Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen, ‘How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?’

Changsha said, ‘How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?’

—“Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors” by Dogen Zenji,
Treasury of The True Dharma Eye,
ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt

Wilderness birthed the mind, whose deep roots and flowering branches evolved not in the cities of our invention but in nature’s challenging and instructive embrace. Maybe that’s why the Buddha liked to go back there to recalibrate. Maybe that’s why, when John the Baptist and Jesus wanted to be reborn, they stepped into a river outside of town. Maybe that’s why in India, for millennia, those who want to re-imagine their humanity have dropped part or all of their clothing and stepped into the jungle.

“To study the buddha way is to study the self,” goes the oft-repeated quote from Dogen Zenji, the medieval Buddhist philosopher who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.”

To be actualized by the myriad things one has to get out of the way, to let them be and learn from them. This is the Sabbath of awakening, where one stops creating and, in this rest, can begin to attune to the created. By releasing the weaving of our human selves, we can see how they are woven from the confluence of all things. As Dogen writes, “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”

Dogen, like most great Buddhist sages, lived on the edge of the wild, building monasteries on the edge of civilization where unadulterated nature could still be encountered. Traditionally, Buddhist monasteries dedicated to serious meditation practice are situated in or near the wilderness, modeling themselves after the Buddha, who spent most of his life living outside India’s growing urban world amid trees and animals. The Thai forest tradition, in which I was ordained as a monk, prized going on thudong, or wandering in the wilderness, and its great heroes attained spiritual awakening deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, often with wild elephants and tigers and the teeming world of vegetation and insects as their only companions.

“Know that without mountain colors and valley sounds, [Shakyamuni Buddha’s] taking up the flower and [Huike’s] attaining the marrow would not have taken place,” wrote Dogen in the essay Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, quoted above. “Because of the power of valley sounds and mountain colors, the Buddha with the great earth and sentient beings simultaneously attains the way, and countless buddhas become enlightened upon seeing the morning star.”

In this interpretation, Buddhists have a “selfish” reason for protecting the wilderness. Our humanity, and our awakening, may depend on it. To that end, monks and nuns in Thailand and other Buddhist countries have moved to preserve stretches of the wild within the confines of monastic properties.

Of course, the reasons to protect the wilderness are much deeper and broader than just as a place to meditate. We now know and have known for some time that trying to divorce ourselves from the cycles of nature and ignoring our responsibility can, at best, succeed only in the short term. It is now widely acknowledged in the scientific community that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, one entirely triggered by human activity. It is clear that much of the biodiversity of the world is already gone due to the way we live, and that much more of it will go.

The Living Planet Index of the World Wildlife Fund reported at the end of 2018 that from 1970 to 2014, there was a 60 percent overall decline in the population of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Another recent report, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, risking what the report’s authors call a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.” In one 2017 report on the loss of biodiversity in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists abandoned all pretense of calm to warn of a “biological annihilation” that is a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” Since that report, things have gotten worse, not better.

Fantasies about our salvation through technological tinkering and adaptation in a future where wildlife is decimated but human civilization can continue may be just that—fantasies. Or maybe not. Maybe a remnant of life as we now know it will make it through. If that does happen, however, it will be on a version of Earth that has been radically transformed amid a wilderness much reduced. As well as the existential concern we should feel about our collapsing ecosystems, as Buddhists it also seems foolish, even fatal to our aspirations, to overlook the possibility of the radical dependency of our spiritual health, and the spiritual health of our children, on a nature still wild and diverse.

Tradition does say that one can attain awakening anywhere, and I don’t doubt that. T’ao Ch’ien (373–427), the great Buddhist poet, wrote:

To build a house in the human world  
And not to hear the noise of horse and carriage:
How can this be done?
When the mind is detached, the place is quiet.

The wilderness is not just a space for practice, however. It’s a teacher. On one level this is because life in the wilderness demands, by its very nature, classical Buddhist virtues of the mind like mindfulness (sati), observant evaluation (sampajanna), and discernment (panna). Trails, landmarks, weather, animal tracks and behavior, subtle sounds—all need to be attended to survive. The sentience of animals provokes solidarity; their suffering provokes compassion. Nature, with its omnipresent change and death, also teaches the dharma, offering lessons on impermanence and uncontrollability. And beyond that, there may be deeper things that wilderness conveys, a transmission beyond words.

