Robert Wexelblatt: “Hsi-wei, the Monk, and the Landlord”

The Tang minister Fang Xuan-ling, who visited Master Hsi-wei in his retirement and recorded their conversations in his memoirs, relates the following story about the origin of the Master’s gnomic poem popularly called “Teacher Window.”

While he was making his way through Jizhou, it happened that Hsi-wei was invited to rest for a few days in a hillside monastery.  The monks were of the Ch’an sect, therefore exceptionally neat, disciplined, and, when not silent, economical in their communications.

The abbot, Du Bai-an, was an admirer of poetry.  When he heard from a peasant that a stranger calling himself Chen Hsi-wei was selling straw sandals in the village, Du walked down to the marketplace to investigate.  He was eager to find out if this stranger could be the author of “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan,” a poem he had more than once recited to acolytes.

Warm spring sunlight fell on the village where Master Du was rarely seen.  Low bows greeted the tall, lean man on all sides.  Several market women knelt, and he asked one of these, a seller of vegetables, if she had seen the stranger who made sandals.  She pointed to the stone wall that marked the east end of the square where Hsi-wei squatted beside his sign.

As the monk approached, the poet got to his feet and bowed, more in greeting than reverence.

“You require sandals, Master?”

The abbot ignored this question and put his own, almost angrily.  “Was it you who ruffled the surface?”

Hsi-wei was taken aback.  “Pardon me, sir?”

“Weishan,” brusquely demanded the monk.

The poet blushed.  “Ah, I see.  Lake Weishan. Yes, I caused those ripples, and I still regret it.”

At this the stern monk broke into a genial grin.

“The author of that poem is surely a follower of the Enlightened One,” he said.

“An admirer, certainly.  But not a follower.  I hope that doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Is it so?  I’m surprised.”

“Then we’re in the same condition.  It surprises me that you should know the poem and even like it.”

“Fame means being known by those you don’t know,” said the monk sententiously.

“And it sometimes means being known by those you’d prefer not to know,” Hsi-wei replied with a wry smile.

So far from being offended, Abbot Du laughed aloud.

“Master Hsi-wei, you must be tired.  Accept our hospitality for a few days.  You may like what you see.  At least you can rest.  We’ll feed you.  Perhaps we can talk.”

A Ch’an monk who wishes to chat, thought Hsi-wei, is rare as a dragon’s egg.

“I’ve taken three orders so far.  May I work?”

“Of course.”  The abbot raised a finger.  “Without work the day lacks a body, without prayer a spirit.”

Hsi-wei thanked the monk and promised to climb up to the monastery at sundown.

Abbot Du nodded, turned sharply, and headed back across the square.  Though no longer young, the way the monk walked reminded Hsi-wei of a youthful dancer.  Again, everybody bowed or kneeled.


Hsi-wei was introduced to the monks very simply.  “The author of ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan,’” said the Abbot.

“Ah,” the monks sighed unanimously.  They put their hands together and bowed to the poet.

The meal of rice, bok choy, and bing cakes was eaten in silence but, afterwards, the abbot invited Hsi-wei to his small, private chamber.  The furniture consisted of a tiny desk, a three-legged stool, both of cheap, unpainted pine wood, and a thin, rolled blanket.

Master Du sat on the floor but offered Hsi-wei a choice of the stool or a cushion, “in view of your travels,” he said.

Hsi-wei thanked him and chose the cushion.

As soon as the poet was settled, the abbot began.  “Is it true that as a boy you carried a message to the South for the Emperor?”

“Yes, Master.”

“On your scalp?”

“That’s true.”  Hsi-wei ruffled his thick hair.  “It must still be underneath all this.”

“And your reward was an education?”

“Yes.  That’s so, too.”

“So, you might have been an official with a high hat and a silk robe yet chose instead to become a poet and a vagabond?”

“You’re astonishingly well informed.”

The abbot nodded.

“I noticed,” said Hsi-wei, “that the villagers show you great respect.  I regret to say that this isn’t always what I’ve observed.  I’ve often heard people express resentment, even enmity, toward the monasteries.”

