Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tree Zen

I don't often find myself in agreement with The Zennist, but his current post strikes a chord for me. In particular, the first paragraph:

One of the dangers of over humanizing Zen, which is an attempt to locate truth in our human experiences, is that we may end up identifying our human experiences with truth. This may further lead us to the inescapable truth (a human truth) that our human life, at its most fundamental level, is meaningless (i.e., there is no ultimate reality). This means also that our human experience can have relative meaning but not final meaning. Stated otherwise, this is Protagorian relativism, that is, “Man is the measure of all things.”

Over the years, I have noticed how the non-human world is diminished in modern Zen. It often seems like merely a backdrop for human awakening, or reduced to a "place" - "nature" - where we humans "go" to let go of our worries and perhaps find some inspiration. Exploring the commonplace narratives of the human mind around the non-human world, including "nature as a resource" or nature as "brutish, nasty realm," just isn't on the plate. Beyond this, though, there's the duality at the core that seems almost threatening to consider. Namely, the human/non-human divide.

What if Zen Master Joshu's response in the old koan was mainly about pointing away from human-centric thinking? Let's go further than that. What if Joshu was demonstrating being so wide open that he and the tree could speak with each other, communicate their respective wisdoms across the relative body divide?

Many of us moderns balk at such irrational stuff. listening to trees. Talking with trees. Learning from trees not what we think they teach us, but something else entirely, something our minds can't conjure up. That kind of thing seems to be nothing more than "magical thinking," the stuff of our "ignorant" ancestors.

Well, I'll be honest. I think much of modern religion, including Zen and other Buddhist schools, is dependent upon a suppression of our direct kinship with the planet. No matter if we're speaking of gaining the keys to God's kingdom or those who can become enlightened, it's always humans on the top with everything else below - usually far, far below.

Now, on the one hand, given that we are humans, it's understandable that we would think we are the top dog. The smartest and most awakened. On the other hand, there are numerous examples throughout history, and even today, of cultures that reject such notions, cultures with spiritualities built fully on dynamic kinship, where something like having regular conversations with trees or bees is quite normal. And where a recognition of wisdom cuts across the human/non-human body divide.

The fact is that plants were here on earth before us. And many insect and animals were also here before us in some form or another. We're in so many ways the new kids on the block, and it shows. Who else would poison and destroy its own nest in order to acquire power, fame, and/or material items? Who else would be so foolish as to think they can outwit the entire planet, and even beyond?

What if the Zen koans are so "tough" for most of us precisely because they speak to experience beyond the human-centric trappings we've built around them?


Unknown said...

Yes, yes, yes. Al beings means tree beings, sky beings, water beings.

Mike Carter said...

Moving away from a human-centric viewpoint can be helpful. In particular that 'Nature' is somehow something we are not part of.

I don't think an anti-human stance is helpful. Many creatures self-limit because of their environmental impact - not just humans, We only notice because we doi it on a larger scale than termites, beavers or bison. It's not a uniquely human trait - other species self-correct by populations crashing. Humans may follow that path.

The mystical side is underrated - not everything can and should be cognized - some things are better 'mystical'.

I 'disagree' with your Koan spin but dammit I like the twist. To see a tree as sentient and equal is a more helpful take than saying "cute things with big eyes are sentient and plants/trees are not". I reaally like the idea that Joshu might have been saying. "Do you SEE the sentient being YOU dismiss as an oajk tree?"

Nathan said...

Mike, I wouldn't say that my approach here is "anti-human." It may sound so, but it's more about expanding awareness.

The problem with our environmental impact is that is threatens the whole works. We're the only species where that's the case. It may be that things just collapse and whatever happens after that happens. However, since we have the ability to self correct and reign in our impact to some degree, why not do so?

Mike Carter said...


What about Trees? They change the atmosphere, they grab large tracts of land. The falling leaves stop many other plants moving in as they cause a blackout every year. They soak up huge amounts of water from the ground. Trees can lay claim to having cause dramatic climate change - more so than us by a long shot.

"raising awareness" is one of those phrases that irks. "Expressing a view" would be more accurate. I'm not sure if you've noticed but humans are not very good at self-correcting. We've done OK on the Ozone layer but not so good on population growth or renewables. Windmills are not working, the science of solar suggests that even at 100% efficiency with 0 transmission losses we cannot ever attain sufficient surface area. We are a long way from needing a Dyson Sphere. Fracking and extraction efficiency gains will keep us going for a while.

Why not become a scientist and think up and implement some solutions to the problems you see? What's the most efficient way to convert sunlight into power - can chlorophyll help? For every 1000 people who are "raising awareness" there might be 0.001 people creating solutions.

Right now China is burning so much coal that most of the world's attempt to "tackle climate change" (formerly known as global warming) is utterly pointless. What would your solution be and how will you implement it?

Nathan said...

Mike, I find it interesting how posts like this almost always draw comments that basically say "stop bitching and do something." There's an implicit assumption that I am not "doing anything" in the world other than writing these posts, and also that every piece of writing must contain a possible solution.

Honestly, I have nothing else to say about it all. If you find what I've offered quite lacking, there are plenty of other bloggers out there to explore. Peace.

n. yeti said...

The Buddha always said all things come from mind. It is my view that human life, all beings, our thoughts and all phenomena (animate or inanimate) are manifestations of the buddha-dhatu (buddha nature or buddha principle). It could be said that phenomena are not ultimately real in that they are conditioned and dreamlike. But it can also be understood how all apparent reality percolates with the Dharmakaya. Thus for me it is no great leap outside buddha's teachings to see how trees, as forms of life, can be communed with or at very least fruitful objects of meditation. Under a tree or in a shaded grove has long been considered auspicious for meditation within the context of the Buddha Dharma, and it was under the bodhi tree that Guatama achieved unsurpassed awakening. Yet in my opinion we should also recall his temptation by Mara, the world of senses, fears, and desires, all things created or manifested, and not be deluded into thinking such awareness and ability to commune with a tree's energetic signature, which can be acquired (siddhis), is in any way the ultimate reality. So from how things look to me today, at least, such things are not at all outside the teachings, whereas strict rationalism probably is. To reify rational skepticism (almost as a religion itself) does not, in my view, constitute good and fruitful practice, neither does it cultivate the perfection of wisdom. I think at the heart of it (and I will now cut short this rather long winded and self indulgent commentary) is that human experience is but one tiny blip in the huge spectrum of awareness, and I think that's what old Joshu may have meant. If we see truth as a tree we can see it everywhere, even in a desert where once a great forest stood, choked out by human ignorance and irresponsible action.

Nathan said...

". I think at the heart of it (and I will now cut short this rather long winded and self indulgent commentary) is that human experience is but one tiny blip in the huge spectrum of awareness, and I think that's what old Joshu may have meant."

I think so too. Perhaps Joshu would also have put his shoes on his head at the sight of that desert.

n. yeti said...

Anyway if you don't hurry up and solve the world's problems as suggested in the comments above, you can be darn sure I'll send an angry letter demanding you return the mandatory dangerous harvests subscription fee.

Nathan said...

All Dangerous Harvests subscription fees are delusions :)

n. yeti said...

Just as well. I'm afraid my wallet is full of emptiness at the moment.