The Way of Riding the Clouds

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The landscape and the language are the same. And we ourselves are landscape and the land.
~ Conrad Aiken “A Letter from Li Po”

 

For the second year in a row I participated in the Red Cedar Zen Community’s “Mountains and Rivers Retreat” on Mount Baker, which Red Cedar has been doing since 2000. This was the 19th time. Most years it is done as a multi-night backpacking pilgrimage to a large meadow below the azure glaciers of this hulking volcanic mountain. This year’s form was a day-hike of 12 hours and 17 miles round trip. We walked in silence, stopped and performed seven ritual ceremonies, chanted Dogen’s sansuikyo (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”), chanted Shitou’s “Merging of Difference and Unity” and exchanged water between the sea and the mountain. A pilgrimate of sorts and a “sutra-mapping” of the sansuikyo, where landscape, language and pilgrim come together, realizing unity.

Walking in silence through the deep conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest and into the seemingly esoteric words of Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master, my mind runs rampant. Thoughts like “what’s this plant” and “what the hell does Dogen mean here”, ebb, flow and mingle with mundane thoughts about home and home-life.

Dogen’s writings, particularly in the sansuikyo, encourage us to see the realization or enlightenment in daily acts, not only of body and speech but also of mind. Words matter, he seems to be saying, just don’t hold on to them too tightly. He shows us the deep truth in going beyond thought and logic but also in thought and logic.  To understand that what is happening right now, all our words, thoughts and actions, are an expression of completeness, is to see mountains and waters as expressing wholeness.

“Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”

The essay is divided into five parts, and we chant one section at a time at different ceremonial sites as we walk into and out of the mountains – an ancient hemlock, a headwater stream, a trickling waterfall, a mountain meadow, a rocky creek bed, and a bouldery prominence.

First stop is in decadent and quintessential northwest coniferous forest. Ancient, verdant, dripping with life. Our voices join together as we chant, raised to an ancient conifer whose bark is twisted and scarred by lightning. This ancient one’s top is broken and, with few branches with which to capture the sun’s energy, I am surprised that it is alive at all. But it is alive, erect and tall.

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The first part of the essay we read in front of this ancient and venerable teacher. Here Dogen quotes Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong, who said, “The green mountains are always walking …,” to which Dogen adds, “Mountains walking is just like humans walking…If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking.” 

Walking along the trail lost in thought, I wonder at the mountains’ walking, and my own. Do I doubt this walking? How can I doubt or not understand something that I have been doing for a very long time and that I do without apparent thought? How does this walking and the mountains’ constantly walking relate? How are they the same thing or are they? Perhaps if I wasn’t so distracted by thoughts, I would be able to see this mountains’ walking and understand my own? But perhaps the mountains too, get lost in thought, always walking, always changing.

“Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.”

Climbing farther and ascending deeper into the mountains, we pass through unlogged, old-growth forests of hemlock, cedar and fir. Some of these trees, feet in diameter, have been standing here for hundreds of years and are a couple hundred feet tall. Drapped in moss and lichen they seem to grow not up from the ground, but out from the atmosphere filling time and space. Deeper into silence, deeper into the forest, and deeper into Dogen we go, yet my mind wands away from the present, moment by moment.

We stop where the trail crosses the South Fork Nooksack River, downstream of where it flows out of Elbow Lake. Not only do we chant the Mountains and Waters Sutra, but we also engage in a water-changing ceremony and chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity,” written by Chinese Cha’n (Zen) teacher Shitou Xiqian in the 8th Century. As the Salish Sea merges with the Nooksack, our voices join together with the sound of flowing water, becoming one chant, one sutra.

“In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness. In the dark, there is light, but don’t see it as light.”

At this time and place I think of this as:

 “In water there is mountain, but don’t think water is mountain. In the mountain, there is water but don’t think mountain is water.”

Each is it’s own, and interpenetrates the other, completely.

Continuing our chanting of Dogen, the sutra shifts to a focus on water. Water is water, right, and we all know what it is. It is wet and flows downstream. In typical Dogen fashion, however, he flips this on its head to remind us that what we think of as water (or reality) isn’t really water. He implores us to study the moment when “water sees water.”

“Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor enlightened. When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it?”

What is this water that Dogen speaks of?  I begin to notice all the places where water flows in these mountains, trickling out everywhere – seeping out of tree roots and crevices and cascading down rocky streams. Does it only flow downwards or does it also flow sideways and upwards?

And where does all this water come from? Where is it going? Is there really an end and a beginning or is it simply an endless cycle of no-beginning and no-end? If this is so for water, surely it must be so for me as well.

