I was listening to an interview with Buddhist teacher and environmental activist Joanna Macy recently, with an AirPod in one ear––while walking the Greenway in Lebanon.
This trail is a lovely place––a woodsy path that follows the route of what once was a railroad, it traces the backyards and open fields of the city. It skirts a cemetery, and there is a set of homemade steps leads to the back section of a condominium complex.
A series of bridges crisscross the meandering Mascoma River. I have seen deer and ducks and beaver. From the highest bridge, two friends once watched a bear fishing on an island below while her three cubs cavorted in the water nearby. In early spring this year, another friend and I were wrapped together in awe and joy on that same bridge as we witnessed solid ice suddenly cracked open by a soft steady current of water. It broke into large pieces, which slowly began lumbering downstream. We cheered them on.
Walking on the Greenway now, I listened as the interview neared its end and Joanna Macy, aged 92, paused. She’d been speaking with grief and a steady evenness of heart about the Great Extinction that we are living through––the death of innumerable species of plants and animals, the plight of the land and the oceans. I could hear her throat tighten, her voice weaken and fall silent. Then she said clearly, with strength: “We don’t want to die without knowing how beautiful this is.” And I had to sit down on a bench by the river––and push back the audio to hear these words again, and again––and to speak them aloud. We are inextricably dependent on all this beauty. Mindfulness offers the gift of knowing it––here and now.
I remembered an essay I wrote years ago, about the importance of trees to the Buddha. The essay, reprinted below, was inspired in part by the miraculous moment of a little wren landing on my head while I was meditating. It was such a joyous surprise. She sat briefly, and I can still touch the thrill I felt as her tiny feet pushed off against the top of my head as she flew away.
More recently, Valley Insight teacher Lee Steppacher told us that she had a similar experience of a bird coming to her head as she meditated––this one returned several times. She didn’t perch, but instead pecked at Lee’s hair, almost as if gathering it. Here is the video, taken by cell phone, of Lee’s experience, which she calls “Becoming a Nest.”
Another beautiful miracle known and savored.
Trees are Important
Every time we sit down to practice we are “entering the forest.” (Anonymous)
Last Monday a bird sat down and rested on my head. I’ve been meditating in my backyard early on these clear mornings. I sit on a stone next to a bowl of water, which serves both as a birdbath and as a watering hole for the various animals that wander through that area of the garden. I sit “aware of the body in the seated posture” and “rest my mind on the body, just as the body rests on” the stone. I sit not far from the peach tree, where there is a wren house with a nesting pair of birds in residence.
I often hear their sweet song as I sit surrounded by the small daisy-like blossoms of feverfew and the bright red of opening poppies. I sit with the hood of my brown sweatshirt over my head to protect it from the sun, and today a wren landed there––on top of my head. It rested there for just thirty or forty seconds. I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a bird at first. I felt something land, and then, when it pushed off into flight, I felt the gentle, wise power of its feet against the hard, earthiness of my head, and I knew for sure. I felt so alive, grateful, and connected as the mind and body continued to rest on the stone.
Dharma teacher Gil Fronsdal tells a story about his meeting Maha Ghosananda, who was one of the few Cambodian monks who survived the Khmer Rouge massacres. He was not slain only because he was out of the country in Thailand when the regime came to power. All Buddhist monks and nuns, along with hundreds of thousands of other people within the country, were killed, and the Buddhist temples were destroyed. For many years Maha Ghosananda lived in exile, traveling among the refugee camps teaching and comforting his displaced countrymen and women.
Gil met him in San Francisco many years later. The slaughter was over. Maha Ghosananda had been able to return to his homeland. He was the much-loved official leader of Buddhism in Cambodia and a highly respected senior monk worldwide. In a conversation with him, Gil learned that his then-current major project was planting trees in Cambodia––reforestation. When asked why he was doing that instead of spending more time teaching, he simply said, “The Buddha was born under a tree, practiced under trees, attained enlightenment under a tree, taught for forty-seven years under a tree, and finally, lay down and died between two trees. Trees are important.” Our direct contact with the natural world is important.
I was thinking of this story as I walked along the Lebanon, New Hampshire bike path this week. The trees are exuberant, lush and green. The path is a corridor, lined with the healthy life-energy of these burgeoning trees, and it winds its way right through the highly populated, housing-dense areas of the city. It is a haven for many, humans and other animals as well as plants. As I walked, I reflected. I remembered another story, the one about the Buddha’s need to see a sick person, a wrinkled, old person, a dead person, and a monk with an empty bowl in order to begin his journey. Of these four “heavenly messengers,” the first three laid out the basic human condition from which he wanted some relief. The fourth gave him perhaps an inkling of an answer as well as a sense of direction.
