Swaying in the Sangha of Trees: The "Tree"-Quel

By Lenny Bass

For those of you who are ardent readers of The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, you will recall an article published a couple years back written by a mad man who talked with a tree while sitting in a hot tub outside a cabin built by his wife’s family in the shadows of the Alleghany Mountains in upstate New York.

Well, that mad man is back at it again. The gift of one week of solitude my wife and I afford to one another as our one and only holiday gift has come to pass, and once again I come to rest in this mystical spruce grove. With me are my mat and cushion, a stoic Buddha statue I haul along, and a plethora of pens and thickly stacked writing journals awaiting their inevitable debauchment. My purpose for coming here is just one: to further myself, somehow, on this quest of awakening that I began so long ago and that continues to haunt me all my days.

Last time, you may recall (or not, if you didn’t read the article), I conveyed a private but very much audible conversation I had with a spruce tree that hangs out just between the hot tub and the cabin’s front door. It pierces the night sky and sends wavy evergreen boughs every which way and, seemingly, has a very good brain, to boot. Now, of course, though sometimes I do endow myself with the occasional glass of Chardonnay while sitting in the tub, I know full well that the tree can’t speak. Therefore, I translate for it. It speaks in good, full sentences with the common grammatical syntax and punctuation marks all aligned correctly, easy enough to understand. Sometimes it even likes to speak with a slight Russian accent, but usually that’s when I know it’s time to cut off the Chardonnay. 

“Since the time of my last article, a tremendous tornado swept across this sixty-acre enclave.”

And, as well, I’ve found over the years, it doesn’t mince words.

For example, last time, under a moonlit sky, we discussed the unique dispositions we each found ourselves in, as well as the relative advantages and disadvantages inherent to each.

“When the storms come,” it told me, “you are at a distinct advantage. For you may enter one of your mobility carts [its term for my pick-up truck] and flee. I, on the other hand, have no choice in the matter. I must stay and face the storm.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Yet, fleeing may be the primary human disadvantage. It doesn’t promote tenacity or perseverance, both necessary traits in overcoming the so-called obstacles in our path.”

“True enough,” it responded.

And after a good deal of bantering back and forth, it finally admitted to me the following: “When the storms come,” it said, “we trees sway. This, of course, you can see for yourself. But, did you also know that through this swaying, the soil that cradles our roots is loosened and made more pliable? And with this pliability, our roots are allowed to flourish.“

“No,” I replied. “I did not know that.”

And then after a bit of reflection, I said back to it with great enthusiasm, “I should like to learn to sway in such a manner! Can you teach me how?”

To this, the tree had a hearty laugh. “You, sway? What, forever, for?”

I didn’t go into great detail with the tree, for I doubted it would understand. But, what I meant was this: All of us face, in some form or another, enormous challenges in the life we are given. More often than not, the sheer magnitude of these challenges make us want to “get into our mobility carts” and flee — whatever our version of that may be. For some, perhaps it is drugs. For others, it may be endless work. And, for others still, literally getting into those “mobility carts” and driving far, far away, to better climes, better jobs, better homes and gardens, becomes our answer.

It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps we would all be much better served if we simply started learning to sway a little bit more, like the trees do. This, I began to understand, was truly at the root of my meditation practice and a key ingredient, really, to whatever sort of “awakening” I believed might be ultimately pending. And ever since, upon my mat and cushion, ever so slightly as to be barely detectable to the naked eye, I do just that. I sway. When I told that to the tree, it just smiled and said, “Then surely your roots are growing!”

Well, that was a couple years ago, and now I am back to this quiet, rustic retreat sight to “sway” some more.

Since the time of my last article, a tremendous tornado swept across this sixty-acre enclave. Thankfully, it spared the cabin, as well as my pal, the stalwart spruce tree. But a hundred and fifty less fortunate brethren tree monks lay strewn across the land like a nasty game of pick-up sticks, some twisted and snapped in half, others taken whole from the taproot on up. Walking in to see it for the first time, my heart just shattered. Though most of the thousands of spruces planted here survived, still this was gross negligence of the highest order. I felt sickened and outraged all at once.

Still…what to say to my tree pal? I shuddered to think of our next conversation. I wanted to offer it a stiff glass of tree booze, whatever that might be, and ask it to please recount the sorry tale. To my amazement and surprise, it seemed quite nonplused by the whole ordeal — almost giddy, in fact — and infinitely bemused by the notion that I found it all to be so downright depressing.

“Oh, you mean the ‘lumber storm,’” it responded in a matter-of-fact style upon my inquiry into the matter. It had never heard of the word “tornado.”