“And why is that?” asked the abbot, though it was clear from his smile that he knew.

“They dislike that the Emperor shows favor to the monks; even some Buddhists resent the taking of land to build new monasteries.  But the people here obviously revere you.”

“Gratitude is often mistaken for reverence.”

“The peasants are grateful to you?”

“Not to me, to my predecessor, to the monastery.” Abbot Du grinned.  “Would you care to hear the story?  I fear you’ll think it too comical and that it shows my illustrious instructor in a dubious light.  Yet, I assure you, Master Huang was a great teacher.  The story itself is about teaching and you too may find it instructive.”

All the Ch’an monks Hsi-wei had encountered before were as tight-fisted with words as misers with copper coins.  This abbot, however, seemed starved for speech and the poet was happy to indulge him.

“I’d very much like to hear the story.”

Du straightened his back and began.

“When Master Huang-kai established the monastery with only six followers, the local people were, as you say, neither welcoming nor eager to learn.  The few who had heard of the Enlightened One imagined all sorts of nonsense—for instance, that the Buddha was a bloodthirsty giant who lived in a fortress beyond the western mountains.  The place was backward, poor, and miserable.  The wise Master Huang quickly discovered that the people were oppressed by the local landlord who kept them in a state of anxiety and destitution.  Li Zhang-hu charged exorbitant rents and had armed men to collect them.  Those unable to pay up were whipped, their possessions confiscated, and turned out with their families.  As our own land had been his before the Emperor allotted it to us, he was even more hostile to the monastery than the peasants.  Li was not only cruel and greedy, but ignorant and therefore superstitious.

“So, Master Huang conceived a plan.  He sent one of his monks to invite Li to the monastery, saying the abbot knew of a serious matter than concerned him personally.  Li arrived late in the day and in a foul mood, accompanied by two of his men.  He demanded to know what the serious business was.  Master Huang calmly told Li that the Buddha was a prophet who was able to see into the future.  His youngest monk, he said, by following a secret ritual, was able to communicate with the spirit of the Enlightened One.  The night before, he said, the Buddha had told the young monk that one of Li’s outbuildings would catch fire.  Li scoffed at this but, impressed by Master Huang’s dignified bearing and solemn tone, he was fearful too.  Two nights later, Master Huang sent a pair of monks to set fire to the thatched roof of one of Li’s pigsties, after first releasing the pigs.  As soon as the roof was consumed, they extinguished the fire.

“The following week, Master Huang again summoned Li.  The landlord came more quickly this time.  Master Huang said that he didn’t know if the Buddha was angry with Li or, out of compassion, meant to warn him.  However, through the young monk, he had said that two trees in the landlord’s apple orchard would be uprooted.  The following week, during a night storm, Master Huang dispatched his monks to tear up a pair of saplings.”

“Master Huang deceived the landlord?” Hsi-wei couldn’t help saying.

“Deceived?  Don’t you think that one can be deceived into the truth?”


“As I said, Master Huang was a great teacher.  He followed our doctrine of pu shuo p’o—never speak too clearly.  I owe everything to him because he never explained anything plainly.  Of course, he could easily have done so if he wished, but instead he set us problems and riddles that he claimed he himself could not solve.  Was that deception?”

Hsi-wei was surprised and a little troubled but asked to hear the rest of the story.

“A week after the uprooting of the apple saplings, Master Huang summoned the landlord yet again, on ‘a matter of the utmost urgency.’ This time, Li came running and without his armed men.  In his gravest voice, Master Huang asked the youngest monk to report what he had heard from the Buddha the night before.  Looking sorrowful, the young monk told Li that he regretted to say the Enlightened One predicted that he would die within the month.

“Trembling, Li grabbed the young monk’s hands.  ‘What am I to do?  Can the future be changed?’