In the Zen tradition, Dogen exemplifies a particularly deep contemplation on the relationship between awakening and nature, as in the following waka (traditional Japanese poem) of his:

Mountain colors,
valley echoes,
Everything as it is-
the voice and body
of my beloved Shakyamuni.

—From Nature in Dogen’s Philosophy and Poetry,
trans. by Miranda Shaw

What Dogen is saying is that nature is inseparable from the reality that awakens to itself in our practice, the reality of buddhanature (the inherent liberated nature of all sentient beings). As religion scholar Miranda Shaw wrote about Dogen’s poem in Nature in Dogen’s Philosophy and Poetry, “Dogen expresses his conviction that the forms of nature do not manifest buddhanature; they are buddhanature.” Our awakening is the very awakening of nature to itself. The unmediated experience of nature, where the “myriad things” come forth freely to reveal themselves as what you are, is enlightenment, as I understand Dogen to be saying in Genjokoan as well. The loosening of the iron grip of human egoic consciousness that occurs through the immersion in the “myriad things” of the natural world brings us back to the very roots of our own consciousness, to a clearing where we can find freedom.

Shaw writes, “Buddhanature is expressed as a concrete particular, ‘Sakyamuni’s voice and body,’ in keeping with Dogen’s predilection for concrete imagery. Since the essential feature of a Buddha is enlightenment, which is actualized at all times and places, ‘the universe is proclaiming the actual body of Buddha.’”

When looked at this way, all things are preaching the Buddha’s mind and so are speaking dharma. Nature, which Dogen calls “the broad, long tongue” of the Buddha, contains a vast intelligence. Perhaps in a sense the wilderness is a giant brain where each leaf, each bacteria, each whale, each sandstorm, are like the firing of neurons. If that’s true, then our human activities on this Earth are akin to the tragedy of early onset Alzheimer’s.

“From the point of view of nonhuman nature this is the disinformation age,” wrote the late conservationist Peter Warshall. Indeed, if the Earth is a giant brain, whole neural networks are currently flickering and passing away into night, leaving us with what will be, in many cases, an eternal forgetfulness.

The wilderness, then, is our companion on both the human and the Buddha way. This is hinted in the ancient image of the Buddha touching the Earth. The traditional meaning of that gesture is that the Earth goddess has been watching the Buddha cultivating virtues for eons of rebirths and verifies his right to claim awakening. We shouldn’t gloss over this story without reflecting on its implications. The first is that the Earth has been watching Gotama and verifies his good work. This reminded me of a saying by the Haida, an indigenous people from the Canadian province of British Columbia, when expressing why not to do something bad: “The Earth might see me.”

This story about the Buddha implies that the Earth is a living holder of deep, ancient wisdom. When the Buddha wants to prove that he’s really got it, he turns to the ultimate authority: Mother Earth, his mother and all of ours, who affirms his authenticity. This story symbolically affirms that the Earth is not a neutral realm for our exploitation, a rather inconvenient supermarket, or a largely irrelevant landscape painting outside of our car windows. The Earth is the parent, teacher, and conscience of the buddhas and in the end, it is in the mirror of nature that we see the truth about whether the Buddha is really awakened or not.

Like a good parent and teacher, the Earth both teaches and tests us. To destroy the riches of beauty, intelligence, and life within it is to enfeeble our parent—a parent whom we will never outgrow. The information we will lose with every ruined ecosystem is incalculable and makes the burning of the Library of Alexandria look as serious as someone misplacing their keys.

As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche recently wrote in his book Sadness, Love, Openness, an honest confrontation with loss should bring both sadness and love. Or, as the Western mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn memorably put it, our own awakening will always happen amidst “the full catastrophe.” We must accept what we will lose in order to begin working to save what we can. Surely that means cupping the remaining wilderness in our hands. Like matsutake mushrooms, which thrive in unlikely places, connected by hidden threads and tolerant of human destruction, whatever wilderness we save will provide unpredictable but essential pockets of both life and wisdom to our children.

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