We sat together the forest and I
Merging into silence
Until only the forest remained. – Li Po (8th century Chinese poet)
Come to a beautiful spot in nature. You can journey to a special isolated and beautiful spot or, if you are as fortunate as I am, there is a place at or near your home that fulfills the essential characteristics. Let it be somewhere that nature is bountiful and playful, yet mysterious and deep. Let it be a day of blue sky and white clouds, perhaps with a gentle breeze. Let it be a place where you can have solitude or at least relative solitude with only an occasional passer-by. Let it be a place with trees where the breeze is caressing and playing the leaves and branches of the trees as if they are harps. Let it be a place where there are birds singing, maybe crows cawing, maybe squirrels scampering through the trees. Flowers, ferns, moss or interesting stones, fallen branches or logs will enhance the magic of the place. Perhaps it will be a place with a brook flowing and singing, or a waterfall, a small waterfall that does not overwhelm the other sounds, but rather is an instrument in the orchestra. – Or – This “forest” may be looking out from your porch or deck, or a place in your yard. It might even be inside, in a room looking out a window, or even in a room with plants and pictures, or whatever. What is important is that this “forest” be a place of solitude and comfort to you.
Sit. Feel your own breathing and body sensations. Bring your full attention into this moment sitting in your “forest.” Look with soft and loving eyes. Listen with keen and appreciative ears. Feel with your whole being. Feel with your soul. Breathe so deeply into this moment that you realize that breath is Life, and you share in Life with all that is breathing around you. You breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, as does every creature. The plants and trees around you breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We breathe together making Life. This air about us is the medium for Life; it connects us in Life. We are within the perfect balance and harmony that is the Universe at a dimension larger than our personal likes and dislikes, good fortune and misfortune. This is refuge. This is home.
Eckhart Tolle answers the great Zen question, “Who are we?” by replying, “the space of the moment arising in awareness.” Allan Watts answers the same question, “The Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view.” And elsewhere you may encounter, “the Universe having a human experience.” We are the “forest.” We are consciousness entering into an intersection of space and time through the biological technology that is a human-being.
We are an organism evolved by the Universe over 14 billion years to have eyes and ears and senses and a nervous system and the most complex organization of matter in the known Universe that is the human brain generating an experience in consciousness called mind. We actually have the remarkable ability to sit and open our field of personal consciousness to be this moment, sharing with all that likewise is arising in the space of this moment. Where? in Eternity, of course – and – right where we are sitting, where Eternity is entering into the particular.
Our biology with its sense organs creates perceptions that create the experience of mind, that creates the idea of a separate self, yet we are never not the arising moment and all it contains. How could we not be? How could we not be this experience shared with all that co-arises with us? Yet because we have never been culturally affirmed to be this inclusive consciousness, this perspective eludes us. Our culture only affirms the idea of our being a separate self with all its worries and insecurities. We have lost touch with what is primary, with what is real beneath what we believe to be real. All around us, within and through us is the “space of the moment,” the energy of consciousness, which like the air, connects and brings forth the space of Life “arising in awareness” shared with all that is likewise arising.
Ancients and mystics of all generations have known that a doorway into the mystical, into a deeper level of what is real, is through the senses, through directing finely focused attention into both the particulars and the vastness of the moment. An ancient Zen story tells of a very eager but over-intellectualizing student asking the Zen teacher to advise as to how to enter into Zen. The old sage directed the student to the very distant sound of a stream, saying, “Listen, listen.” At first the student had a difficult time being sufficiently still and quiet, but with a little breath consciousness and centering, was able at last to hear the faintest sound of a stream. The teacher then assured, “You can enter into Zen from there.” And when Zen Master Ikkyu was asked, “What is Zen?” He answered, “Attention.” When asked to elaborate, he reiterated, “Attention, Attention, Attention.”
What is Zen? Zen is Life. What are we? We are usually distracted blurs off in our neurotic minds forgetting that we too are Life. This is why we need Zen. The path of Zen is to get us out of our neurotic minds and back into Life, and for this, we need to bring our attention fully into Life. We need to bring our full attention, utilizing our senses, into the moment. We need to realize the immediacy and the vastness, the multidimensionality and the boundarylessness of “Here and Now.” This moment. Attention! Not anxious and darting attention, but a courageous and curious attention, the attention of a mystic looking into the deepest secrets of Life. Stillness looking into stillness, yet the stillness is flowing with secrets and meaning. As Li Po so poignantly expressed, it is to merge into silence with the forest until only the forest remains. This means entering through the gateway of the physical senses into another neglected sense, the sense of intuition, the silent under-field of intelligent and all-connecting consciousness that is what is called to when the Zen master points us to our original mind. This is what it is to enter into Zen.
Yet we do not live isolated in a natural forest. We have responsibilities and relationships. We live in houses with yards in communities in towns, maybe in a city. We live surrounded by artificial structures and people hurrying about fulfilling their roles within a society. A modern Zen addresses this as the forest and the mountain stream. An ancient Zen sage when asked “What is Zen?” replied, “Everyday life.” Only now everyday life is not 8th century China or 10th century Japan, it is 21st century America. Zen is still Zen.
Now let us return to our idyllic setting and query as to why this setting facilitated an experience we might call transcendental in that it transcended our usual way of experiencing ourself in the world. Whereas in our day-to-day life the boundary of “me” and “other” is pretty well fixed and strong, when in that magical setting, the boundaries softened considerably, perhaps as in Li Po’s poem, dissolving completely. How did that happen? Was it the trees that made it happen, or the breeze, or the brook, or the birds? Upon consideration we have to realize that no, these elements could not have been the source of the transcendent experience, only the stimulus. We are our own source in infinite connection with Nature and all Existence. How could we not be? The forest in its overwhelming beauty only allowed our egoic mind to relax enough for us to let down the barrier of our conditioned way of living through thinking. And there we were, our senses wide open, the forest that contained a human being along with the trees, the ferns, the birds, the moss and fallen logs.
To live a contemporary Zen, we show up in the world, the world as-it-is, now not an idyllic mountain forest, but the forest of our lives, living, feeling, seeing, listening into the particulars and the vastness, the multidimensionality and the boundarylessness, our senses wide open and receptive. We don’t think about it. Not yet. We let the silence, the stillness of “attention,” open us into an understanding deeper than thought. We allow the space for “knowing” to arise out of not-knowing, just as Li Po knew the forest. We are Life experiencing and knowing Life. After a measure of sitting in the knowing, now we can think. We can think deep and clear, searching for words that approximate what we know and strategies for actualizing what we know. And now we can act. We can act as Nature acts. Alan Watts said that to live in Zen is to be as unaffectedly human as a tree is unaffectedly a tree. To live everyday life as a very identifiable “me” while simultaneously being the mysterious Zen “nobody,” remaining merged in the silence with “the forest,” is to live Zen.
This is the mystical realm of Zen, and the doorway is through the senses and the senses are right where we are, not wandering off to other places and times as does the mind. Here – right where we are – in the particular and the vastness. What is the particular? It is looking deeper and deeper into the detail and seeing how all the detail fits together into something larger that fits into something larger and something still larger. Deeper and larger, realizing “here” is just a point in the unfolding of the Everything, down into the subatomic and out into the Cosmos. Here we sit. When we truly can see ourselves and all “things” as they actually are, both in our/ itself and in our/its endless relationships, we have arrived at the doorway of Zen. And where is that? Where else could it be other than Here. Here is where we and all the secrets of the Universe come together. Where else could it be? Ah…… This is Zen.