Transplanting a great tree – Moving between mythological time and lives in this world.
This morning I had a vivid dream, where I was visiting a couple about my age who had just moved into their new house in my town. The man was giving me a tour of his house, freshly painted, light and spacious, when we got to one very small, narrow room. He told me it was his writing room, and I could see a few crumpled pieces of paper scattered on the floor, the result no doubt of false starts here and there. He pointed out to me that from his room he could see a great tree outside that they had brought with them, and that it inspired him.
You know how it is in some dreams, things are quite ordinary, and then someone appears or something is said and you cross a threshold of sorts. The dream takes on a different character. I’ve had a few such dreams in my life, and this was the case here. I looked out his window and saw a great tree, massive, with a trunk that looked like it must have been at least twenty feet around. I saw that it was quite old, and that it had moss growing on it as well. I started to take in what he told me – that they had brought the tree with him from his last place.
He suggested we go outside and we did. I saw that the tree was beautiful, and flourishing, and that it could be enjoyed by the whole town, and so I asked him, How did you do that?…
When we reflect on the deeper dreams that we have, we can begin to sense what kinds of questions they are addressing. The last couple of weeks I’ve been in dialogue with a few friends, some of who are Buddhist teachers, on the subject of What makes Buddhism Buddhism? This is in the context of mindfulness being taught alone, and commercialization, and people earning a living from it, and Buddhism addressing such things as trauma, and social justice issues. There’s the risk, always, in repackaging teachings that something essential could be lost, and so asking, Yes, but is it Buddhism? is a perennial question, one we should all be asking ourselves if we want to bring this tradition to our culture and have it flourish here.
It’s the same as asking How do you transplant a great tree? Sometimes in dreams and visions, and on a mythological level, just being able to formulate the question is more productive than any answer we could get.
Imagine. Suppose there’s this great tree, healthy and thriving in your home town, and you wish to bring it with you to your new country and people. The first thing you would ask is, is such a thing even possible? and if it was possible, then you’d naturally ask, is it worth doing? And only after you answered yes to both of these would you begin, taking into account the life of the whole tree, from the very roots to its branches, flowers and fruit…
This is where we are now in bringing Buddhism to the West, and having it work for us here. Some of us have seen that this is a tradition that has successfully moved from one country and culture to another in the past, and has helped countless people, giving shelter and sustenance, as well as inspiration, so it is possible. We also see the great need for non dogmatic, and well developed teachings on ending suffering here. No one would have thought of taking on a great work such as this unless we saw the urgent need for it. It’s not at all a trivial matter, or something to be taken lightly.
Things to consider when moving a great tree:
When you think of a tree, the image that most likely will come to mind reaches from the ground to the top branches moving in the wind. If we shift our point of view though, and imagine for a moment what it is to think like a tree, so to speak, we will see things differently. A tree itself, through its roots, is in intimate contact with the ground and the nutriments and water in the soil, and through its branches it is in contact with the sunlight and oxygen interpenetrating its foliage. Because a tree doesn’t have a conceptual mind dividing it from the rest of life, it doesn’t think of itself as separate at all from these things. It is in holy communion with them, and it knows it thrives because of this interdependence…
Shakyamuni left his home at the age of 29, to find an answer to life’s suffering. What he had seen and been through up to that point gave rise to the motivation to search out the roots of the problems, that if aren’t addressed, result in endless hardship for ourselves and all others, being reborn and dying endlessly in different states of existence. He didn’t leave and forget what he had seen, but it became the basis for his search, and for his enlightenment at the age of 35, and for the all the teaching he did the rest of his life.
We have this soil here, and this is the climate we have, this is the history and the present strife, this confusion and sorrow: gun violence, violence against women, racism, and endless war; species loss and the desecration of our natural world, our addictions, and our isolation from one another. These are the conditions that are ripe for transplanting a tradition that heals down to the very roots of the problems. We don’t take a cutting – that would take too long to become established here. Instead, we would carry the whole tree, root, branch, flower and fruit…
Shantideva said, “All of the divisions of the teachings have been given for the sake of wisdom.” By wisdom, he is referring to the liberating teachings that go variously by such names as anatta, and emptiness, or shunyata, the Middle Way, the unconditioned, the deathless, non-fashioning, and the teachings on the nature of mind. Their meaning is that the self we grasp at is not who we are, and not who others are, and that there is a deeper nature to be known. This is the essential point, the defining characteristic of Buddhism. Leave the wisdom teachings out, and it’s like taking a branch that may be green for a while, but by itself it will not continue.
