The wildness at the edge of awareness
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.
Gary Thorp has been a Zen student since 1960. A former bookseller and jazz pianist, he is a full-time writer and lives with his wife in Marin County, California. His most recent book is Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature.
Image: European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pleagicus, William MacGillivray, 1832, watercolor on paper © The Natural History Museum, London.