I held back a chortle, thinking it sacrilege to find any humor in this whatsoever.

“Yeah,” it continued almost nonchalantly, “board footage for the masses, I guess…but a much better way to go than, say, with the thousand toothed monster. Don’t you think?”

By that, I knew it meant the chain saw. Everyone heats with wood out here, and there’s almost no time when a chainsaw isn’t grinding away somewhere.

“But, why?” I implored. “At least the ‘monster’ doesn’t leave twisted carnage in its wake!”

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“Oh, come, come now,” it responded, rather annoyed by my apparent inanity. “We talked about this already, didn’t we? With the monster, we don’t stand a chance, now do we? But a lumber storm? At least there are betting odds out there somewhere. And just think of the kind of swaying that those of us who made it went through. Can you imagine? Why, it was root paradise, I tell ya! My own roots were doing a high stepped fandango, dancing with sheer delight! Because of that storm, I’m working on the biggest girth ring I’ve produced in years! I bet other trees would say the same.”

“I was instantly recoiled by the way my own human perception — or lack thereof — had interpreted the tragedy before me as something cruel and unwelcomed. To the tree, of course, it was naught but a wild and wooly “growth hormone” — with a few sacrificial lambs left in its wake.”

“Girth ring?” I queried.

“Oh, you know…the distance, in circumference, that a tree grows in a year. You can see it as ring lines in a cross section of my trunk.”

“Sure, sure,” I said, totally astonished. I’d never thought of it in those terms before, but I had to admit it made sense. And, for a few brief seconds, all my sadness seemed to wash clean away. I kicked back in the tub, raised my glass high in the air and exclaimed, “To lumber storms, I guess…and happy roots!”

“Here, here,” it replied, relieved by my dissipating sadness.

We remained quiet a while, each of us pondering the other’s perception of the event that had taken place just six months prior. I was instantly recoiled by the way my own human perception — or lack thereof — had interpreted the tragedy before me as something cruel and unwelcomed. To the tree, of course, it was naught but a wild and wooly “growth hormone” — with a few sacrificial lambs left in its wake. This stark discrepancy suddenly brought up for me the Buddhist concept of “I don’t know mind.” For those unfamiliar, “I don’t know mind” is a kind of Buddhist permission slip, as it were, to the rare admission that we human beings really don’t know very much — about anything! I’ve found it, over the years, to be as disconcerting as it is liberating.

 

“You, who cannot sit still for more than thirty minutes at a stretch…do you really mean to question the insights of a being that has sat in one place for over fifty years solid?”

 At the same time, I couldn’t help but reflect on the “perpetrator” of all this misperception, the quintessential element of wind itself. On this wetland pond just outside the cabin door, it seems a renegade constant, blowing incessantly to one extreme or another. In winter, it cuts across the great lake, sixty miles due west, and impregnates the area with a seamless barrage of harrowing snow squalls, all carried lovingly in its wake. Seldom are the days when the bird feeder, tethered by a rope outside the cabin door, sits motionless.

I decided to broach the subject with the tree, to see what wisdom it might have.

“‘Course,” I said, continuing our conversation, “it seems like the wind is always blowing out here, to one degree or another.”

“Certainly,” it replied. And then it added, rather summarily, “Knocking down the mountain, it is.”

“The mountain?” I pondered, not quite understanding. “What mountain?”

“That mountain,” it responded, almost bending towards the Alleghanies as if to point them out to me.

I gazed out towards the Alleghany Mountains, now barely perceptible against the night sky save for the blinking red flash of a distant cell tower. They always looked just the same to me, dark and mysterious and unchanging.

“Well, that’s quite something,” I said after a while, “and how, pray tell, do we know this?”

We see it,” it replied, plainly.

“See it?” I queried. “Really, now? And just how is it that we presume to see such a phenomenon?”

Presume?” it shot back almost defiantly, catching me off guard. “You, who cannot sit still for more than thirty minutes at a stretch…do you really mean to question the insights of a being that has sat in one place for over fifty years solid?”

“No, no,“ I said, quickly recognizing its authority on the matter, “I wouldn’t…I couldn’t…it’s just that…”

“Against the fixed point of the night star,” it continued, glossing over me entirely, “the mountain has dropped at least half a girth ring since I’ve been here. Not huge, but noticeable…to one who witnesses things in fifty year increments, that is.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Could all this be true, what I was hearing and translating out loud? Or was I just making it all up as I went along? It made perfectly logical sense to me that against the fixed point of an unmoving object — say, the North Star — that one could chart the relative fluidity of other phenomena. But a mountain? Dropping half a “girth ring”? And how could it be so certain that the wind was responsible? Weren’t other explanations plausible? Humans, as well, cause erosion, don’t they? I decided to raise the topic with the tree.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll grant your assertion that the mountain is dropping. But how do you know that the wind is responsible? Maybe it’s rainwater, or human impact, or a thousand other plausible explanations.”

