We are sitting in a coffee shop. The owner stops by our table and chats. Somehow the conversation moves to the calligraphy mounted on the wall behind our table.

It turns out the owner of the coffee shop is the calligrapher. He transcribed this ancient poem, ‘An Epigraph for my Humble Room’ by Liu Yuxi of Tang Dynasty (772-842 CE). It is one of the pieces of ancient literature most frequently copied by calligraphers in China. The words translate as:

A mountain doesn’t need to be high; it is famous as long as there is a deity on it.

A lake doesn’t need to be deep; it is beautiful as long as there is a dragon in it.

My house is humble, but it enjoys the fame of virtue as long as that I am living in it.

The ever-growing moss turns my doorsteps green.

The colour of the grass is reflected through the bamboo curtains turns my room blue.

Erudite scholars come in good spirits to talk with me, and among my guests there is no unlearned common man.

In this humble room, I can enjoy playing my plainly decorated musical instrument ‘qin’, or read the Buddhist Scriptures quietly, without the disturbance of the noisy tunes that jar on the ears, or the solemn burden of reading official documents.

My humble home is like the thatched hut of Zhuge Liang of Nanyang, or the Pavilion Ziyun of Xishu.

Confucius once said: “How could we call a room humble as long as there is a virtuous man living in it?”

I like the idea of happily inhabiting “the humble room” of my life. I do not need to be a “high” mountain. It is good enough to know that the divine presence dwells in my being. What more could I need?

Liu Yuxi affirms and celebrates the simple reality of being alive. Wherever he looks he sees beauty. He delights in “The ever-growing moss,” which turns his “doorsteps green.” He takes joy in the fact that the “bamboo curtains” turn his “room blue.” He does not grasp for the praise or accolades of the world; he is content with “the fame of virtue,” of a life well-lived.

So, as the great sage Confucius asked, “How could we call a room humble as long as there is a virtuous man living in it?”

But, too often I fail to see “the ever-growing moss;” I miss the colour blue. I want something more than the unspectacular simplicity of a virtuous life. I become preoccupied with “the disturbance of the noisy tunes that jar on the ears, or the solemn burden of reading official documents.”

Even 1,200 years ago, in an age which must have been simpler and less cluttered than the world I inhabit, the poet understood that the busyness of life can squeeze out an awareness of the Life that exists beneath the surface of circumstance. There are too many busy important things to do, too many “official documents” to read and decipher. The distractions crowd in and I lose touch with the simple beauty of all that is right here right now.

The demands of every day mount up and bury my awareness of this present moment which has the capacity to nourish the depths for which I long. When I am content to be quietly in my “humble room”, I begin to connect with the virtue that is my deep and true nature. I find in this humble room the true richness and beauty of what it means to be authentically human.

What more could I possibly need than this moment provides? What advantage would be added to my life by achieving, accomplishing, and acquiring? What do I need to gain? Where could I travel that is more beautiful than this small place I inhabit?

If I stop and cherish “my plainly decorated musical instrument,” my heart softens. When I give up “reading official documents” and open to the wisdom in the sacred texts of my tradition, I discover a deeper rhythm and purpose to life. There is a reality beneath all the agitation, agendas, pressures, and turmoil that unsettle the surface of life. It is here, in this quiet still place, that there is rest, peace and great richness, even in the midst of the clamour of a coffee shop.