Whole Terrain: Journal of Reflective Environmental Practice
Published July 2008
By Mae Lee Sun
At 5:20 a.m., an attendant walks through the Zen center, ringing a bell to wake up the day and the handful of sleepy students –already roused by the roosters-who chose to sleep on site. There was only thirty minutes to prepare for zazen, a practice in which we sit silent but attentive on our round black cushions meditating on koans (questions that can only be solved by circumventing logic) or following our breath for most of the day as a way to still our minds. Soon I am sitting with the rest of the students. The thick summer air in the room carries the foreign scent of the horse farm where the zendo is located. Despite the earthy immediacy of the smell, my mind is unable to get out of its own way to see life for what it is- that we, in essence, are the whole Universe. After fourteen years of practice, I am clearly still a beginner.
I had arrived travel weary from Tucson the afternoon before, having traveled on Interstate 25, which runs north-south through New Mexico from Las Cruces to Santa Fe. The road is also a mid-point between the spectacular Gila Cliff dwellings of the ancient Mogollon people and the White Sands Missile Range- one of the most active military weapons testing facilities in the U.S. Looking to entertain myself on route, I pulled over near Truth or Consequences, a real town named after the 1950s game show, to pluck a single, wild daisy from the hundreds growing in thick bunches out of seemingly lifeless soil along the edge of the road. Not having considered the daisy’s place in the world, I soon found myself covered in ants, after bringing the daisy into the car with me. They ran like mad throughout the inside of my Volkswagen, into the air vents and stereo and between the pages of the road atlas, marching across the steering column as if it were a bridge. As delightful and brilliant as they were, both the ants and the daisy had to go. I stopped the car and gently tossed them far enough off the shoulder so the oncoming traffic wouldn’t crush them. As a Buddhist practitioner in constant training, I was reminded how subtle self-centered actions can be. Had I not been so desirous I would have let the daisy be, allowing it to dissolve of its own accord.
Sitting quietly allows for the dropping away of old familiar structures, giving our self-centered thoughts ample space to eventually wear themselves out, just as the wind across the surface of a pond, when it ceases, reveals calm and depth. I am far from sustaining such underlying calm. Instead, I sit in the zendo obsessing over shopping lists, considered whether or not I should continue writing, and questioned my need to ‘be’ and ‘do’ more. Suddenly, an incessantly zippy fly caught between the screen and the glass of a half-opened window above me draws my attention into the present, away from the distraction of mental commentary. For the fly, freedom is only a few inches away, if it can find its exit through the gap, which it does, at just about the time we move from sitting to walking meditation. I rise, bow and join the others. Mindfully putting one foot in front of the other can lead us to appreciate the present moment, the basis on which a conscious, compassionate and ethical life is built. There’s something funny about reminding adults to do this. Yet, it is very effective in helping to focus the mind on the most trivial of every day actions, from picking wildflowers to purchasing a car. Without that kind of attention, we end up causing harm to others and ourselves, well intentioned or not.
Later in the day I purposefully picked another assortment of blooms, this time from the garden, as an offering for the three altars. I am referencing a well-worn book on Ikebana, a form of Japanese flower arranging, pulled from a dusty shelf in the art studio below the zendo. Late July is still a good time for sunflowers, penstemon and Mexican poppies, although I had learned by trial and error that the delicate blossoms of the latter don’t last long after cutting. I tried to lengthen their life by wrapping them gently in floral wire so they stood tall in their brace. But by the second round of walking meditation, the petals have fallen off, leaving only a thin, green stem, pointing unnaturally toward the ceiling. This tests my spiritual resolve for Ikebana arrangements traditionally symbolized heaven, earth and man in their composition and I didn’t know which of the three had just disintegrated, bringing ‘instant karma’ to bear on my actions.
Doing work at a Zen center is, well, the ultimate oxymoron. There’s nothing really to complain about but plenty to learn. On no reflection of my karma, or perhaps because of it, I am assigned to bathroom duty for two days in the main building where we sit, eat, and sleep. As I slosh the mop back and forth, removing chunks of manure, dirt and sticky substances carried inside from practitioners’ shoes, I hear the chirping of a small clutch of birds coming from the direction of the front door. The nest sits atop the light sconce on the exterior porch wall, and the mother is flying in and out, depositing bugs and worms into each of the fledglings’ mouths, making a sharp U-turn mid-flight when passersby come too close. We have a lot in common she and I, in setting down a path, completely exposing ourselves to the universe under sometimes terrifying conditions. In order to live, we have both chosen to move forward and engage the unexpected. As a human being, I feel I have a responsibility to look out for her welfare, which, when understood in Zen terms, eliminates the separation between us.
By the last evening of the retreat, the moon is full and high over the zendo, illuminating everything; the rugged beauty of the Sangre de Christo mountains; Bill, the resident canine, who moves like a shadow through the tall grass; the wooden posts of the corral where during the day, respectable brown horses had galloped in circles. The summer air smells sweet and fresh, a welcome reprieve brought by cooling rains. After the close of the evening meditation, I stand outside in the yard, watching ants as they move dirt and build, move dirt and build, line after line after line. I realize they march, day and night, near my feet in a continuous flow. Then the wind blows, and the grains of their most recent effort are scattered into oblivion, their production crumbled. But the ants, unaffected by change and happenstance, continue marching seamlessly across the groundless ground on which we all move.
Mae Lee Sun is an independent writer who has been studying and practicing Buddhism for over fifteen years. She holds a master’s degree in Buddhist studies from Naropa University and a certificate in permaculture design from the Sonoran Permaculture Guild. Mae Lee has authored numerous articles on topics ranging from Buddhism to women in business and green living. She makes her home in Tucson, Arizona with her Doberman pinscher Gretta and feels that everyday life and the spiritual path are one and the same.