SIMPLICITY: On Traveling Light by Philip Harnden

On Traveling Light by Philip Harnden

From Journeys of Simplicity

Twelve hundred years ago in China a middle-aged man named P’ang Yün loaded everything he owned onto a boat and sank it all in the Tung’t’ing Lake.  After that, we are told, “He lived like a single leaf.”

See him there in the early morning, treading water in the middle of the lake, watching the last bubbles rise from the depths.  The air crisp and quiet.  The lake misty and as still as sky.  Then turning, stroking toward the shore.

Justine Dalencourt, a French Quaker, was forced to leave her home at Fontaine-Lavaganne when the German army invaded France in 1914.  But first she planted her garden, saying, “I would rather they found something to eat at my house than that they should have to steal from others.”

See her kneeling, covering the last seed.  Patting down the moist soil.  The warm spring sun.  The full scent of the earth rising to her.  The odd and distant thunder.  Then standing, turning, walking away.

Traveling light – imagine this meaning: unencumbered journeying, a graceful way of traveling through life like a single leaf.  Now imagine another: the light by which we journey, the light that shows the way.  Our traveling light.

What would it mean to live like a single leaf?  What would it mean to make one’s life a journey of simplicity? a journey unencumbered, uncluttered, without distraction – a journey of focus and intention? a journey of lightness and light?

Quakers say a divine flame shines within each being.  Every being.  All beings.  Would such a Light remind us that, after they steal our homes, the soldiers will be hungry?  And to see that Deep Light – in ourselves, in others – must we first sink the boat?

In 1889, at age seventeen, my grandfather left family and friends in Sweden and sailed to America.  He packed all his worldly goods in a small wooden chest.  Today I have that chest near my writing desk.  Its wooden slats weave around a rectangular frame; the hinged lid curves upward.  The wood itself, now broken in places, has darkened.

Pondering this old chest, I see a young farm boy, fear and adventure in his eyes, setting aside all but the essential as he packs for his journey, summoning from within himself a quiet simplicity.  I watch him board a boat in the early morning mist and launch into the deep.

I have not traveled much myself, but I do keep some handsome suitcases in my attic.  Also two backpacks, three knapsacks, a duffel bag, a briefcase, several tote bags, a canvas rucksack, an ash-woven pack basket, three sleeping bags, and a tent or two.  Looking at my grandfather’s wooden chest, I realize it could not possibly hold everything I now require for a summer picnic.  And unlike P’ang Yün, I cannot imagine where I would find a boat large enough to row all I own to the middle of some lake.  Evidently, I intend to keep my worldly goods very much afloat.

Why?  Do I lack the necessary lightness? the necessary Light?

For a number of years I have collected lists about traveling light.  Most arose from journeys people have taken: place to place, day to day, birth to death.  Each list simply describes what was carried, often in a rucksack, sometimes deeper within the traveler.  I began collecting these lists, I suppose, because I found myself drawn to their spare poetry – a poetry of emptiness.  I still do not fully understand why I find them compelling.  Do I hear my grandfather’s voice?

In the pages that follow, I have given each list a brief introduction.  The lists themselves retain as much as possible the language, word order, and spelling of their sources.

I offer three suggestions to the reader.

First, approach these pages slowly and quietly, as you would a sleeping child.  You could no doubt read them all in one night, but then you would lose your rest.  So, instead, read a few pages at a time.  They have stories to tell, questions to ask.  Where do our journeys take us?  What do we leave behind?  What do we carry with us?  How do we find our way?

Second, take these stories seriously but hold them lightly.  Do not be disappointed or deceived.  Remember that soldiers bent on massacre may sometimes travel as lightly as monks on pilgrimage.  And pilgrims themselves may bear their own peculiar baggage, their own destructive schemes.

And third, ponder this mystery: We take delight in things; we take delight in being loosed from things.  Between these two delights, we must dance our lives.

After sinking all his worldly goods, P’ang Yün devoted the rest of his life to his family, to Zen, to poetry, and to wandering.

Like a single leaf.

fewer the artifacts, less the words,
slowly the life of it
a knack for non-attachment.
(Gary Snyder)


2 Comments on SIMPLICITY: On Traveling Light by Philip Harnden

  1. That’s a quote I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life: He lived like a single leaf.

    Your post is lovely and lyrical and mystical. I felt myself slow down as I read it and thought as I read. Thank you for that.


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  1. SIMPLICITY: On Traveling Light by Philip Harnden — The Value of Sparrows | Writing on the Pages of Life

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