I sometimes forget the miles Shakyamuni Buddha walked before sitting down under the bo tree, the seat of his enlightenment. Recently returning from a week of walking practice in the Clan Alpine Range of central Nevada, I’m vividly reminded of his long path.
In the middle of the night, it seems, I’m startled out of sleep by a long wail. There it is again . . . and again. I lie in my sleeping bag and wonder: railroad whistle, animal, bird or the trumpet of the Last Judgment? Then it comes back to me. This is the Mountains and Rivers backpack sesshin, and that’s the wakeup call. I stick my head out the tent. Starlight illumines stones and sagebrush and the surrounding hills. My companions are already up and meandering their ways toward the meditation circle. No time to lose. I dress, splash water on my face, and stumble after them. Putting down my cushion in the circle I scrooch knees into gravel, straighten the back, and pull my wooly hat over my ears. The bell sounds us into silence.
For sometime now, once or twice a year, for a week at a time, I’ve been walking the trails of California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming with my Zen sangha. We call these excursions Mountains and Rivers Sesshin, after the Mountains and Rivers Sutra of 13th-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen. Pioneered in North America by poet Gary Snyder, these “gatherings of the mind” bring the practices of Zen—sitting, walking, chanting, Dharma discussions and interviews, cooking and cleaning—out of the meditation hall and into the open.
Each spring and summer we get out our topographical maps, assemble provisions, pack gear, and head for the backcountry. On foot once again, we rediscover the Way as a literal trail of gravel and sand, dust and mud, pine needles and pumice. We remember that realization is not fixed but moves with every step.
Likewise we experience once more the particular nature of this Mountains and Rivers practice, not set down in a fixed and unvarying form, as temple practice sometimes seems to be, but evolving. Going over the ancient ground, we freely find new ways, trying what works, abandoning what doesn’t. Too much walking, too little sitting? We revise. Too much talking, not enough silence? We shut up. Too much silence, not enough communication? We speak up.
I’m warm enough as long as I’m sitting, but when we stand for walking meditation the morning chill slips through my layers of clothes to tender skin. I brace myself against the desert just outside this small circle of humans. Inevitably, though, in the rhythm of the morning meditation—sitting, walking, sitting, walking, sitting, walking, sitting—the imagined chasm between me and the cosmos closes, and I become almost comfortable.
It’s with reluctance, then, that midway through the meditation block I abandon the comfort of the meditation circle for an interview out there in the darkness with my Zen teacher. Ours is a koan practice, of trying to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical words of our Ch’an and Zen ancestors. This morning I’m particularly tangled in those words, and even though disinclined to face the cold and dark, I need help. As I sit in the waiting line, my confusion, the darkness and the cold fuse into one hard ball. Before long, though, I find myself settling into this shelterless place, too: after all, in the desert at this hour, where is there to go? By the time I hear the teacher’s summoning bell I’m warmed and ready. Candle lanterns light the way along a dry creekbed to an opening between a stunted tree and a large stone. I enter, bow, locate my man in the shadows, sit down across from him, and enter into the ancient give and take.
When we walk far enough we hike clear out of 20th-century North America into Central India, 500 B.C. Seeking the closest possible contact with the trail, we contact our dharma ancestors. Like us they diligently sought release from delusions separating the self and all things; like us they earnestly explored for dharma gates admitting them to reunion. Confronting delusions that seem inexhaustible and gates that seem impossibly narrow, we follow the trail they blazed. Gratefully. The ways of getting lost in this wild tract are countless.
At the end of our morning’s meditation, under a lightening sky, we say our bodhisattva vows, so brave and poignant in all this space: “Beings are numberless, I vow to enlighten them. . . .” We shuffle to the dining area, where the cooks have set out a pot of steaming water. I take my cup of tea up the hill to where the sun is just peeking over the horizon. If I have a favorite moment of the schedule, it’s this, this edge between night and day, stillness and movement, silence and speech.
Shakyamuni himself, of course, wasn’t alone in the forest. Without the help of hermits, the hospitality of villagers, and the guidance of the best teachers and religious traditions of his day, the palace-pampered prince would soon have perished in the jungle. From them he would have learned to avoid frostbite in the mountains and heatstroke in the desert, as well as to survive the mind’s extremes.
We drift back from our various edges to the breakfast circle. In lieu of the wooden clappers we use in the meditation hall at home, two stones struck together begin the meal chant. By the time food is in my bowl I’m salivating: plain oats at such a time are better than pancakes! The serving of seconds and another striking of stones signal the transition from silence to conversation. “Anybody else hear that hooting last night? . . . That must have been David thrashing around in his sleep again. . . . Nahh, that was a screech owl.” We’re all in this together.
After his enlightenment, Buddha, having mastered these overlapping crafts—the practical ones of safeguarding the body and the spiritual ones of cultivating the mind—walked the byways of India instructing his followers, as they in turn instructed theirs. Buddhist pioneers journeying to China, traversing the cliffs and fording the streams between the two cultures, would have required the accumulated wisdom of their Indian predecessors. Bodhidharma’s legendary “coming from the West” would not have happened without that early trailwork.
In China, Ch’an Buddhism established itself on the remotest peaks, requiring monks to travel on foot for months from one craggy teacher to another. Later yet, as Buddhism traveled to Japan, it cross-fertilized with the indigenous nature tradition of Shintoism, producing the Yamabushi, “those who linger in the mountains.” The 18th-century haiku poets, deeply influenced by Zen, made lengthy pilgrimages to temples and sites of natural beauty, leaving us such travel notes as Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Far North.
