Under the cover of night, Clark Strand discovers a lost state essential to wakefulness.
A story from the larger Buddhist canon illustrates this point. According to legend, on the night that Shakyamuni became an “Awakened One,” as he sat in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree, the tempter Mara assailed him with many threats and distractions, including vast armies of demons and seductive dancing girls. When these failed, as a last effort to unseat the aspiring Buddha, Mara challenged his right to sit upon the throne of enlightenment.
“Who bears witness to your attainment of Buddhahood?” demanded Mara.
In answer, Shakyamuni reached the fingers of his right hand down to touch the ground. “I call the earth as my witness,” he declared.
One legend tells us that the earth quaked at Shakyamuni’s request. Another that “myriad thousand-fold flower blossoms” rained down from heaven. Still another has the Earth Goddess herself emerging with her body half out of the ground to confirm the Buddha’s attainment. Every legend agrees, however, that the earth itself bore witness to the appearance of a buddha, or “World-Honored One.” This is the traditional account, commemorated by hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues across Asia, which often depict Shakyamuni in this pose, referred to in Buddhist iconography as the “Earth Witness” mudra.
But what if that account were wrong—not in its particulars, but in our traditional reading of them?
The teachings of Green Meditation remain in ancient stories like this one as a form of “sediment,” a term used by historians to describe the way certain details drift into the record without anyone being aware of them. This includes the geological and archaeological records, which collect actual physical sediment, and even the genetic record preserved in our DNA, where geneticists can find traces from our remotest evolutionary past. According to the Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail, the author of “On Deep History and the Brain,” such sediment can even be found in religious writings and other ancient texts, provided we know how to look for it.
Whenever we read documents for their sediment, we interpret them in much the same way that a paleontologist would interpret a tooth, or a population geneticist a strand of DNA. We search not for the meanings that an author chose to leave behind but rather for the information that was accidentally or unintentionally preserved inside that little trace of the past.
In the story of Bodhidharma, the sediment lies in his “primitive” appearance, his dwelling in a cave, and the fact that his teaching is passed along without the aid of written texts. In the story of Mara’s challenge to the Buddha, the sediment consists only of the Buddha touching the earth. The traditional account preserves that “little trace of the past,” but it doesn’t understand it. For the real point of the story is not the earth bearing witness to Buddha, but rather the Buddha’s bearing witness to the earth.
Once we realize this, a very different meaning begins to emerge. Shakyamuni reaches down to touch the earth, not to call it as a witness to his own self-importance, but in recognition of where he comes from, what sustains his consciousness and his life, and where he is destined to go when he dies. The gesture says, “Nothing can be lost or gained. Everything is here.” Shakyamuni isn’t justifying himself, establishing himself as worthy of emulation and respect, or even defending himself against Mara’s challenge to his authority. He is teaching Mara. That gesture is the first sutra taught by the Buddha, and the most striking thing about that sutra is that it contains no words. Why? Because it doesn’t need them. Even the crickets understand that sutra. Everything understands it—except for modern human beings. In the story, Mara is us.
It is remarkable how similar this wordless sutra is to the fundamental principle of modern ecology. Once we understand this, the meaning of Huike’s arm-cutting finally becomes clear, and an ancient koan yields up its store of vital teachings on how we are to live today. The official report issued by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 (predecessor to the 1997 Kyoto Accord) offers such a potently worded version of that teaching that it could almost be added to the traditional commentary on this koan.
Life holds to one central truth: that all matter and energy needed for life moves in great closed circles from which nothing escapes and to which only the driving fire of the sun is added. Life devours itself: everything that eats is itself eaten; every chemical that is made by life can be broken down by life; all the sunlight that can be used is used. Of all that there is on earth, nothing is taken away by life, and nothing is added by life—but nearly everything is used by life, used and reused in thousands of complex ways, moved through vast chains of plants and animals and back again to the beginning.
Huike’s act has nothing to do with sacrifice, and even less with sincerity or fierce resolve. It is, quite simply, the price of admission. We all pay that price, whether we want to or not, because not one of us can stand apart from the matrix of biological blessings that the earth provides. We eat, and we are eaten. The truth is as simple as that. But whether or not we become awake to that truth depends entirely on whether we pay that price willingly or try to jump the gate. Any enlightenment that involves its denial—any that involves the earth bearing witness to our importance as individuals or as a species—is a sickness and a tragedy beyond belief. We don’t even own our arms.
I took more than a year to reflect on all of this before I wrote a word about any of it. During that time, I barely spoke about Green Meditation even to my closest friends. The night after my dream about Bodhidharma and Huike, I moved my office outdoors onto the back deck and began spending twelve to fourteen hours a day in natural light. The mosquitoes were bad that year, and since our house in Woodstock is surrounded by wetlands on three sides, this could have been a problem, but I let them bite me, and after a while they stopped. In any case, I didn’t care. I walked and ran a great deal and began a tradition of hiking in the Adirondack High Peaks with my son, who had just turned eleven and was old enough to tackle serious climbs. And I stopped worrying about sleep and let it have its way with me—or not—as it pleased.
Our family lives in the woods at the end of a long driveway. Often at night I will walk to the end of it to look at the stars. Once I’ve reached the road, there are a lot more of them because of the gap in the trees. Sometimes I walk a ways toward town following the flow of stars above my head rather the road itself, which on moonless nights is so dark I can barely see my shoes. At the bottom of the hill there is a grassy field that used to belong to horses but now belongs to no one but the sky. About twenty years ago, something terrible happened at the house whose owners the horses belonged to, a large white Victorian with lots of outbuildings and apple trees, but now no one remembers what it was, or they won’t say. The house has been empty since, although a single porch light remains on always, 365 days a year. Someone must replace the bulb when it burns out, but it’s a mystery who this might be. No one comes and no one goes. The house follows the seasons to the accompaniment of that solitary trickle of electric light, falling a little further into ruin with the passing of each one.
