Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Most writers scribble notes, where ever they may be at any given time, notes that may come in handy at a later date. They fill notebooks with jottings—colors, smells, sounds, quirky happenings. Notes are a rough guide to a writer’s observations and his identification with an emotion.

However, more often than not, a note that may have seemed a brilliant commentary when it was jotted down becomes totally baffling when read later. Here’ is an example from my own note pad, written hastily a couple of years ago:

“Felk the sorkins.”

Felk the sorkins? What does that mean? What is a sorkin? How do you felk one? Why?

Here’s another of my notes:

“Nature is natural; Religions are not.”

Now that seems rather sensible. It’s something I can wrap my mind around.

With that drawn-out preamble, I’d like to talk about nature and Zen.

When I say “Nature,” I mean the world of things not formed by human beings.

Flowers, trees, birds, stones, clouds.

Nature with a capital “N.”

Mother Nature.

An aside. The American Heritage Dictionary gives a curious definition for nature: “Humankind’s natural state as distinguished from the state of grace.”

There is a song titled State of Grace. There is also a TV series by that name, as well as a punk rock band.

What the state of grace is, I have no idea. It makes as much sense as Felk the sorkins.

Getting back to Nature, humans want to conquer Nature, to bend Nature. Humans bulldoze primeval forests to make way for factories. They wipe out animal habitats in order to feel safe. They level mountains so they don’t have to drive around them. Humans pollute rivers, lakes, the atmosphere, and outer space.

You get the idea.

Yeah, yeah, we know all this. What does it have to do with Zen?

D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism) suggested that Western people sometimes treat Nature as something “there” into which Man comes.

Sumie—black ink brush painting—is a favorite art form in Japan is. A Sumi picture seldom includes skyscrapers or trains or Hummers. Instead, most images are of the natural world. Birds, flowers, waterfalls, misty mountains. If any humans are painted, they are small, and subservient to Nature. In a sumi painting a human is not presented as master of all, but as a related part of the whole.

Poetry. One of the principles of classical haiku is that it be based on nature and include a hint of the season of the year.

Western haiku are far removed from Eastern haiku, but we won’t go into that.

Here’s a haiku by Buson:

That snail—
One long horn,
What’s on his mind?

The poet Basho said one should learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Granted that the ancient Japanese poets and painters lived in a more Natural world without cars or even central heating, they appreciated nature for what it was.

Nancy Wilson Ross, author of The World of Zen, wrote that brush painting focused on the Tao, the Way, the Order of Nature. To quote her:

“To the Westerner in search of the reintegration of man and nature there is an appeal far beyond the merely sentimental in the naturalism of Zen.”

An aside: One ancient teacher said Zen was like a mountain veiled in mist, and once the mist is penetrated, Zen is all solid rock.

The Christian Bible presents some gloomy words regarding Nature. Genesis 1: 28 says the following words were given to Adam and Eve:
“Fill the earth and subdue it; bear rule over the fishes of the sea; over the birds of the air and over every living, moving creature on earth.”

The Bible notwithstanding, mankind does not have to be in opposition to Nature.

D.T. Suzuki asks if this is the right way of thinking, this idea of domination. He says it’s a Western idea to treat nature as something unreasonable.

And Suzuki goes on to say that when man is in agreement with Nature, Nature will help man to understand himself.

As I hinted earlier, mountains are a recurring natural theme in Zen painting and in poetry. One ancient master said:

When I began to study Zen, mountains were mountains. When I thought I understood Zen, mountains were not mountains. When I really comprehended Zen, mountains were again mountains.

What does that mean?

It means when mountains, and Nature, are integrated into my being, and I am immersed in them, they are what they are and I am what I am.

I am a part of all that I have met.


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