Maha Ghosananda’s words suggest that, in order to carry this journey through to its liberating conclusion, the Buddha needed to be in relationship with trees; that is, with the natural world outside the sheltered construct of his tribe’s long-held views and opinions. As he wandered, he gradually let go and came to know viscerally a deep connection to the natural rhythms of life. In these rhythms he discovered the Dhamma, the truth of how things are constantly changing. He learned something important in the forest. He saw something that is true beneath the myopic, reactive human world, which is so richly colored by the strength of personal and cultural preferences. In nature, he realized a world where change and a basic unsatisfactoriness and a sense of not being fully in control are all more apparent. Finally, he surrendered completely to the ongoing flow of life.
Tired and emaciated from his journey, the Buddha sat down under a tree. He accepted nourishment from a young woman. As he settled and relaxed, a clear memory from his childhood spontaneously arose: he recalled resting under a rose apple tree while villagers went about the peaceful work of tilling a field. A great sense of well-being arose in him and opened into a soft, steady, assured calm, which carried him into the final hours of his journey. When he encountered the last shred of doubt in his mind in regard to his right to be free, he simply leaned forward and touched the earth; and the firmness of earth supported him emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the Buddha’s primary teaching on how to establish mindfulness or clear awareness as the very foundation of our lives, we are encouraged to step out of the business of our social and commercial lives into a forest: to come to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, to sit down and settle into a spacious, clear attentiveness, and to “keep calmly knowing change.” The Forest Monks of the Theravada order are called forest monks because they traditionally live and meditate outside in natural settings for much of the year, in simple little huts called kutis. Their doors and hearts are curious and fully open to the world around them where, as Ajahn Chah said, “everything is teachings us”––the birds, the traffic, the neighbors’ conversations.
We are here on earth for a short time, far less than that of the great trees. Our bodies share the elements of earth or hardness (bones); water or fluidity (flesh); temperature or hot-and-cold (skin); and wind movement or stillness (the breath). We share these with all of nature, including the trees. Being among the trees helps us to sense that we are part of a natural flow, just borrowing the elements for a while.
In the quiet of trees, I recall Ajahn Sucitto’s encouragement in the first chapter of his book on the Paramis: to pause often in the fullness of our days. When we stop for a moment, we step out of the momentum of our lives, the onward rushing flood of mental habits and the constantly arising views and opinions about what others and we ourselves should and shouldn’t do. Metaphorically, we step into the forest and become a monk carrying an empty bowl. Stepping beyond the metaphor and into the natural world at times can enhance the sense of freedom. Being mindfully awake in nature can support this kind of transformation.
The trees are real, even as they are also a strong metaphor for our practice. Every time we sit down to practice we are “entering the forest.” Time spent mindfully in the actual forest can strengthen our ability to practice clear seeing anywhere, anytime. This season in the northeast makes the natural world more easily accessible to us, so perhaps we could experiment with some outdoor “pauses” this summer. Also, we could take the opportunity to do a short practice: simply step outside a few random times during the day, pause and be quiet, be present with all that is unfolding. We can make an effort to relax into a quiet, clear awareness even for brief moments during our day––open to everything. Let the day’s energy enter us.
And, perhaps, if you are fortunate in having a quiet outdoor place to meditate, you could take your more formal practice outside. Perhaps, if you are very quiet––relaxed and upright like a tree––you will experience a “nest of robins (or wrens, or cardinals, or … ) in your hair.” For me, the experience seems to be ever changing. The day after the bird landed lightly on my head, I was sitting quietly when an insect of some sort landed just above my eye. I noticed some cautious fear rising in me as it crawled around. Then it settled and either bit or stung me. I felt pain in an intensely specific way; the sensations ebbed and passed gradually. After the sit, I looked in a mirror and saw a tiny spot of blood, but there was no residual itching or pain. Today as I practiced, what felt like tiny points of a gentle spray of rain fell on me. Pleasant. Yesterday the raindrops were bigger and farther between. The interesting variations on the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows of this lifetime continue.
Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course.
Then your mind will become still in any surroundings,
like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals
will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see
the nature of all things. You will see many strange and
wonderful things come and go, but you will be still.
This is the happiness of the Buddha.
–– Ajahn Chah
[An earlier version of his essay appeared on July 4, 2014]