Something about starlit roads and fields makes them good teachers of Green Meditation. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught his disciples to learn from such “teachers”:
The best time for meditation is at night, when everyone is asleep. Ideally you should go to a place outside the city and follow a solitary path where people don’t even go during the day. . . . Meditation is best done outside the town in a place where grass grows, because the grass will awaken your heart.
Rebbe Nachman once explained the theory behind these solitary vigils with a metaphor he called “Bypassing the Bandits.” He explained that the daylight world of traditional religious observances was like a public highway traveled by many people. “Murderers and robbers lurk there all the time waiting for the unwary, because they know the road. But when a person goes on a new path that is as yet unknown, they are not there to ambush him.”
The murderers and robbers of the rebbe’s metaphor are not literal, of course. They represent the various pitfalls of organized religious life: boredom, complacency, competitiveness, ambition— the very things you’d think wouldn’t be a problem on the spiritual path, but always are. At night, alone in the moonlit fields, with the grasses and crickets to keep you company, it is possible to reclaim the vision you had when you originally set out on that path. There, it is likewise easier to maintain it. Nature is the great teacher and always has been. Shakyamuni went to the jungle to find its teachings, Moses up the mountain, Jesus to the desert, and Bodhidharma and Muhammad to their caves. Sadly, we tend to forget this, and so it is important to have a practice that reminds us of it again.
Rebbe Nachman once said to his disciples, “Behold! I am taking you on a new path, which is really the old path—the ancient path traveled by our fathers of old.” One night I happened across this passage just as I was beginning to read “The Lotus Sutra.” One advantage of a twilit reading of the world’s different religious scriptures is a blurring of the distinction between them. The difference between Hasidic and Buddhist meditation, which seems so important by daylight, becomes irrelevant in the dead of the night with no reference point but the beating of a single human heart.
That night I was reading the chapter from “The Lotus Sutra” entitled “Emerging from the Earth.” In that chapter, the various bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who have gathered from all directions to hear the teachings of “The Lotus Sutra” vow to “diligently and earnestly protect, read, recite, copy, and offer alms” to that sutra during future ages after Shakyamuni is gone from this world. Unexpectedly, however, Shakyamuni tells them that this is completely unnecessary. There are already innumerable bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who are in charge of preaching and protecting the sutra on its journey into the deep future. According to “The Lotus,” when the Buddha had spoken these words, the earth “split open, and out of it emerged at the same instant immeasurable thousands, ten thousands, millions of bodhisattvas and mahasattvas.”
Like most contemporary Buddhists, I had always interpreted these bodhisattvas of the earth as ordinary laypeople. According to the historical logic of the Mahayana teachings, Buddhism was destined to pass through three distinct phases following Shakyamuni’s death. During the first, the traditional teachings of Buddhism would remain in full force and effect and would therefore be able to enlighten those who embraced them. During the second, those teachings would become overinstitutionalized and would work only for a few resolute souls who could summon up the diligence necessary to recover them in their degraded state. By the third, they wouldn’t work at all, and it would be necessary for laypeople to reinvent them, since those monks and nuns who remained in that “Latter Day of the Dharma” would only serve as obstructions to an enlightened way of life.
The bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth in chapter fifteen of “The Lotus Sutra” represent these reinventors, who are really recoverers of an ancient way. Their path seems new, but only because the memory of the old path has been forgotten. Really, it is the same path that Rebbe Nachman talked about, the path that all of the world’s patriarchs and matriarchs have traveled of old. “The Lotus Sutra” spoke of that old path being lost and reclaimed over and over again on its journey through deep time. And as I read the sutra that night, I found myself wondering what its authors would have made of Charles Darwin and Louis and Mary Leakey and the countless “bodhisattvas” who had emerged when they’d first split open the earth, recovering the remains of our bygone ancestors, either by inferring their existence from current biology, as Darwin did, or by literally digging them up like the Leakeys. Together with their colleagues and successors, these pioneers of deep history had produced something one might call “The Evolution Sutra,” the message of which was, in essence, the same as that of “The Lotus”: The journey you are on is much, much longer than you thought. But to negotiate that longer journey required a wakefulness that was more in touch with our biology than our ideology. The “green” of Green Meditation didn’t designate a color that was visible by light.
The sutra’s creators would probably have told us that we had long been on the verge of recovering that deeper color of mind, and along with it a much longer path through time than we had ever imagined for ourselves before. Hadn’t the Mahayana sutras spoken of kalpas [endless eons] and other vast wildernesses of deep, green time? Did we really suppose that we were on a journey of only a few thousand years in duration, or a few hundred thousand? Green Meditation had been passed down not just from person to person on that journey, but from species to species. Our task now is to recover it again. That teaching is the price of admission to our future as a species—provided we want that future to be a deep one. The good news is that, according to “The Lotus,” at many other times and places throughout the vast darkness of the cosmos, that teaching has been lost and found before.
Clark Strand is a former Zen Buddhist monk. The author of “How To Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not,” he is the founder of the environmental blog WholeEarthGod.com.
1. Photograph Getty Images by Jon Shireman
2. Photograph Getty Images by Jon Shireman
3. Photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto “In Praise of Shadows,” 1998; black-and-white 8x10 inch transparencies, glass bases, glass rods, ruling pen tip, and wax candles
4. Photograph by Andrea Fella