On August 2nd in the early afternoon, we were gathered in the meadow on my land in Mendocino singing “Happy Birthday” to my daughter, Maitreya. She had just turned 12. As the cake was being sliced, one of the children in attendance spoke up: “Is that fog?”
I took one glance into our ancient redwood forest and broke into a run. “That’s smoke!” I cried out. “We’ve got a fire!” Drawing closer, I saw the interior of one of the towering old trees, already hollowed out by a long-ago conflagration, blazing. Whipping my phone from my back pocket and calling 911, I raced over to the neighbors and banged on their door crying out, “Fire!”, and then plunged down into the woods. By the time I got there, the flames were ascending the interior of the tree like a snake and were aggressively climbing upwards. Our whole forest was threatened. Our whole neighborhood was threatened.
Through my daze of adrenalin, I tried to do my bit in rallying our response, but garden hoses were useless. It was only when our friends from the local volunteer fire department pulled up in their 4,000-gallon tanker that the fire could be extinguished.
We were lucky that day. There was no wind to spread the fire, we caught sight of the smoke in time, and the fire department was swift in their response, but I was in an adrenalin haze for a couple of days afterward. Our forest is our life – six acres of redwood trees, some of whom were already sailing aloft when the stones of the Norman cathedrals were being laid in England. Without them, how would I live?
Beneath our land runs a stream, an underground watercourse that feeds these soaring pillars and keeps our woods emerald-green, even in the heart of summer. As I watch the water levels (I can literally gaze down into our well) drop inch by inch during this drought, I wonder if we’ll make it through. I look up at the sky every day. Check the weather report. We’ve ordered huge capacity water tanks and are preparing to drill far deeper than the mere 30 feet of our present well.
Some days I’m seized by a low-grade panic. What happens to us, to our forest, if the rain ceases to come?
Stalking just over the horizon are war and disease, refugees and the homeless. Economic, social, and ecological systems evidence their slow-motion collapse. Dictatorship looms on the Right, and the Left becomes progressively fanatical and silly.
What to do? Having grown up on the streets with no family, one of my primary motivations in moving to this remote area of the coast was to provide a safe haven for my daughter, a “paradise” in its old Indo-European meaning of a “walled garden or fortification.” Indeed, the name of the land when we purchased it was already “Saranam.” “Refuge” in Pali, the language of safety in the Buddhist tradition.
Yet the world’s on fire everywhere.
Nowadays, I find my practice of zazen and ceremonial work with plant medicine revolving even more around the Four Limitless Vows. Our vows to carry over all beings, overcome all obstacles, master all good paths, and follow through on awakening all distill down, for me, to my commitment to stay radically open to change – to move in the most fluid, adaptive way I can for the sake of my daughter’s, and all being’s, future.
And yet between myself and that hopeful grace all too often lies a heavy veil of fear, grief, anger, depression, and fatigue. At such times, my left brain will rear its ugly head and my thinking lose its nuance and flexibility. Instead of perceiving the richness and hope that lies in the next inch of ground to be covered, I seem to get caught up in eschatological visions, as if I were already a victim of the Anthropocene extinction.
This is when I go to ground. In recent decades, an important element in my practice has become my ceremonial work in the Native American Church and the vegetalista tradition of the Amazon rainforest. These shamanic traditions, although historically and culturally distinct from Buddhism, in my experience have deep affinities with Zen practice (and vice-versa). In fact, in ceremonies of ayahuasca I sing sutras – which my friends in the rainforest call “the icaros of the Buddha.” They love them!
Although this “animistic” way of prayer, which holds the entire cosmos as sentient, alive, responsive, and aware is not commonly held, at least explicitly, among Western Buddhists (my first teacher, Robert Aitken Roshi, was a secular Humanist in outlook), it is evidenced throughout our Buddhist texts, including the koans that we study. Mountain spirits come to visit, old teachers transform into foxes, etc.
For me, it is a fruitful way. Sitting in ceremony this weekend, I sang an icaro to the waters that I learned from my teacher Juan Flores, whose home sits alongside a wonder of the world: a boiling river that erupts from deep within the earth like an open vein. As I sang, I felt my connection with the waters of my own land, and reaching deep down I sang to them, loving them, calling them to burst forth.
Is this magical thinking? No, I don’t think so. Instead, I hold it as a part of my Bodhisattva Vows: to nurture the land as well as sink deeper wells, build catchment systems, and purchase huge water tanks. Indigenous peoples have been trying to teach us to sing to Creation for generations now. It’s part of that deep instinct of reciprocity that our Western society has lost and is, for me, the root cause of our ecological woes.
The Hopi have a prophecy stone that, for them, depicts the time of Great Purification. Upon it is seen a two-forked road. Those who follow the upper road are “two-hearted,” seek self-gratification, and treat the world as a commodity to be exploited: a dead, mechanical thing. One sees their bodies fragmenting and drifting off into space. On the lower road are those who are “single-hearted.” They remain whole, following a deity, a master of prayer, who plants corn with digging stick.
In my zazen and prayer, I have chosen to follow that way, to work towards a fusion of Western scientific understanding and the “forgetting of self in the act of becoming one with all things” that Yamada Koun Roshi described as the practice of Zen.
This practice sustains me as we inch forward into a radically destabilized world. And it is my only hope for my daughter’s future.
Written for the Ring of Bone Zendo newsletter
Robert Tindall, Mendocino, Turtle Island