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 - and as a rancher or farmer - our working dharma.
When I say nature is practicing with us -- I mean it literally. Here nature collaborates in every moment of activity. Even more, I've become aware that every part of the world is vividly alive. This is not just some quaint notion some Zuni elders made up, passed-on, and we have yet to outgrow for a truer scientific vision. No. The wind in the trees is alive, I put my ear to the earth and hear the earth’s voice, the plants touch me, the yak speak, and the water is singing the song of the spirit.
And all of this is there for you.