Experiencing Our Natural World As Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we reference the Buddhist cannon, especially the Nikaya’s, we learn that Siddhartha Gotama placed a great deal of emphasis on action and the natural energy associated in both a meditation and a contemplative spiritual practice. The poems of the Korean Zen Master T’aego also expresses this reality. They challenge us to discover something about meeting the phenomenal world in a particular way as spiritual practice. It happens when we make the unknown knowable to our aware state of body-mind. As teachers, the only thing that we can impart to you when teaching about spirituality is the “how to begin” element. In other words, we can teach you how to walk, but it is up to you “where you walk”. Because, you see, how spirituality is manifest is unique to the individual. So spirituality is a journey too. Today is my continued attempt to awaken your inner self to this reality.

There are four poems, all only four lines each. Zen had an important formative influence on the way many Chinese and Japanese poet-monks thought about writing poetry. One thing these poets had in common was there use of nature, or worldly themes, to awaken the mind to the richness of an inner spiritual life.
The first is called: How Can I Speak?
All phenomena are beyond names and forms
The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest
What is “closest”?
You can only please yourself: how can I speak?

The first line, “All phenomena are beyond names and forms,” offers an interesting statement. It reminds us of the Heart Sutra, a fundamental sutra for both Ch’an and Soto Zen traditions. Usually, when we think about spirituality and meditative practice, a certain erroneous notion arises that we should get to a place of complete silence and stillness, a place apart from and beyond all names and forms. But here T’aego says that all phenomena themselves are already beyond names and permanent forms. Think about it, the sun never says ‘I am the sun’ or the moon says ‘I am the moon’. So all phenomena are beyond names and permanent forms. I ask you now, are we different from the sun and the moon? Are not we, the sun, and the moon expressions of the same Universe? We learn in science class that we humans are also made from stardust. Why then do humans want to make a distinction?

The poems’ second line says, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest.” Sometimes we see the word closest used in this kind of poetry. Closest has the connotation of intimate connection, of becoming ‘one with’ sort-of-thing. To become completely ‘intimate with’ is to become close. So we might read that line as, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are most intimate.” Closer than the word stream or mountain, or the pictures we hold in our minds of them. Just hearing the sounds of the stream and seeing the color of the mountain, brings the image into thought and makes it more real, much more intimate. We don’t literally take a stream or a mountain into our being like we would an apple. However, we experience them though sounds and color. This is when the inner observer steps aside and lets the spiritual process take over.

This is all nice talk, intimacy, and closeness. But then T’aego throws in one more line: “What is ‘closest’?” Now this is when the poem becomes a koan. What is closest is, in fact, the very not-knowing, the question itself. Great doubt is given space to arise in our reasoning efforts. If you use the word closest, what is that? If you talk about intimacy, what does that mean? I bring up frequently the teaching associated in Indra’s Net to explain relationships. In this poem, and in T’aego’s use of the word closest he is talking about relationships. In fact, when we have spiritual moments, we are experiencing some kind of relationship.

The last line of the poem reads: “You can only please yourself: how can I speak?” You have to find it yourself, I have no words to give you about this. Look deeply into it. My spiritual moments can only come from my ripe body-mind. Mine are different from yours, and yours are different from mine. There is no words I can use to express that microsecond of realization I experienced when the bird landed on the fence before my mind recognized the implication of the event. And in that split-second, I was closest to my true nature expressing itself. Looking at it’s self. You will have to find these moments on your own.
The next poem:
One Gate
The whole world is one gate:
Why don’t you come in?
When you have penetrated Zhaozhou’s No (the fundamental question),
At last the chains will open by themselves

The poem begins with a wonderful couplet, “The whole world is one gate: Why don’t you come in?” If you want to have a phrase to contemplate on, this one is it! A gate, an entrance, an exit, sometimes a mystery, a challenge to take one more step forward, a question “is it locked?” Experiencing the world around us is what a Buddhist practice is all about. It is always calling, calling, calling, and asking for our response: yet so often we hold back our actions. Engaging the dharma requires bold responses from us, even if we are not quite ready. We are called to take that last step to the gate. When we learn to let ourselves go from what we perceive to be the chains of our reluctance, we awaken to the reality that there were no chains in the first place. The gate was never locked.

Bodhidharma, the first patriarch, was ask the question, “My mind is not at peace. Please pacify my mind.” Bodhidharma replied, “Take out your mind and bring it here, and I will pacify it for you.” The monk asking the question said, “When I look for my mind I can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said in return, “Then I already pacified your mind.” “Already”, is an important word in our practice. Already the chains of our limitations and attachments are gone, but we do not see that yet. We construct and create and invent all kinds of shackles for ourselves in the way we attach to our useless and unproductive preferences. By sticking to your dedicated meditation practice, and listening to your inner observer, we are given a change to perceive “The whole world is one gate: Why don’t you come in.” And the chains will open by themselves.

