I remember the first time I met Vietnamese Zen monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the early 1980s. Thich Nhat Hanh was traveling with a contingent from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, who, along with the San Francisco Zen Center, co-sponsored his first retreat for Western Buddhists at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, deep in the Ventana wilderness of central California. At the close of this retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh met with us at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, offering the gift of outdoor walking meditation.
We gathered around the massive coast live oak tree that guarded the meadow just outside the Green Gulch zendo. Speaking in a barely audible hush, Thich Nhat Hanh framed the dilemma he faced during his years of monastic training at the height of the Vietnam War. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries or leave the meditation hall and work to relieve suffering in the world? “We decided to do both,” he answered simply, encouraging us to do the same. Cultivate deep-rooted awareness in silent sitting practice, he urged us, then get up and walk mindfully into the heart of the world.
On that spring day, the entire sangha followed the slight, brown-robed monk in walking meditation down through farm fields of butter lettuce and bitter greens, out to the sea. We walked carefully, a little slower than usual, coordinating conscious breathing with our steps. On the in-breath, I noticed that I took four steps, on the out-breath, five. At first, I counted every step, but soon the rhythm of the present moment claimed me and I sank down into the flow and pace of the practice. “When we are able to take one step peacefully, we work for the cause of peace and happiness for all beings,” Thich Nhat Hanh reminded us.
I have practiced outdoor walking meditation from that day on. Periodically my path led to Plum Village in southwest France, where I continued to train with Thich Nhat Hanh. At Green Gulch Farm, where I lived and practiced with my family for twenty-five years, walking meditation offered a track of engagement that joined rigorous Zen training to the applied practice of farming and raising a family in the world.
In June of 1992, the landscape of my practice expanded with the Earth Summit, a United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dharma and ecology came together in full accord as His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressed the gathering. I followed the news of the proceedings of the Earth Summit as if studying a rare, unfolding Dharma text. Following his keynote address, His Holiness called on Buddhist practitioners of every lineage to realize our shared responsibility for the living earth—our only home—and to dedicate at least one day of silent practice to the well-being of the earth.
Taking up the request of the Dalai Lama, on the summer solstice of that same year, we at Green Gulch convened a silent walk for the earth. We began in the early afternoon of the solstice, gathering in the garden to set our intention for the walk. Many guests joined us, some carrying bright-eyed babies and baskets of flower petals, some with hand drums and high-pitched Tibetan bells.
We climbed the steep flanks of Coyote Ridge, our silent walking interspersed with guided meditations. On the crest of the ridge we oriented ourselves to the four cardinal directions. Adapting shared Dharma traditions, we turned to face the east, celebrating the mind of awakening. The Buddhist guardian of this realm is the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the embodiment of perfect wisdom. The season of the year and time of day celebrated is spring, the dawn of day and year. The element of the eastern direction is air, the breath of life. The representative color and totem animal of the east is pale gold light guarded by a wide-winged owl.
As we moved through the cardinal directions, we summoned the beings and qualities present in each realm. In the south, we celebrated Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of shining practice. Standing still in full summer, we imagined the warmth of high noon. The element of the southern realm is refiner’s fire, its color blood red, the guardian animal a snake molting its skin, reborn from ash and embers.
In the west, we turned to face the Pacific Ocean. The guardian of this realm is Ksitigarbha or Jizo Bodhisattva, the protector of children and travelers journeying in and out of life. The season celebrated is autumn, the evening of the year. The element of the west is bottomless water, the realm of feeling. The western color is indigo blue, the guardian animal a whale moving through the deeps.
In the northern direction we summoned Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Regarder of the Cries of the World. This northern realm is also associated with nirvana, the extinguishing of concepts. Facing the north, we stood in the winter season of blown-out night. The element of the north is dark earth, the color of wet moss. The guardian animal is a great hibernating bear seeking shelter in damp bungalows below the ground.
To close, we turned to face each other and the empty center of our circle. Standing there, we allowed the silence of the season to ground and reclaim us before proceeding in walking meditation along the spine of the coastal ridge.
In silence and ceremony we paused three more times, once overlooking the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising bronze-red out of the summer coastal fog enveloping San Francisco. There we paid tribute to the wild and settled nature of the cities of the world with citizen representatives in our midst hailing from Barcelona and Birmingham, Modesto and Mumbai. As we descended the ridge, we paused to recite the Heart Sutra on a rocky bluff jutting out over the sea. Salt spray from the surly churn blew back over us as we chanted the sutra of form and emptiness.
We arrived back on the floor of the Green Gulch valley five hours after beginning our walking meditation. I noticed that our ranks had thinned considerably. It had been a very long day. At ground level, we sat down at the edge of the fields in the newly cultivated soil of summer. A thermos of hot tea materialized before dusk along with solstice cookies. We toasted the resilient earth without saying a word.
Over the years, we have continued to offer meditation and ceremony that connects Dharma and ecology. Mindfulness practice must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there is acting. A few months ago, about fifty of us ascended Mt. Tamalpais before daybreak, navigating the full darkness of winter solstice with mindful steps. I imagined Thich Nhat Hanh walking and sitting next to us in the frosty dawn before sunrise.
This summer solstice, there will be a second Earth Summit convened in Brazil, “Rio + 20.” In the short span of two violent decades since the original summit, the earth has been profoundly altered by human behavior. Some of us will gather in late June of this year at Tassajara to walk a landscape of radical change. Wherever you find yourself on June 21, 2012, please join us. Slow down and set your intention, fresh and raw. Step onto the living earth with courage and conviction. Find your bearings in the cardinal directions, then let go and stand on unmarked terrain.