The attention we give to the new tree would be like the tender care we take with any new life we would see take hold and grow strong. We clear the ground outside in a major way, making space and time for it right in the center of our lives, and in our shared world. Then we’d tend to the roots, making sure they were firmly planted and well fed. Surely this whole moving the tree and caring for it is a work involving many people, most of who we will never meet, but some few who are our neighbors, those we have the pleasure of knowing, who are along side us now…
Coming across Buddhism for the first time can be like seeing a great tree from far off in the distance, getting closer, and then maybe taking home a cutting or a few flowers that have fallen from its branches. Asking, what is essential to Buddhism? is really trying to identify what we should focus on if we want it to take root and flourish in our lives and culture.
Yesterday, talking with my sister, I could narrow it down to just this: Buddhism is essentially about ending suffering. However much we expand on it after that is just elaboration, which are like branches and leaves, that have their place, surely. Traditions and lineages and their texts though can become profuse in their creative expression, and if we’re not careful all that can lead us away from rather than into the heart of the traditions themselves.
Here in America, we’re now making connections and applying Buddhism in all kinds of ways, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves: is that just psychology? or science? or, isn’t that just the philosophy and practice of engaged social action alone?
I recently heard a conversation where the wisdom aspect was summarily dismissed as spiritual bypassing in favor of focussing on creating a place where people felt safe and respected. This may be good psychology, or effective social strategy, but to me it could become something other than Buddhism by just that much. To set its vital element off to one side here could be like forgetting or neglecting the very roots of the tree.
Buddhism ultimately is not about making ourselves comfortable and well adjusted in samsara. It is about getting off that wheel entirely, by ending what they call the uncontrolled rebirth that arises out of confusion. We have to be careful in caring for each other and adapting to circumstances that we don’t reify the self, and reinforce our suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh called this, using Buddhist methods to not practice Buddhism.
Here’s the proposition: for the untrained person, the conceptual mind has been wrong about everything, from beginningless time, and we have two choices. We can either bring this understanding into our lives and our world, or we can ignore it, in which case samsara continues. This is the main point.
There is a venerable tradition in Buddhism of questioning whether what is being taught is the essence – see for example Zen, Bodhidharma and Hui Neng, and the vivifying debates in the Tibetan lineages. We need not fear or resist any of this. Historically, and to this present day, this is not criticism for its own sake, in fact, it’s about compassion, wanting and needing to get this right.
I was impressed in the dream that the great tree was outside, where it could be enjoyed by all. After all, the man I was visiting and his wife could have taken no more than a cutting, and put it in a pot in a corner of their house, but no, they brought the whole tree with them. This was done as a gift for us all…
Last night, before going to sleep, I read some teachings on the Great Perfection and Mahamudra, and a few writings on Buddhist wisdom teachings. I’ve been asking myself how these can be applied, and not seem so removed from where we are now. Along with the concerns my friends and I have about not losing the essence of Buddhism in its application these days, this questioning must have made for the creative tension I took into the realms of sleep and dream.
What I saw was that we are part of something greater than the work of just this moment alone. Sometimes we focus and only take care of what I call the two minute self, and neglect the five hundred year self. Even calling it the two minute self isn’t quite right either – our fleeting impulses are more even transitory than that – they are like fireflies, flickering on and off, and meanwhile there’s a great work going on outside.
This should put things in perspective. If we don’t see this much, we may waste precious time and energy, focussing instead on what is only incidental to our being here. Our lives do in fact have a deeper purpose…
To all my dear friends involved in studying, practicing, translating and teaching the Dharma, I want to say today what an honor and delight it is to be sharing this life with each and every one of you. From my heart, I thank you for your time and your skill, and for your patience, energy, labor, and love. Up above the high branches, our children sing, and their children join in.
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