RETURNING TO NATURE IN ZEN
We have themed our Spring and Fall retreats at Watershed simply as a “Return to Nature.” This, after attempting other approaches such as workshops and specific dharma focus. But the natural environment of Watershed is so rich that any such additional content seems superfluous. After all, Zen has a history of emphasizing the natural over the artificial. And there is nothing more natural than Nature.
However, Zen has also insisted that the works of man, and indeed the very presence of humankind in Nature is also natural. Master Dogen’s reference to “walls” in “Self-Fulfilling Samadhi (Jijuyu Zammai)” emphasizes this point:
Grass trees and lands which are embraced by this teaching together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable profound dharma. Grass trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings common people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this dharma for the sake of grass trees and walls.
So while Nature is continually expounding the dharma, and that dharma is what we go to listen to at Watershed, the walls of the zendo — there as well as those at Zonolite — “bring forth” the teaching. There is no dichotomy in Zen, only in our minds.
But returning to nature has another implicit meaning, which is returning to our Original Nature, or buddha-nature. So you might say that we return to Nature in order to give our mind a break from the environment of the city, with its hectic pace and compounded distractions. In doing so, recovering buddha mind may be easier.
We may want to consider what it means to be “natural,” all snide comments about “Mr. Natural” aside. From a Zen perspective, it is natural to be quiet, “the gift to be simple,” and normal to be contemplative. It is also natural to question our own reality, along with our personal opinions and beliefs about it.
When we look at the culture of America (and around the world) today, however, we see that much of the behavior of our fellow citizens, and particularly our leaders, does not conform to this kind of nature. If you have ever witnessed a flock of birds, or a forest canopy full of monkeys, you may remember that they may be peaceful and quiet, but when a threat appears, in the form of a predator, all hell breaks loose. The birds flee as one in one fell swoop, shrieking as they go, and the monkeys explode into a frenzy of chatter and calls, while scrambling for cover.
Similarly, we may interpret the hyper-activity and over-the-top volume and hysteria of our public discourse to be the symptoms of feeling under threat. As I am writing this, a pedestrian walked by wearing a teeshirt with the message, “Keep calm and party.” Much of the popularity of meditation today is likely a reaction to the ever-increasing anxiety level of living in a society whose institutions, such as the political establishment and news media, seem more and more to thrive on conflict, whether real or manufactured. So it is natural to want to escape to a party, or more quiet climes. And to seek refuge in the compassionate teachings of Buddhism.
As a designer by profession, one of the memes and methods I have adopted is to visualize information that may otherwise remain invisible, particularly in the graphic design media. Those familiar with my “semantic modeling” of the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism have seen examples of this, as in the “Internet of Dharma” poster below. (If you would like a poster-size print, please contact or visit ASZC.)
This kind of treatment of Zen’s foundational teachings creates a mnemonic to remember them by, much as the original teachings in India were enumerated. When available only in oral tradition form, i.e. as live chanting rather than written down, the six of this, eight of that, twelvefold chain, etc. serve as prods to memorization.
There are many examples of such “models” of Zen and Buddhist teachings in history, meant to act as aids to a Master’s students, in grasping the teachings as a whole, rather than as disparate, disconnected parts. But these constructions were never intended as anything more than guides. The map is not the territory, as we say today. Another salient quote from Dongshan’s “Precious Mirror Samadhi (Hokyo Zammai):
If you want to follow in the ancient tracks
Please observe the sages of the past
One on the verge of realizing the buddha way
Contemplated a tree for ten kalpas