Wildness can often temper our lofty thoughts. At Green Gulch Zen Center, there are sometimes spider webs high up in the rafters of the meditation hall, and I’ve always found it wonderful that, while all our Zen activity (or inactivity) is going on below, there’s another kind of life occurring in the wilderness area far above our heads, in a place that’s almost impossible for some of us to reach.
On warm days, when the zendo doors are left open and coastal conditions are favorable, the sound of breaking waves occasionally travels from Muir Beach to the ears of those gathered here. It is not difficult at such times for a sitter to welcome this kind of momentary intrusion and to realize that, in the midst of one’s self-imposed quietness, there is still something nearby that twists and thrashes, that’s loud and uncaring, unbounded and unpredictable. The ocean does not meditate, and the only precepts it lives by are those of wind and gravity, the pull of other planets, and the law of storms.
For many years now, I’ve been studying seabirds, marine mammals, and the intertidal life along these shores. But there is one bird in particular, the storm petrel, that I find of particular interest. It is the smallest of the world’s seabirds, roughly the same size as a sparrow, and weighing not much more than an ounce. Yet they thrive in the unprotected waters of the open sea, exposed to winds of the highest velocity, towered over by waves of the greatest magnitude, and hunted by larger, fiercer birds, sharks, and other predators. The storm petrel is able to survive only by taking refuge in the vast ocean that surrounds it. Rather than allowing themselves to become overwhelmed by the enormity of their environment, these fragile and diminutive birds follow the paths of least resistance. During the worst weather, they place themselves deep down in the troughs of waves, using their delicate feet to push themselves away from the moving walls of wild water next to them, and letting the howling winds shear across the crests of waves high above. This is the bird’s own spontaneous dance of resourcefulness and survival, and it is only one example of the countless ways in which sentient beings take refuge.
When thinking about seabirds, a person must also dance between the imposing walls of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy. The birds themselves seem so gallant, so mysterious, so spirited, that it is difficult not to burden their description with our own human desire, conceit, and admiration. The birds are what they are, and anything we add to that should be held suspect.
As a person interested in natural history, and as a Buddhist, I often find myself confronted by things that seem to be just overhead and out of reach. I study seabirds because I know their range is limitless and realize that my questions concerning them are endless. But I study Buddhism so that, someday, I won’t have to study it anymore.
When I return home after a day or two at sea, I am usually slightly disoriented for a while. This is no doubt related to some short-term conflict within the inner ear. I’m still on the rolling deck. My gait is unsteady. The room rocks from side to side. And to sit still on a cushion is unthinkable.
On such days, I often drive back to the beach and stare out to sea. This may seem like peculiar behavior to some people, but not to those who understand the sea. The sea has caused my dizziness, and the sea is the only thing that seems to dispel it. Rarely, I might see a storm petrel from these outer shores, but there is really not much chance of this happening. The ttue seabirds come willingly to land only in order to breed. Sometimes, however, they will willingly come close enough to enable us to see them.
This has often been my experience in Buddhist practice as well; just putting myself in a position to see what comes. There is a sense of something just beyond my line of sight. I know it’s there. I’ve seen enough strong evidence of it to keep me coming back for more, but it defies any real definition. I find refuge in my sitting, even as my mind takes flight. Gradually, things calm down and thoughts come to rest. My mind becomes as still and alert as that of a heron. And there is no further distinction between what is shallow and what is deep.
Buddhist practice is not about forcing ourselves to be natural. It is about being ourselves. When we take the vows of refuge, we are also pledging to find the refuge that exists within our own lives. This taking of refuge is not some kind of evasion or escape, but is the planting of our “selves” deeply in the nature of what surrounds us. We lodge ourselves in the deep waves and in the shallow pools, in the crests and depressions of our lives. Sometimes, even wreckage can make a temporary resting place. A person whose life is in tatters might have nothing much else left to do but relax and look at the pieces of what’s left. Maybe this is the reason that so many of us are drawn to the sea and to the wildness of its coasts. The beaches display a confused but somehow soothing amalgam of particles: bits and pieces of once-living organisms, cracked plastic remnants of human creation, tubber wheels, oilcloth, mesh, fishing line. The sands are a haven for the dense and the reflective, the many failed items that were meant to last forever. This evidence of the transitory is really what Buddhism is all about: the daily give-and-take of living, the constant awareness of time, the fleeting opportunities for new discovery.
The Buddhist view encompasses all of nature, and this includes both wilderness and wildness. Our bodies harbor countless wilderness areas and ecosystems, self-regulating mechanisms that give us life and consciousness; and the cooperation of these mechanisms is essential. Conscious thought processes, in particular, must remain flexible. Our calculating minds warn us to be wary of things that are new or out of the ordinary; and we are especially fearful of anything that appears wild or out of control. Yet this very wildness can bring us refuge. Wildness does not mean “crazed,” but simply “what is.” It is uncalculated, undiluted, and unadorned. Anything in its natural state is wild: wild animals, wild music, wild mind. None of these call for any embellishment. As the storm petrel has shown us, it is possible to take refuge not from wildness, but in wildness. Whenever certain aspects of our lives are unclear, or even when they appear to be in ruin, roughly-breaking seas can produce an approximation of order. At such times, meditation might take such simple form as a slow walk along a wild shore.
Dogen explained that whether we care for other people, seabirds, air, or mountain grasses, we flow together toward Buddha’s way. This “way” includes both the wild and the cultivated, the complete and the fragmentary, the high and the low tide. The highest tide is when the edge of the sea—the wildness—is nearest us; but low tide is the revealing tide, the tide that allows us to more closely approach the ocean’s heart.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.