Zen has a long history of hermits living in seclusion. For example, Zen Master Daibai Hōjō climbed to the summit of Mount Daibai to be apart from human society. Living alone in a hermit’s thatched hut, he survived on pine nuts. Lotuses were plentiful in a small pond on the mountain, so Hōjō wore clothing made from the lotus leaves. He lived this way for more than thirty years, pursuing the Way in seated meditation. He neither met anyone nor heard anything about human affairs whatsoever and he eventually forgot about the passing of years, seeing only the mountains around him turning first green and then yellow.
He had been passing the months and years in this manner when a wandering monk arrived one day. The monk had come to the mountain in search of a suitable traveling staff, but had wandered off the mountain path and unexpectedly encountered Hōjō. The monk asked him, “Venerable hermit, how long have you been living on this mountain?”
Hōjō replied, “All I have seen are the mountains about me now dyed green, now dyed yellow.”
The monk then asked him, “In what direction should I go to find the path out of the mountains?”
Hōjō said, “Follow the stream.”
The monk was struck by this response. So, when he returned, he told his teacher what had happened. The teacher said, “Some years ago, I once met a certain monk but I don’t know what happened to him later. I wonder whether he could now be that hermit.” So the teacher sent the monk back to invite Hōjō for a visit, but Hōjō would not leave the mountain. Rather, he composed a poem in reply:
Broken down yet living still, a withered tree amidst the forest chill,
How many times have I met the spring, my heart unswerving?
Woodcutters pass this old withered tree without even a backward glance,
So why does the carpenter so eagerly seek me out?
The upshot was he did not pay the teacher a visit. Afterwards, he moved his hermitage even deeper into the recesses of the mountains, and composed the following poem:
From this pond, the lotus leaves I have taken for clothing have known no end,
And from a few trees, pine cones have supplied more than enough for my meals.
Now people from the world have discovered my dwelling place,
So I shall move my thatched abode to enter a seclusion ever more deep.
This story is known by all, householders and monastics alike.