A Zen View of Nature as Buddha, Dharma Teacher, and Sangha
For many beginners, meditating in nature provides a kind of jump start. The simplest walk in nature spontaneously becomes a form of walking meditation. I believe it’s supportive of our practice because the rhythm of the natural world doesn't match our mental clutter. Simply being, in this way, in a natural place, we automatically become closer to what we try to achieve on the cushion - in the buildings and spaces we designate for meditation. Sitting on a fallen tree or in a lap of lichen, both masters and students report their practice deepening.
The relationship between Buddhism and nature stems first from Buddha's life and teachings. The Buddha’s experience of awakening in the forest and the Bodhi tree became a sacred symbol in Buddhism. The first Buddhist communities were forest dwellers and monks initially lived under trees in nature. The Buddha said, “there is no spot on the ground where men had not died and therefore every part of nature will be endowed with a spirit, these will be the spirits of the trees, the mountains and the water…”
In Buddhist literature, nature was never treated as something ‘outside’, but rather as an extension of, human experience. More importantly, nature was often the source of insight and enlightenment. A good example of this comes from the poetry of Dogen and Ryōkan. Myōe actually sat in trees to meditate. Among Tibetans, we’ve all heard of masters, like Milarepa, meditating in caves and on mountain tops. It often becomes difficult to separate the nature from Buddhist practice.
In the Driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin, the forrest rolls up to rocky outcroppings and down to lush valleys with clear trout streams. It’s a land of percussive sunsets and sunrises echoing across scenic vistas. Since moving to this ridge top from the city two years ago, I’ve become less (not more) hesitant to idealize nature. Don't get me wrong, farmers and ranchers are hard working by necessity. It’s a more effortful and inconvenient way of life - no idealizing that.
What I really found that I needed from nature was its ability to become quiet, and its silence supported my effort to look out at the world from the perspective of internal stillness. Seen from another facet of the diamond, if we look deeply, quietly into nature, as Joan Halifax Roshi says "it becomes clear that everything is practicing with us" and the trees, the clouds, the reflections in the water, each living thing is our sangha and our teacher. When I say nature is practicing with us I mean it literally. Here, I've become aware the every part of the world is vividly alive. It's not just some quaint notion the Zuni elders made up, pass-on, and have yet to outgrow. The wind in the trees is alive, I put my ear to the earth and hear the earth’s voice, and the water is singing the song of the spirit.
But most of us live in towns and cities. Census data suggests over 81% of Americans are urban residents. Leaving 18% living in smaller rural towns. Estimates of the number of us living outside of rural towns in wilderness is as low as 1% - a tiny minority. We live under streetlights and neon signs that blot out the stars, and our modern conveniences blot out death. No-one is beyond cell tower range. Our houses glow with the blue haze of high speed, HD, on multiple screens where Dr. Henry Frankenstien in black-and-white flicker is the only one proclaiming "It's Alive.. It's Alive!" - and we’re proud of that.
Describing her experiences of synchronizing with deep nature, Joan Halifax Roshi talks about tuning into the cycles of natures: “Across the meadows, over ridges, and into the oak forests. In the dry hot heat of summer, we hid in the shady oaks till dark. In the cold of winter, we took refuge around the camp fires and kitchen stove. The weather mirrored our community life… In the winter, I watched the bald eagles rest in the arms of bare cottonwoods. In the spring, I witnessed the bosque leaf out and the insects and birds return.” The rhythm of nature is woven inextricably into the lives and realizations of many Buddhists.
If only 1% are living in the wilderness outside of rural towns, there are a fewer number of folks seeking out this alternative lifestyle. I call this wild-type, off-grid movement, Techxit. This tech-exit is the voluntarily withdrawal of the individual from the technological norm.
Techxit is just the beginning, the first step, in the way of the rivers, mountains, forrest, all creatures: everything becoming an experience of practice. Our daily lives are the way we practice meditation and are the vehicle for awakening, to free ourselves and other beings from suffering. I have come to believe Nature is a necessary, if not sufficient, component of awakening. If nature alone is not enough, it may be a prerequisite to finding the path to enlightenment. Rejecting technology in favor of synchronizing with nature may be a requirement for awareness.
Today, I’m taking refuge in nature, an emigrant to the ephemeral love of nature, and my monastery is the undivided ground of being. I take refuge in spirituality and the truths that are deeper than concepts, dogma and ideology. My retreat is the interdependence of all things existing as a result of a context of causes, conditions, and interrelations - my shelter is everything as a part of the effervescent bubbling and changing of impermanent reality.
It is said that bodhisattvas, because there are no obstacles for their minds, overcome fear and liberate themselves forever from illusion. Within unconditional interconnectedness, obstacles disappear. There are fewer obstacles living in nature, than in a neon town. Within nature we can’t hate death, because then we must choose between the fledgling and the endangered snowy owl, the scrawny coyote and the bunny kit, the yak and the man - none of which is truly possible from a position of compassion. This is where God appears; not within an individual, but between beings. If we listen closely and look deeply, QuanYin's fingerprints are everywhere.