The next poem:
Cloudy Mountains
White clouds — inside the clouds, layers of green mountains
Green mountains — in the mountains, many white clouds
The sun is the constant companion of the cloudy mountains
When the body is at peace, there’s no place that’s not home.

What is especial about the first two lines is its restating of the Heart Sutra’s teaching. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Then, “The sun is the constant companion of the cloudy mountains”. The sun is always giving the mountains their form for the human eye. Clouds come, clouds go. But there is always one thing that is not moving, not dependent on coming and going. The sun is their constant companion. Then T’aego concludes, “When the body is at peace, there’s no place that’s not home.” Here is the reference to gate again, and our Buddhist path as a way to it. In fact, it is a wonderful reference to the insight of the Four Nobel Truths. This poem points to how our experiencing nature, just as it is, can activate our inner observer that, in turn, brings our attention directly to the Buddha’s teachings. The lessons can be found in nature if we have developed the mind’s-eye to be awakened to them. Why? Because all phenomena of nature are expressions of the Universe, as are we.

This brings to mind an expression from an ancient calligraphy that reads: Dae Do Mu Mun. Dae Do means “great way”: Mu Mun means “no gate”. If you allow me to insert an English word, it reads: “The great way has no gate.” Great way does not mean greater than anything else. Great here has the connotation of complete. To realize the complete way is to be completely in touch with what is, moment in moment. Don’t confuse complete with perfection or an unchanging reality. It just means thorough. Our Buddhist path has no barrier or gate. In one sense it means that wherever we are, at the moment, whatever our activities, if we enter it completely and not get caught up in separating subject from object, then at that moment, there is no barrier, no gate. The gate has already been opened. There is no hindrance, no obstacle, only an awakened way of being and functioning in the world.

And now, the last poem by T’aego:
The Path of Emptiness
This emptiness is not empty emptiness
This Path is not a path that can be considered a path
Where peaceful extinction is totally extinct
Perfect illumination is complete and final.

“This emptiness is not empty emptiness. This path is not a path that can be considered a path.” Wow! This is something we can contemplate for some time, and still need help to unravel. Two words come to mind here. Selflessness of practice, and altruistic action. When practicing off the cushion we may try to do each activity completely: When sitting, we try to make the posture very precise; when breathing, we perceive each breath clearly. We try to pay attention in a particular way, cultivating the art of it. In doing that kind of precision work, there is sometimes a moment — when you are really focusing and getting into one thing — when all other distractions drop away. This is a moment of real clarity and sharpness. These are situations where we leave no trace of self in the activity. These moments become an important point in our practice. And from my experience, they are intensified when we are outside experiencing the world of nature.

In spring the plants and flowers begin to open their leaves and peddles. All the knowledge that botany will ever bring us can never explain the emotion we may feel when we see those leaves open, for beneath and behind that process we detect a reality and a energy that we can never know directly. We behold the mystery through the opening of those leaves. The beginning, the flowering, and the ending of each life — these are mysteries which reveal themselves to us if we stand before them and wonder. The experience of those mysteries is not that of a soft, squishy piety. It is awesome to a ripe mind. It can come to us in the gentleness of the opening of a rose, or in the terrors of disease and destruction. However it comes to us or we to it, experiencing the mystery of the Universe is ever present for us to awaken to. “This emptiness is not empty emptiness. This path is not a path that can be considered a path.” Then what is it? Let this be your jumping off place for contemplative thought, and see if you can open wider the door to your spiritual practice.

Kalidasa, a Hindu poet wrote this:
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities
Of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.

And finally I would like to end with this wonderful poem by Jim Harrison from In Search of Small Gods entitled Spring:

This small liquid mouth in the forest
Is called a spring, but it is really
A liquid mouth that keeps all of the secrets
Of what has happened here, speaking in the unparsed
Language of water, how the sky was once closer
And a fragment of a burned-out star boiled its water.
This liquid mouth has been here since the glaciers
And has seen a few creatures die with its billions
Of moving eyes — an ancient bear going bald who went to sleep
And never knew that it died, and an Indian woman
Who plunged in her fevered face, deciding to breathe
The water. Since it is a god there is a delight
In becoming unfrozen in spring, to see the coyote
Jump five feet into the air to catch a lowly mouse,
Or to reflect a hundred thousand bright moons,
To sleep under a deep mantle of snow or feel
The noses of so many creatures who came to drink,
Even the man who sits on the forest floor, enjoying
The purity of this language he hopes to learn someday.

And to that, I can only say Sva Ha!


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