Deepening our walking, deepening our mapping of this sutra, we traverse the edges of the South Fork Nooksack drainage. Cedars seem to flow down the mountainside, giant tree roots that cling like an eagle’s talons to the earth. The forest parts here and there to afford views of the South Fork Divide, Loomis Mountain and the Twin Sisters, hazy in the smoky air. We cross the divide at Bell Pass, a sweet little ponded-meadow and walk into the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed.

We reach our next ceremonial site, a dripping, lovely little cascade where moss blankets the rocks and ferns dance in tiny breaths of wind. We lay down our packs, take out our sutras and prepare again for ceremony. Like each one before, it begins with Bob setting up the “altar” with a candle, incense and the vials of water. We all then engage in the ancient Zen dance of ritual which includes offering, bowing, chanting and dedicating.  Here it is further complicated by the tricky and often slippery ground of the mountain world, but then again, isn’t our life always a bit tricky and often precarious too?

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“Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing?”

Our next stop is at Ridley Creek, close to our destination at Mazama Park, where we exchange water and again chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity.” We are high enough in the mountains that wildflowers blanket the creek-side. Lupines and daisys grace us with their color, bringing in bumblebees and butterflies. Suddenly there is a lot of life within this life.

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“If you don’t understand the way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?”

I have long strove to understand the world around me, which has led me to the pursuits of ecology, Zen Buddhism, and even backpacking. I love knowing what plants and animals are around me and how they interact, and why things are the way they are. However, this can also lead me into questioning everything which can be done in a judgmental way. “Why are you doing it that way,” I seem to catch myself all to often saying. So what is Dogen saying here? How are we to understand the way right before us? How are we to understand understanding? And what does this tell us about the path we are walking?

We have lunch and take rests at a place the Nooksack people called something like spelhpalhxen (“large, open berry picking place”, or something like that) and gaze up at where the icy top of the mountain usually is. We can just barely make out the glaciers on Mount Baker’s flanks through the hazy smoke, which if you didn’t know they were there you might not even notice. We engage in ceremony yet again, and continue our chanting of Dogen:

“When you take one view you see mountains flowing, and when you take another view, mountains are not flowing. One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing.”

Which is the truth, where does reality lie? Is Mount Baker really there or not? Does it have to be an either/or situation? Can it be both there and not-there, can we be both alive and dying too?

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We turn and head back down the trail. It has gotten late and we take an inventory of headlamps in case we need them. Our next stop is a steep, rocky and dry creek bed at the very top of the Middle Fork Nooksack watershed. Looking down the watershed, it feels as though we are at the very top of the world. The drainage winds down, sinuous and serene through forested mountains made hazy blue by smoke. It seems as though we can see to the sea and perhaps you can on clear days. A gorgeous view that draws me in. This could very well be the abode of sages and wise ones that Dogen writes about:

“You may think that in mountains many wise people and sages are assembled. But after entering the mountains, not a single person meets another.”

What is Dogen getting at here, I wonder as we continue on our journey? It was true that we have met very few people along the trail, and who knows if they were wise ones or sages, but still, didn’t we meet someone here? If no one else, then perhaps we meet ourselves here in the mountains, and come to a better understanding of our own walking, our own true nature. So how is it that we meet no one? Isn’t the point of this trip to meet someone, anybody? “Is anybody out there,” I want to yell into the void.

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The last stop on our pilgrimage is an outcrop of rocks high above the South Fork Nooksack, looking more or less directly at the Twin Sisters range. I remember this spot from last year and the astonishment I felt when I looked around and realized how many tree species were growing together here. It’s a place of mixing and mingling where wet-loving species like hemlock and Douglas-fir meet with mountain species like western white pine and mountain hemlock, drier species such as juniper and even Alaska yellow-cedar, with its characteristic draping foliage.  A remarkable spot and I feel a sense of something special here. No wonder this is one of our spots for ritual.

“Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people that love them. When mountains love…a virtuous sage or wise person enters the mountains…trees and rocks become abundant and birds and animals are inspired.”

I sling my pack back on and say hello to the juniper growing low over the rocky ground, touching its scaly-foliage before turning and heading down the trail. I think of my daughters and the mountains and the future of it all. How are we to best take care of our home and each other? What is this “entering the mountains”, and what does the “green mountains constantly walking” mean for us at this juncture of time and space? What does love have to do with any of it?

Love, ahh love, is the key to it all, I believe. But it is not the kind of love that is possessive, greedy, or shallow. It is a love that is simple and deep, selfless and freeing rather than controlling and limiting. It is a love that comes from the knowing that we are all connected, so what each one of us does matters.