“Oh, it’s the wind,” it replied with complete confidence. “No doubt about it. For, can you name something more powerful than a gentle, persistent wind across the annals of time? No…you cannot. Lumber storms may knock down individual trees, in a radical display of power. But a gentle, persistent wind? Nothing — not even a mountain — can withstand that. One fine day, if your species happens to survive long enough, someone of your ilk will fix their gaze upon yon mountain, and all they will see is high-grassed prairie, far as the eye can see. Of this, you can mark my words.”

“Can you name something more powerful than a gentle, persistent wind across the annals of time? … Nothing — not even a mountain — can withstand that.”

 Again, I sat back in the tub, this time staring straight up to the heavens taking in what the tree had said. Something about it brought a strange, inexplicable sense of calm to me. Suddenly, it was as if this great weight lifted off my chest allowing me to breathe again, as if for the very first time since I’d gotten there. “A gentle, persistent wind will knock down a mountain,” I repeated over and over, as if it were a mantra.

And then, it hit me. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw this enormous mountain. And it was filled to the brim with all the ingredients of my own ego — my identity attachments, my habit energies, my false hopes and dreams, my illusions of grandeur. On and on it went, all packed tightly together in a solid clump of dense matter heaved high into the heavens, as far as the eye could see. And just what was it that I was trying to accomplish out there, during this extraordinary week of solitude? The answer was simple: take it all down, in one terrific “tornadic” fell swoop! One enormous meditative gust, and the mountain would crumble, just like that! What utter rubbish!

Not only that, but I realized that this had always been my strategy, all the years I’d been coming there. And then, of course, the pattern would be that I would return back home only to be knocked back down to earth in, like, thirty seconds flat. Some triggering event would plant itself like a land mine along the trenches of my householder life…and kablooie, the whole thing would blow up. And then, oh, how the self-loathing would start. The week was worthless and pointless and a waste of time. All the work done there was for naught, and this despicable wretch of a human would never approach something akin to awakening no matter how hard he tried!

But now, repeating this mantra over and over again in my head, it was as if I had twisted the kaleidoscope slightly and saw a whole new pattern emerge with fresh, clean eyes. Tornados do not take down mountains. And a one-week intensive meditation retreat does not an “enlightenment” produce. But…a gentle, persistent wind, working slowly, little by little, across vast expanses of time and space…not even a mountain can withstand this. And a meditation practice, done gently, patiently, with persistence across that same vast expanse of time and space? Maybe, just maybe, it might actually result in something akin to an awakening. The key, however, is to elongate the scope of expectation…to something just this side of forever.

This, however, is not something many of us want to hear. We want to resolve our issues quickly and get on with the business of inexorable happiness and delight without further adieu. There must be a shortcut, somewhere. Maybe this intensive retreat, or that. Maybe this enlightened guru with their litany of parlor tricks, or that new fangled esoteric approach. But, turns out, there is no shortcut through. And to think so only adds unnecessary suffering to what is a difficult road already. What a relief it was for me, then, to see my meditation practice as a gentle, persistent wind knocking down a mountain! That it was just as important to not overdo the practice as it was to keep it from falling into disarray. Somewhere in the middle, on this middle path, would be just about right.

I turned my attention back to the tree in order to express my gratitude for our little private exchange.

“Thank you,” I said to it. “You’ve helped me to understand something that I didn’t understand before.”

“Really?” it replied. “And what, pray tell, is that?”

I tried to think in terms the tree could fathom. Finally, I said, “I, too, may have dropped ‘half a girth ring’ since I arrived here. But, those high grassed prairies…they are still a long way off.”

To this, the tree just smiled. I thought perhaps it didn’t understand. But then it shot back, “Keep swaying, dear human…just keep swaying.”

And, somehow, I knew it did.

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Lenny Bass is a long time meditation practitioner with deep ties to the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor. He is considering starting a private meditation service for first time practitioners hoping to get started. He can be reached at basstoll@yahoo.com.


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By Lenny Bass

For those of you have read my previous essays about the on-going conversation I’ve been having with a Spruce Tree stationed in upstate New York near the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, I am inclined to further elaborate on some of the matters that were touched upon during these — how shall we call them — “episodes” of intra-species lucidity (others might be more inclined to call them “anthropomorphized psychosis”...to which I have little defense...)

Posted on January 1, 2014 .