by Paul Bloom
I recently returned from a backpacking trip to the Wind River Range, and as in previous trips the experience was all consuming. Wilderness inevitably points back to original self, and this article explores that relationship.
Wilderness is our precious mother, the high mountains our brothers and sisters to whom we must return.
In the Zen tradition, we say Don’t Know Mind is our original self. The activities of wilderness are no different. The everyday activities of wilderness demonstrate the wisdom of a before thinking mind in unmistakable ways.
We can see this same wisdom dancing on Main Street or at the dinner table with family, but it is often harder to access. Wilderness points us unmistakably to who we are and where we come from.
An ancient forest reveals the generosity of the life cycle. Living trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen effortlessly, and give this oxygen back to living creatures across the planet. In death, the rotting tree trunks provide nutrition and habitat for forest animals. Even the cougar, when it eats the deer, participates in the dance of host and guest (ref. Gary Snyder), the natural process that comes into play without cognitive thought. Wilderness acts with mindless generosity, and it is only human beings that get in its way.
The root of Buddhist meditation practice goes back to yoga, which means “yoking” or engaging fully with our spiritual practice. In the Zen tradition, we engage this yoking to alleviate suffering and discomfort through a deep immersion in the task at hand (ref. Heart Sutra). Some version of this yoking to practice is present throughout all lineages in the Buddhist tradition, including the Zen and Tibetan lineages, and in most other religious traditions, if less central.
Then how did we human beings come to a place where to do what is useful and necessary most often requires the yoking to purely achievement-based objectives and the abandonment of an intuitive wisdom — the opposite of discovering our true selves?
Shakyamuni Buddha realized that the discomfort of consciousness was a natural and necessary part of the human condition. He also realized that this discomfort did not need to control our lives, that we are capable of stepping past an absorption with our own suffering. A habit of meditating or of yoking to the activity at hand allows us to engage the great questions of life and death in many ways. Meditation helps us to abandon an absorption with our own discomforts and our tilt towards mean-spirited actions.
The wilderness can also be a great teacher, one of the windows into understanding original self and great love. Wilderness never cares about just for me. The mindless generosity of wilderness is always intuitive, without aggression and points the way back to our original selves.
Paul Bloom is a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. He will be offering the half-day retreat, Introduction to Zen Practice, at Copper Beech Institute on Saturday, September 23, 2017.