“Free your minds and your ass will follow,” George Clinton once said, so we begin with freeing our minds which may be what Dogen is getting at with all of these words, after all. We let our minds flow freely, not resting (for too long) on anything, like the purplish copper butterfly we saw near Ridley Creek. It alighted on a white daisy for flying off again, fluttering in the mountain air. And we engage in and acknowledge relationship just as the butterfly did with the daisy. We pollinate the mountains and the mountains pollinate us.

“Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”

Both Dogen and the mountains are showing us the way to love, generously, and that what comes from this is abundance. When we are greedy we constrict the world and create limits, but when we give our lives and our love freely, the world opens up all around us. There is reciprocity and interpenetration. Actually this is already, always happening and we are simply called to see it. The green mountains are constantly walking, and the waters flow freely in all directions, and when we come to know this, we too can understand our own walking. And be set free, not from but into our very lives.

 

 

Don’t Forget

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“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”

~ William Wordsworth

 

A recent backpacking trip took me, yet again, to a magical and beautiful place. I usually go to the mountains to refresh my spirit, test my body, and to be enveloped in beauty and serenity. This trip was all of those things but the goal was to see if there was a certain rare and special little plant blooming. The alpine forget-me-not only grows in one locality in the entire state of Washington and we have the honor of that place being right in our back yard. Er, well a 6.5 mile hike in and a scramble up a boulder-strewn slope, but, hey, that is our backyard after all! This trip had the added bonus of being with folks as deeply interested and moved by the world around us, particularly natural history and ecology, as I am. The company was perfect, the conversations deep, and the observations astute. Not only did we find the little beauty (pictured below), we found a whole “mountain-side” (really just a mountain shoulder) colored by the most vibrant blue I have ever seen. Getting down on the earth with a hand-lens was all I needed to be struck with awe and care for this delightful planet.

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I then stood up and looked around, where mountains beyond mountains, snow-capped and rugged, filled the land. Both the micro and macro can inspire us to be better humans, to care for both the small and insignificant and the grand and jaw-dropping. This was just such a place to remember this but really any place, every place is sacred, if only we see it so.

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by David LaFever

To Burn or Not to Burn?

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The snow creaked under my footfalls, like walking on a world of styrofoam coffee cups. In the early morning light my long shadow spread across the frozen earth like a cloud over the sun and my hands hurt the moment I took my gloves off to adjust something on my camera. It was still, perfectly so, and must have been -15 or colder. I knew that I could not remain comfortable long in this cold Arctic air so I snapped a few photos and headed back into the school where we were staying and studying all week long.

I entered the warm and closed off world of the Nunamiut School, which felt like a completely different world than where I had just been outside. And it was. It felt strange to be inside the school for so much of our day – we slept in the school, we ate in the school, we played in the school and we even swam in the school (yes, many of these very remote Arctic schools have indoor swimming pools). My students and I were integrated into a 4/5th grade class at the school, where we had classes on local language and culture, science and the environment, and worked on practical projects with the local students. These projects related to environmental stewardship and resulting in the creation of trash art and reusable bags in order to reduce the amount of trash that the community creates. Currently, all of the trash, recycling and compost goes 2.5 miles up the only road out of town to the refuse site where it is burned.

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Refuse burning site.

It’s an interesting experience, being an all-knowing, all-powerful American, and seeing something that you think it appalling and then just realizing that you don’t have a clue what the right thing to do is. Yes, burning trash isn’t great and I certainly didn’t stand upwind of it but what else are they going to do with it? Recycle it, which would mean paying for it to be flown out? Make less of it, which worked really well when they were subsisting totally off the land (caribou, wolves, wolverines, bears, berries, fish and the like)? So much of their food is now flown in – prepackaged and highly processed which comes with all sorts of trash. Should they compost their food waste (which they actually do to some degree), but how do you do that on permanently frozen ground (permafrost) with an short and intense warm season?

Burning their trash actually may be the best thing to do and given the scale of their impact (especially compared with ours) in such a vast landscape, maybe it ain’t all that bad really.

I know, I know, I should be more environmental, but what are you gonna do.

Some of the other experiences that we had there are depicted below: cross-country skiing, visiting a local history museum, Inupiat language class, and visiting frozen Lake Eleanor. Each of these experiences deserved a blog post itself – they were deep and impactful. I don’t know if I will have the time to do so but will try.

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Visiting with an elder (Raymond) in the Nunamiut Cultural Museum. Shortly after this picture was taken I made him a cup of coffee. Hot coffee and conversation were the needs of the day.
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The amazing geometry of freezing water, cold air and cracks in the ice. Lake Eleanor was purported 7 feet thick.

