Born in the woods, enlightened in the woods,
In the woods he passed away.
Lord Buddha to his followers said,
“Choose to frequent the forest woods.”
The Buddha was clear enough about the best place for meditation practice: go alone into the forest and sit under a good tree. That formula had worked well for him, so several years ago I decided to try it.
The good tree was a white pine – actually, a whole grove of them in secluded woods. There I erected a room-size tent and commenced to live and practice for several months. After a lifelong love affair with New England’s forests, I knew that the time there would be good. But I was unprepared for the power of what ensued.
At first there were obstacles. Heavy spring rains lasted for weeks, bringing with them mildew and that dank chill that can’t be shaken. Black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, and no-see-ums swarmed at the screens and bit whenever I emerged. The heart generated restlessness, torpor, desire, and doubt.
In time, though, the skies cleared and so did my heart. Most days began at predawn, when I woke at the faint, first calls of birds far away in the valley to the east. In the next minute or two, a wave of sound from just-waking birds rolled toward me with the first light, passed over my head in the forest canopy, and rushed on into the west. And every day ended with the fluty, liquid warble of hermit thrushes, each one a soloist, who sang through the evening and into the dark.
The days themselves were spent sitting and walking in the green woods. Hour after hour I sat in hearing meditation: songs of birds in their infinite varieties, wind shooshing through needles, rattling in leaves, flapping fabric on the tent.
The Buddha was right about practice in the forest. Calm, expansion, and lightness came effortlessly. What was there in sunlight, moonlight, shower, or breeze to constrict or agitate a solitary heart? As the weeks ran on, happiness came first in fits, then deepened into a sure, stable joy. Ease and peace came with it, a deeper peace than I had known before.
But there was something more than joy and peace, wonderful as they are. I felt a deepening rightness, as if I now rested surely in the place where I belonged. The benign power of the forest opened itself to me and made me one of its own. That’s probably why I was free from much loneliness in those months of silence and solitude.
It was that year when nuthatches and chickadees ate from my hand the first time. Deer came to visit every night, once just after dark, again just before dawn. One time a porcupine bumped its nose into my foot before it knew I was there. It looked up without fear and shuffled on its way. My heart melted when I met its dumb, tranquil eyes.
Now and then on dark, warm nights, I braved the mosquitoes to stalk without flashlight deeper and still deeper into the forest and the night. That was alert awareness practice which brought keen joy. Intently my bare feet probed their way among rocks, roots, and fallen limbs. Through hearing, through tiny eddies of air that touched it, and through a kind of sixth sense, the unclothed body “felt” the mass of objects it could not see and moved quietly among them. The brush of ferns and branches in the dark felt good, like the caress of a mother acknowledging her kin.
The years that have followed that summer idyll have been challenging ones – plenty of stress, heartache, and sickness in the daily world. So now I’ve come back to sojourn again in these woods.
It is early June as I write. The tent is up. The meditation mat is down. Two brilliant pink lady’s slippers share this pine grove with me. Lilies-of-the-valley bloom, acres of them; though I cannot see them just now, I smell them all about me in the night. The single kerosene lamp is lit, making the tent glow like a big lantern in the woods. I wish, friends, that you could feel with me here the peace of this forest night. Hermit thrushes have ushered in the dark, and whippoorwills whistle around me their fearless cries.
Why have I returned? To practice loving-kindness and Vipassana, and to answer an old riddle. “What is Buddha?” an ancient student asked. “The oak tree in the garden!” the master shot back.
My Zen teacher chose shrewdly when he gave me that one. I haven’t solved it yet, but I think I’ve learned where to look.