Burton Watson, the well-known translator of 'The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu' and Ssu-Ma Chien's 'Records of the Grand Historian of China,' here turns his attention to something much slighter, though perhaps no less profound.
'Four Huts' is made up of four short prose pieces or 'chi' (Records) praising the wisdom of the simple life: 'Record of the Thatched Hall on Mount Lu,' by the major T'ang poet, Po Chu-i; 'Record of the Pond Pavilion' by Yoshishige no Yasutane; 'Record of the Ten-Foot-Square-Hut' by Kamo no Chomei; and 'Record of the Hut of the Phantom' by the famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho.
All four of these 'Records' or essays have the same theme: the wisdom of removing oneself from the rat-race, setting up a simple residence in beautiful natural surroundings, and getting back in touch with one's real nature and with real things. They celebrate, as Po Chu-i puts it, being 'happy with one's surroundings and at peace within' (page 9). Short, and easy to read, it would be a wonderful book to have along with you on your next trip to the forests, lakes, or mountains.
The book also contains a brief, though somewhat uninspired Preface, by Watson; brief Introductions and endnotes to each piece; and twelve fine halftone illustrations, by the remarkably competent Zen calligrapher Stephen Addiss, which help set the mood
It's a small and beautiful book of just 132 pages that will easily fit into a purse or shirt-pocket, well-printed in two colors on a heavy high-quality ivory-tinted paper, bound in a stiff glossy illustrated wrapper, and it even has persimmon endpapers. As a book, it would have been perfect if only someone had thought to add stitching.
Most of us probably realize that it is the simplest things in life that bring us the greatest joys - a simple and unostenatious dwelling, time in which to unwind and become what we are supposed to be, a refreshing breeze, sunlight, wholesome food, raindrops, birdsong, the sound of water, children's laughter, a well-loved book.
But despite knowing this we allow ourselves to be seduced by the tinsel glamor and superficial excitements of the bustling metropolis. And the question raised by this book is just which of the two, the simple or the glamorous, provides the richest and most rewarding satisfactions?
'Four Huts' will probably be read by those who need it least. But it would make an ideal gift for some Prozac-popping friend you think needs it most. It might, with a bit of luck, just end up changing their life.