A few years ago I spent a week doing a retreat next to a stream at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado. The ground rules were fairly simple: retreatants were to live as close to "nature" as possible. Instead of sleeping in a tent, I slept either under the stars or under a tarp. I didn't build a fire, but ate bread, cheese, dried fruits, nuts. I drank water from the stream, and steeped tea in a bottle warmed by the sun. I never used a flashlight and left books, paper, and pen behind.
Like any other heat-seeking mammal, I followed the sun as it climbed the hillside and by sunset I could look out across the broad valley which, millions of years ago, was the floor of a vast sea. During the mornings, I stayed in my sleeping bag until the sun reached the stream, and then, I sat under one of the great pines, and practiced, watching my breath come and go like a gentle wind. It was during one of these morning sessions that it suddenly occurred to me that the Buddha got enlightened under a tree.
This may seem obvious, at least to people familiar with the story of the Buddha's life, but it nevertheless struck me as something of a revelation. All the Buddhist retreats I had attended in America had taken place inside—in polished black-and-white Japanese-style zendos, or rough-hewn reconverted "barndos," in luminously colored Tibetan temples, or in city lofts or generic Holiday Inn conference rooms, or in cabins and maybe tents. Of course, I had walked, sat, and lay down under trees, in various states of contemplative ease, but I had never—nor had any of my fellow Buddhists, so far as I knew—meditated under a tree for a sustained length of time, as the Buddha had done.
Of course, there were good reasons for this. Sitting under a tree or beneath an overhanging rocky ledge exposes us to the weather as well as to animals and insects. In the Buddha's own time, the forests of India contained tigers, rhinos, elephants, cobras, and scorpions. Nowadays, we seem to have reduced the dangerous to the merely distracting. We stay inside to avoid mosquitoes, flies, ants, spiders, stray dogs, and inquisitive neighbors.
Yet there is another perspective. The person who meditates outside for a few days may come to see dangers and distractions as messengers. Such messengers may arrive in surprising shapes. Midway through my retreat I found myself unable to crawl out of a particularly slippery and muddy hole of self-pity—until one morning a yellow jacket landed on my bare stomach, took a good bite, and flew off. Stung into awareness, self-pity and indulgence vanished. A small but crucial turning point, it worked just as well—if not better—than the "encouragement stick" wielded by watchful zendo monitors.
A little later, crossing the stream which divided our wilderness from the civilized amenities of base camp, I noticed a snake. Like the bee that had bitten me, it too was black with a yellowish stripe: a common Western garter snake, the field-guides would say. But there was something a little uncommon, even strange about this particular snake. Poised upright in an elegant S-shaped curve, it didn't move at all, save for the flickering forked tongue, black as coal with two flame-red tips. We stared at each other. A field-guide might have attributed its unwavering gaze to the fact that snakes have two sets of transparent scales covering their eyes, but the intensity of its perfect stillness and the S-shaped pose made me think of the mythical nagas, the serpentine Indian water spirits reputed to guard treasures hidden beneath the surface of lakes and rivers. So I bowed slowly, three times, forehead to the ground and inhaled the pine resin of the earth. Still the snake did not move. The snake just looked not so much at me as through me, as if to say, "This is how to be, this is how to keep your meditation, in the world you are returning to."