win favor with great lords and high officials, but neither do I wish to shun the words and faces of others and bury myself away in some remote mountain or dark valley. During such time as I am at court, I apply myself to the business of the sovereign; once home, my thoughts turn always to the service of the Buddha. When I go abroad I don my grass-greeen official robe, and though my post is a minor one, I enjoy a certain measure of honor. At home I wear white hemp garments, warmer than spring, purer than the snow. After washing my hands and rinsing my mouth, I ascend the western hall, call on the Buddha Amida, and recite The Lotus Sutra. When my supper is done, I enter the eastern library, open my books, and find myself in the company of worthy men of the past, those such as Emperor Wen of the Han, a ruler of another era, who loved frugal ways and gave rest to his people; Po Lo-t’ien of the T’ang, a teacher of another time, who excelled in poetry and served the Buddhist Law; or the Seven Sages of the Chin dynasty, friends of another age, who lived at court but longed for the life of retirement. So I meet with a worthy ruler, I meet with a worthy teacher, and I meet with worthy friends, three meetings one day, three delights to last a lifetime. As for the people and affairs of the contemporary world, they hold no attraction for me. If in becoming a teacher one thinks only of wealth and honor and is not concerned about the importance of literature, it would be better if we had no teachers. If in being a friend one thinks only of power and profit and cares nothing about the frank exchange of opinions, it would be better if we had no friends. So I close my gate, shut my door, and hum poems and sing songs by myself. When I feel the desire for something more, my boys and I climb into the little boat, thump the gunwale, and rattle the oars. If I have some free time left over, I call the groom and we go out to the vegetable garden to pour on water and spread manure. I love my house – other things I know nothing about.

Since the Öwa era [961-964], people of the time have taken a fancy to building luxurious mansions and high-roofed halls, even going so far as to have the tops of the pillars carved in the shapes of mountains and duckweed designs incised on the supports of the roof beam, But though the expenditure runs into many millions in cash, they manage to live there barely two or three years. People in old times used to say, “The builder doesn’t get to live in what he builds” – how right they were. Now that I am well along in years, I’ve finally managed to construct a little house, but when I consider it in the light of my actual needs, even it seems somewhat too extravagant and grand. Above, I fear the anger of Heaven; below, I am ashamed in the eyes of men. I’m like a traveler who’s found an inn along the road, an old silk-worm who’s made himself a solitary cocoon. How long will I be able to live here?

Ah, when the wise man builds a house, he causes no expense to the people, no trouble to the spirits. He uses benevolence and righteousness for his ridgepole and beam, ritual and law for his pillar and base stone, truth and virtue for a gate and door, mercy and love for a wall and hedge. Devotion to frugality is his family business, the piling up of goodness his family fortune. When one has such a house to live in, no fire can consume it, no wind topple it, no misfortune come to threaten it, no disaster happen its way. No god or spirit can peer inside it, no thief or bandit can invade. The family who lives there will naturally grow rich, the master will enjoy long life, and office and rank will be with it forever, to be handed down to sons and grandsons. How can one fail, then to exercise caution?

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