Katy Butler finds her spiritual ground
When I was twenty-eight and working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, my roommate and I went on a camping trip in the Ventana wilderness inland from Big Sur. On a whim, we drove down a long dirt road to a hot springs resort deep in a knifelike canyon in the Santa Lucia mountains. The place turned out to be Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and by chance I ran into an old San Francisco friend who had become a resident there. He arranged a cabin where we could spend the night, and the next morning before dawn he led me to the zendo.
Two and a half hours later, I came out into an early morning light in a state of clarity I’d never before known. Something I had not known was still alive inside me had been listened to, and I had faith that it would someday find its voice. I spent the whole of the next summer there.
As we walked up and down the canyon to clean cabins, chop vegetables, light kerosene lamps, and sit in the airy wooden zendo, we were soaked in the natural world. Crickets, streams, silence, and the rising force of the surrounding mountains permeated everything we did. I still wonder if Buddhism would have grabbed me the way it did if I’d first encountered it in a city.
One morning in the zendo I saw a lizard crawling along the shoulder of a man’s black robe. Another evening in the zendo, we prostrated ourselves over and over in the Full Moon Ceremony, and I climbed a hillside afterward in the astonishingly bright light of the full moon.
In the library, I came across Dogen, who brought an invigorated form of Ch’an (Zen) from China to Japan in the thirteenth century. His work was dappled with natural images: the moon flooding the water with light; a water bird paddling and leaving no trace; a vegetable leaf transformed into the golden body of a Buddha; mountains flowing, mountains walking, mountains traveling on water. “The color of the mountains is Buddha’s body,” he wrote. “The sound of flowing water is his great speech.”
The Christian theology I’d been raised in had posited a hierarchical “great chain of being” with God on top, humans in the middle, and all other creatures and plants arrayed systematically below. Dogen suggested a radically democratic “flow of being” in which we humans could be instructed by the ten thousand interpenetrating and flowering things of the natural world. In Dogen’s view, each thing flowed without effort from form to form: from cloud to rain to stream to cloud and back again; from corpse to rot to compost to earth to flower. These were not metaphors for transience, reincarnation, no-self and interdependence, but manifestations of them.
“Walls and fences cannot instruct the grasses and trees to actualize spring,” Dogen wrote. “Yet they reveal the spiritual without intention, just by being what they are. So too with mountains, rivers, sun, moon, and stars.”
When the summer was over, I drove back to the city and started meditating each morning in a basement zendo near the freeway. I spent hours each day meeting deadlines on a computer under fluorescent lights downtown. Something wordless that had risen up in me in nature—a yearning for beauty and an ecstatic gratitude for life—had helped pull me back into religious life and into a new religion. Now I lost touch with it again. I saw no connection between the awe I’d felt in the mountains surrounding Tassajara and the chanting and bowing I did in an urban Buddha hall each morning.
Awe seemed out of place in my city practice and city life. A fellow student told me he saw Buddhism as a philosophy and a practice, not a religion. He couldn’t understand why we bowed at all. Like many of the people I knew who practiced within the Vipassana tradition, he wanted simply to count the breaths, sweep the body, examine the workings of the mind, and practice walking meditation. His strain of American Buddhism, growing within a secular, consumerist urban culture, seemed rationalized, almost denatured, spun clean in a centrifuge. I kept hiking and meditating, but saw only my meditation as a form of practice.
Like Christianity, Buddhism is one of the great abstract second-generation world religions. Its overarching principles are universal and portable, not bound to culture or place. But in place after place, both Christianity and Buddhism have been enriched by animism’s fertile, complicating stains. In Europe, Christian holy days were pegged to pagan festivals that brought a ragged joy into a religion flavored with self-denial; churches were built at the sites of wells and hills sacred to indigenous religions. Likewise, nature worship permeated Asian cultures before the Buddha was born.
Natural images abound in the early Buddhist sutras: Shakyamuni was born under a tree; he awakened on a cushion of buffalo grass in the light of the morning star; he touched the earth in response to the temptations of Mara; and he held up an Udambara flower to enlighten his disciple Ananda. He delighted over the beauty of the rice fields. He told his monks to meditate at the foot of trees. A decade ago, I went on a tour of Japanese temples as a travel writer for Vogue. Signs of Shinto nature worship were everywhere. In fields, folded white papers hung on shocks of rice to draw the attention of nature spirits. In the mountains, I walked under torii gates to a clearing in a cedar grove and found a small altar hung with red lanterns and guarded by two stone foxes. The trunks of cedars rose, as smooth as masts, far above my head, and then opened into a canopy of feathery branches. I was standing at the bottom of a hundred-foot-high column of filtered light. The shrine did not create the sacredness of the place, but simply drew attention to it.