Our ancestors’ foot travel, slow but sure, eventually reached North America. In the 1950s “dharma bums” Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen climbed the mountains of the West and hermitted in fire lookouts. Poet Lew Welch shuttled back and forth from a backwoods shack to San Francisco streets, “letting it all come in,” the leaping deer of Idaho along with the down-and-out shoeshiners of Mission Street. With few experienced guides, practice forms or sangha available to them, these dharma forefathers sometimes paid dearly for their adventures. Welch, at age forty-six, walked into the mountains with a shotgun, leaving behind a suicide note. Kerouac came to an equally premature end in fame, drugs and alcohol.
Wash dishes, brush teeth, pack up gear, break camp. Voices, laughter. The first time out with these people I wondered if this was really a meditation retreat. Did high spirits have a place in the high mountains? Since then I’ve certainly found it a trick—an enlivening one to be sure—to walk the line between intensity and indulgence.
We reassemble at the blast of the conch for morning meeting. How are we doing—feet, backs, shoulders, hearts? Do we need to slow down, or can we push a little more? Though our able trail leaders know the route, from previous scouting and from educated readings of the topographical map, only we know ourselves. They advise us, rather than direct. This is a tribe, the tenderfoot among us as valued as the veteran.
Crisscrossing the planet and the mind for over two millennia, our predecessors have left us a topographical map of the Great Wilderness. That wilderness can be found even within the confines of a meditation hall. Protected by temple walls and roofs, we still encounter our uncultivated bodies and minds and the wild nature of things in general. We’re dealing with enough hazards without having to worry about giardia-tainted drinking water, tick-born Lyme’s Disease, and rattlesnakes.
Having become acquainted with the Great Wilderness inside the temple, we may at some point be moved to step into the Great Wilderness outside. Is one environment larger than another, one practice better than another? Truth is truth, practice, practice. And yet . . . and yet . . . as we squat to relieve ourselves on open ground, alert to the blistering reds and glossy greens of poison oak, something ancient awakens in us that simply doesn’t on a porcelain commode.
Trail meeting concluded, we turn to dharma. We hear from Dogen, who encourages us to forget what we think we know about mountains and walking: “Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.”
“Sounds good,” one of us comments. “How do we do it?” Our leader reviews the practice of mountains’ walking: “When walking, lower the eyes and unfocus,” he says. “No need to sightsee. No need to send your vision out to the woodpecker in the top of a tree, the flower by the side of the trail, the companion up ahead. Let the feet go their own way. They’ll find their own footing without the eyes. Walk like this, and the mountain flows through like river over stone.”
Enough said. We help each other hoist our packs. The bell sounds and we set out, very slowly. After a few minutes we break into the hiking stride we maintain until lunch. We’ve talked the talk. Now we walk the walk.
Just as in temple practice it would be folly to rank the range of activities that make up its total life, so, too, in Mountains and Rivers practice. It all hangs together: sitting on the ground, cooking over campfires, putting up and taking down tents, trail meetings, dharma talk, the walking itself. However, just as sitting meditation would be the heart of the temple experience, so walking meditation would be the heart of Mountains and Rivers.
Everyone in the group has a job: leading, following, purifying water, keeping time. Mine is lunch preparation. As the sun approaches high noon I hike out ahead, and by the time the group catches up I’ve set out cheese and crackers on a stone lunch table. How simple food can be! Do I really need the elaborate sandwiches I pack in my daily life lunchbox?
The further we walk, the more we tend to forget whose burden is whose, who carries too much or who too little, whose problem it is keeping up the pace and whose slowing down. Single file on the trail or fanning out cross-country, more and more we do so as an organism, less and less as individuals.
In the afternoon we again hike silently, another two or three hours. We don’t put in more than five to seven miles in a day, but where are we going, after all? The main thing is to give ourselves to the walking while still getting into camp early enough to set up tents; locate kitchen, dining area, meditation circle and interview space; and cook dinner. If there’s still time for stretching, conversation, wandering, swimming or bathing, that’s gravy.
The distinctions between us and our trail mates continue to blur. We feel ourselves in company with the haiku poets of Japan, the Ch’an monks of China, Bodhidharma coming from the West, and finally Shakyamuni himself. We walk more than just one mile in his shoes. We sense—through the touch of feet to the path, the ache in the shoulders, the in and out of the breath—what it took to bring him to the bo tree. We have in our own eyes the soft gaze by which he saw the morning star that provoked his enlightenment. “How wonderful!” indeed, we concur with him: “Buddhanature does pervade the whole universe!”
The conch calls us together, and again the bells and stones guide us through our meal. As in the morning, after the first serving of food there’s time for talk, but talk tapers down as we prepare for the evening block of meditation. When I put my cushion down tonight, it’s in a new place. Adapting itself to each new terrain, the sitting space is sometimes elliptical, sometimes ovoid, never a geometrically perfect circle.
After the day’s hike—movement lingering in my muscles, sun still radiating in my face, supper in my belly—I don’t feel as edgy as in the morning. Still, by the last sitting I’m ready for sweet sleep. As I hunker down in my bag, letting myself slip into the nighttime wilderness, the coyotes start up their ragged yipping.
“Buddhanature pervades the whole universe,” we say. No question that it pervades the meditation hall, the office building, the hospital, the school, the dinner table just as much as it pervades the mountains and rivers. But the whole universe of the hall, the building, the school, the table will still be confined to the extent that these environments are sheltered from cold and heat, buffered from stones and gravel, protected from bugs. Even the shelter of the bo tree diminishes the scope of the sky. I follow a Buddha who is endlessly walking, completely footloose.