“Master Huang made the man sit and explained to him that nothing in this life exists on its own, that all things are connected, that all opposites make a whole—night and day, male and female, drought and flood.  He made the terrified man listen to a sermon on the unity and mutual dependence of life.  Without the wind, he said, the apple saplings would not have come down; without lightning the sty wouldn’t have caught fire.  All things are one; good fits into evil.  Then he explained karma.  A person’s actions can be in accord with a good unity or at odds with it.  He said the first will lead inevitably to rewards, the latter to inexorable punishment.

“‘It would appear that you, Li Zhang-hui, are up against the good force of the world,’ he said harshly.

“‘But what can I do?’ begged the shaken and confused landlord.

“Master Huang turned to the young monk.  ‘Tell him.’

“In a firm voice, the young monk looked down at Li’s pale face.  ‘You can increase your years by a quarter, the Buddha said, by quartering your rents.  You can double your years by reducing them by half.’”

“I see,” said Hsi-wei.  “And did Master Huang let the peasants know what he had done to get their rents reduced?”


“And have you?”

The abbot smiled.  “The people understand that we had something to do with their rents being reduced, that’s all.”

Hsi-wei thought of the bowing and the kneeling he had witnessed. “And have you told them?”

The abbot simply smiled.

Hsi-wei thought for a while.  The story disturbed him.

“You said the tale was comical and I can see why.  It’s about a deception that led to a happy ending.  You believe that Master Huang’s deception was justified because fooling one guilty man made many innocent ones happy.  Pardon me, but is that permissible?  Is the practice of deception in the hope of bringing about desirable outcomes a good principle?”

The abbot took a deep breath.  “I notice that you’ve fixed on the word deception, Master Hsi-wei, and that is why you disapprove.  Yet who is more deceptive than a poet?”

“A good poet tells the truth.”

“Agreed.  But often you do so by duplicity, saying one thing and meaning another, as my teacher’s pretense of ignorance was the proof of his wisdom.”

“It’s not the same.  Unlike Master Huang’s, a poet’s motive is not to deceive.”

“Nor was Master Huang’s.  What he practiced wasn’t deceit but pedagogy. He taught Li to act decently.  And the proof is that, after halving his rents, he became a better man and therefore a wiser one.  He got on well with his neighbors, and his cruelty ceased with his greed. He did many people good turns and, existing in harmony rather than discord, he’s lived not only happily but long.  Li Zhang-hu is still alive and over eighty.”

“And does he know by what means he was enlightened?”

“You use that sacred word ironically.  But the truth is that Master Li really is enlightened. He’s become a devout Buddhist and often comes to sit with us and to learn.”

“I grant the happy ending and the landlord’s piety too.  But would he be a devout Buddhist and your attentive pupil if he knew he was tricked into enlightenment?”

“Tricked into enlightenment—that’s good, Master Hsi-wei, almost a little poem.  But, in this case, you’re mistaken. It was only after I told Li the story I’ve just told you that he became a Buddhist.”


Hsi-wei stayed two days at the monastery, made six pairs of sandals.  He admired the monks’ dedication to their spare way of life, and enjoyed two long conversations with the abbot.  They talked late into the night, chiefly about poetry, the old masters.  At the end of the last of their conversations, aware that Hsi-wei had not set aside his misgivings about his predecessor, Master Du quoted these lines:

House-Builder, you’re seen!

You will not build a house again.

All your rafters broken,

The ridge pole destroyed,

Gone to the unformed,

The mind has come to the end of craving.

“Would you call that duplicity too, Master Hsi-wei?  The Buddha describes ruinous destruction to extol the building of enlightenment, the end of many births.”

Hsi-wei wished the abbot a good night.

The following morning, the poet prepared to depart.  Along with many expressions of gratitude to the monks, Hsi-wei presented the abbot with a pair of straw sandals and these verses:

Enlightenment springs from benightedness.

Without diseases there would be no cures.


Those most in need of a lesson—the cruel,

The indifferent—never beg for sermons.


Learning is meant for those who learn,

Not the tutor who already knows.


To dupe the ignorant into looking

Is better than telling them what to see.


The best teacher is a pane of glass

Through which clean light streams.

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