Sometimes maybe words aren’t so good. Nevertheless, for a person who studies silence, I seem to generate a lot of them. I once wrote 3500 just on how to breathe. Realizing this, leaves me wondering sometimes whether I should be talking at all. While it is my job to teach people the mechanics of zazen, there is the conundrum of how anyone could understand anything with so many instructions bouncing around their head. The instructions may or may not be helpful, but if there is to be any Zen in my words, they need to be forgotten.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about sustainable practice which led me to think of sustainable ecosystems and then there was this redwood forest that started showing up in my head and then things sort of went quiet. Sometimes an image is more effective than all the words we invent and yet all I have to work with is language. So I will try to tell you about a place and maybe you will see this place and with any luck you will soon forget all the words that got you there…
In Northern California there are many trees, many animals, many mountains, many rocks, and one ocean. The rocks seem permanent, but they are actually traveling in an endless circle. Rocks are created by magma, which crystallizes and cools to become igneous rock which is in turn eroded and carried downhill as sediment. The sediments are cemented together to become sedimentary rock and when subjected to heat and pressure they are transformed into metamorphic rock. When buried and pushed back into the earth’s core they become magma again. These rocks undergo their cycle of life and change just as we do.
Look at one of them now, a large boulder of a rock, rooted in the mossy peat of a forest floor along the Pacific Ocean. Despite the fact of its journey, it sits silently amongst the trees, almost implacable in the face of time. Perhaps a hundred thousand years have passed it here on this ever-changing spot, long enough for many objects to have struck it, unfathomable amounts of rain to fall, and while the earth has moved many times, the rock sits in stillness. The strength of this rock does not come from dividing itself into parts and contracting one part or another. The power of the rock comes from effort on an infinitesimal scale, each molecule simply aware of it’s connection to the next.
When we sit zazen with this kind of wholeheartedness, our legs are like this rock.
With roots entwined around this rock, a redwood tree rises upright toward the sun. Once a sapling, the tree has no memory of the tribulations of the forest floor. The centuries have passed along with the threat of the hunger of a bird, the footstep of an errant deer, and the many fires which consumed its lower branches. The tree gave no more thought to the passing logger than it gave to the rise and fall of Constantine’s empire, as it follows always its single intention: grow. From its beginning in the darkness of the grove, it gently reaches upwards towards the sun with all it’s being, just as our spine pushes the crown of our heads, ever upright toward the ceiling. When the first tendril pushed out of the earth, there were only glimpses of the sunlight, but it was enough and it towers now above the coastline, following still a simple intention.
Along the coast, waves after wave rises and curls and washes over the beach with a kind of noise that seems to emanate from everywhere, sounding in the echoes unmistakably like breath. Each wave is created by the arising and ceasing of all things together, sometimes shaped by an earthquake in Japan, sometimes a storm off the coast of Alaska, but it is foolish to ask any particular wave what it means. The wave carries the story of the cosmos, a big bang and then water arising and ceasing all across a planet hurtling through space. Still, where the intellect is overwhelmed, there is much in that sound for the heart to follow. The news of an approaching storm, the coming revelation of the tidal pools, or the news of a fine day to set sail are hidden in these waves. It is pointless to argue with the breaking of a particular wave, better to simply listen to the steady rhythm as it changes. Several big waves come crashing in rapid succession followed unexpectedly by the languid sound of calm water skimming effervescently along the beach. Everything changes and sitting here listening, we encounter the world in the myriad forms of waves, as the rain in Africa eventually finds its way back to the surf rolling toward the coast.
The water is like this, forever losing one molecule of hydrogen and finding another, becoming air and then water again. The tree feels this air and does not resist it. Coming in from the ocean, the air dances along the west side of the tree while the east feels the heat from the sun. The tree does not try to be a rock. When the breeze comes, the tree does not resist it and sways gently with the wind that might otherwise topple it, just as we can do when we begin to lean, finding the center again. In this way, the tree has been here for a very long time. The tree simply grows beyond comprehension, edging into the moving sky. The branches of the tree hang loosely from the trunk, sometimes swaying easily in the wind as the tree rocks it self back to the center of its roots.
Riding this breeze, a peregrine falcon skims the surface of the ocean and is carried upward over the the grove. Every fiber of this raptor exudes the dynamic stillness of awareness as it’s wings make the subtle adjustments that silently kite the falcon along the currents of air above this geography. Although the falcon is clumsy on the ground, when it turns the whole of its attention to the eddies of air drifting around the trees, it begins to find grace. Soaring along these streams, moving with them, the eyes of the peregrine achieve the focus we seek with our hands in the mudra. The feint movements of a mouse on the ground registers in the body of the hawk and it it swoops silently, just as the hands become keenly aware of the breath and the breeze, myriad imperceptibilities of our bodies and the world moving around us.
Above, the sun illuminates all of this in a spectrum of photo voltaic radiation, some if it in the form of light. In the absolute world, in the darkness, there were only shadows, but in the miracle of this sunlight, the tree grows, the hawk eats, and the rays of light are shattered into wavelengths as they ricochet off the objects they encounter. Eyes can make color from these wavelengths but the sun has no intent to make a speckled falcon or a shimmering sea. The sun does not make objects, it just radiates it’s energy, the raw source of the beginning, expanding as it dissipates. Our eyes, these orbs in our heads were made for this sun and it is not a wall that we are staring at. In zazen, we simply try to understand the ordinariness of miracle, that the wall is just a concept, color is an illusion, that through our pupils, particles of the sun enter into our heads and the minds see stories. Even at night, the light from the candle is nothing more then work of bees stripping this the sunlight from flowers or perhaps what is left from the dinosaurs that ate the plants that captured the suns energy for a little while. The energy never ends, it just moves as the candle comes back to life. The light bounces across the walls, enters the heads of the creatures and leaves again, reflected back into the incomprehensible. Sitting at the wall, we feel the sun, the energy of creation, as it touches us directly.
All the while, the rock sits anchored in the soil, the tree reaches for the sky, the peregrine drifts attenuated to the currents of the wind, and the waves beat out an ever changing rhythm.
There is much, much more to this world than words can ever tell. There is moss in the trees, and there are frogs, and grass grows in patches where the sunlight cuts through. These things do not belong to me, so I will not say another word about them. If I have done my job, then I have done no more than paint a grove of trees along one of the coastlines inside your head. Transplanted, perhaps they may take root there, I can only hope this might be so, for this is a place that can teach more about zazen than any of my words. Rather then some words in your head, this is a place you can go and see for yourself. In this way, I might get out of the way and allow you to learn from my teachers directly.