After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.
This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.
One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.
In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken (Robert Baker Aitken Roshi) has a fascinating footnote in the middle of a discussion of the Three Pure Precepts (Renounce all evil; Practice all good; Save the many beings.) He writes:
In Mahayana wisdom, all beings are sentient, including stones and clouds, so “sentient beings” as an English translation of sattva is either tautological, or it is a limitation to those beings that in ordinary Western wisdom we would consider to have perception: humans, animals, and perhaps plants.
The third of the Three Pure Precepts, the first of the Four Great Vows (‘Though the many beings are numberless, I vow to save them’), and sutras recited in Japanese Zen Buddhist centers all use shujo, ‘the many beings,’ as the translation or equivalent of sattva. The use of the English word “sentient” is thus not faithful to Mahayana usage or meaning, and I propose that it be dropped. Otherwise we are leaving out stones and clouds and unicorns, not to mention our feelings, which come into being and then disappear.
I found this so heart-opening. I’d been accustomed to think of the bodhisattva vows as encompassing the bringing of all sentient beings to enlightenment, a truly daunting task of almost unimaginable scope. Then I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and was faced with “learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” Opening that far was a great challenge to my prior perceptions. I felt comforted to read that the importance I’d been placing on sentience was perhaps a translation issue more than a spiritual one. Once I’d come to think of the relationship between myself and everything else as Thay talks about it – through the lens of interbeing – then it really was harder and harder to distinguish on basis of sentience. As I’ve discussed before, as scientific understanding grows, lines really do blur in fascinating ways.
And so when I saw a tree by the Bay blooming in desperate circumstances, I thought of Aitken’s words and was able to respond to the tree as one of the many beings encompassed by the mindfulness trainings and the bodhisattva vows. I was touched to see how this unlikely living being managed to draw what it needed to live from a place that offered very little and in the process enriched the entire shoreline.
Our task, too, is to respond generously to others. We can take as our models not only Shakyamuni, the Hermit, and our other great Dharma ancestors, but also such humble beings as bushes and grasses. . . When the clover is cut, its roots die and release their nitrogen, and the soil is enriched. . . Clover does not think about responsibility, and neither did Shakyamuni. He simply arose from his seat and went looking for his friends. The clover simply puts down its roots, and puts up its leaves and flowers. . .
Clover is incapable of not nurturing. It can’t do anything but nurture. Shakyamuni is capable of not nurturing. With a poisonous thought, he is a poisonous person. With an enlightened thought, he is an enlightened person. With his great realization, he is unlikely to slip back into poisonous ways, but he could, for he is human.
Thus, Aitken says that our task is more challenging than that of the clover and the trees. Whereas they will naturally enrich their environment because nourishing is their fundamental nature, we have more choice in how we respond to life. Will we flourish and thrive despite hardships and challenges? Will we give up to despair? Will we turn against others in anger and bring more suffering into the world?
Aitken has a clear vision of what we must do. I am grateful for his willingness to pragmatically express his approach to improving ourselves and the world we live in, especially when it sometimes feels to me that many people no longer see the possibility of positive change:
We must save the world, but we can only save it by saving little pieces of it, each of us using his or her own small, partial ability. The task is clear, and very difficult. First we must set about changing our self-centered attitudes as individuals and search out our self-nature under the guidance of the good teacher. Next (the day after we being to practice, that is) we must set about applying our understanding in the world. This can be overtly a life of service, such as teaching or social work, and it can be service with no tag on it, parenting and working in a store. Finally (on the second day of practice), we need to put our heads and hearts together in synergistic energy to apply the Dharma as a sangha.
I am tired of hearing people say that the application of the teaching is an individual matter. This is the lazy position of someone who does not really take the Bodhisattva vows seriously. If we want to save all beings we can do it efficiently and effectively together, step by step, networking, Indra Networking.
Just like the trees along the shore.
fell down the side of the maple tree
like a tuft of fire
a wheel of fire
a love knot
out of control as they plunged through the air
pressed against each other
and I thought
how I meant to live a quiet life
how I meant to live a life of mildness and meditation
tapping the careful words against each other
and I thought-
as though I was suddenly spinning, like a bar of silver
as though I had shaken my arms and lo! they were wings-
of the Buddha
when he rose from his green garden
when he rose in his powerful ivory body
when he turned to the long dusty road without end
when he covered his hair with ribbons and the petals of flowers
when he opened his hands to the world.
– Mary Oliver