 

Arctic Dreaming

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View of the Brooks Range, Alaska from a bush plane.

I really don’t know what to write or say about Alaska. Hell, I didn’t see Alaska, which is a land more vast than any I have ever seen. We saw a bit of Fairbanks, including some delicious Thai food, and then flew over fast stretches of boreal forest and frozen rivers, including the mighty Yukon. Then on through, not really over, but through the Brooks Range – a fortress of frigid mountains extending far beyond my imagination. I have never seen so much land frozen and seemingly lifeless. Narrow valleys and steep, snow-capped peaks and then suddenly we rounded a bend in the mountains and a wide valley opened up and there was our destination: Anaktuvuk Pass!

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The valley of Anaktuvuk Pass.

We landed and were greeted by half the village it seemed. Kids from the school, most on skis, waved and held banners welcoming us to their home. It was unlike any welcoming I have every experienced and likely ever will. It was cold when we got off the plane, but we didn’t feel it for the warmth of the people kept the chill at bay.

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Fourth/Fifth grade students from the Numumiut School greet us on the tarmac.

My first impression was one of overwhelming kindness – what a greeting! – and cold. A chilly zero degrees Fahrenheit or so greeted us but it was to get much, much colder in a few days when the wind howled and snow banners flew.

When I looked around, I saw the vastness of the place. I had never been in such a wide and wild valley before. The village of Anaktuvuk Pass (population 330 people or so) lies on the northern edge of the Brooks Range, where two rivers and two worlds meet. The John River flows south through the Brooks Range into the Yukon River drainage, whereas the Anaktuvuk River heads north to its meeting with the Colville River and on into the Arctic Ocean. A low, indiscernible rise in the valley separated these two mighty watersheds from one another. Small changes, to my eye at least, in this grand place indicated dramatic forces going on.

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Part of the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, AK and the Brooks Range beyond.

 

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Wide valleys dominate the Anaktuvuk Pass area of the Brooks Range.

written by David LaFever

Vast and Wide

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“Vast and wide”: beyond anything we can know or understand completely, yet including within it all that we know and understand. We don’t need to look past them (our lives) for some big metaphysical insights. If we could just actually be our lives rather than try to control them, maybe we could appreciate them.
~Norman Fischer

 

Next Monday I head to Alaska for the first time, which has long held an allure for me. The wildlife, the wilderness, the mountains and the sheer size. Vast and wide, undomesticated and wild, rugged and rough are words that describe the place and the people, at least in my mind. I will be traveling with five students, aged 9-12, and one other adult, a friend. We are heading to the Arctic, to a small community nestled on the north side of the Brooks Range, the great Arctic mountain range of the north. “Flying over all the ugly stuff,” so said a friend who grew up in Homer. Only an Alaskan would say that flying over so much vast space and beauty would be the “ugly stuff.”

We will stay in the Nanumiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass, where a great people and animal intertwine – the Nanumiut, a semi-nomadic tribe, and the migratory caribou. We head up there with adventurous spirits, open eyes and excited hearts for we know not what we will encounter nor what we will experience. How is the climate changing there? How is that affecting the caribou and other beings there and how does that all impact a people and a culture? These are some of the questions that we are taking with us.

Vast and wide is how I think it will be, if I let it be so and if my mind reflects that. Can I let it be beyond anything I have read about Alaska, beyond anything that I can know and conceptualize? Will I get sucked into trying to make some metaphysical conclusions or will I simply let be the lives of the people we will meet, the animals we may see, and the snow and cold and mountains that are every bit as alive as you and me?

As I sit here in the Valley I now call home, a place we have lived not even a year yet, I wonder about home and what it means to be “rich.” Barry Lopez pondered the same question in his book Arctic Dreams, which will be traveling with me to Alaska. He wrote:

 “What does it mean to grow rich? 

 Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a ‘fortune,’ which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north?

Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? 

Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?” 

My hope for my life is to cultivate an intimate knowledge of this place, this Valley, one that is vast and boundless. That my wealth may be marked in relationships, to both place and her inhabitants, in joy and love, peace and harmony, and in friendship and communion. I go to the Arctic to see what dreams I may not yet be able to imagine and to come back with an imagination more vast and wide than I knew was possible.

 

The Creek Flows Thick

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

It has been both cold and warm lately. I awoke this morning at 6:15 am and it was 15 degrees F outside, yet southern exposures are becoming snow-less. I hear red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese and see other signs of spring. Each day the angle of the sun increases and the bus is hit more directly by its warmth. At the same time, we’ve gotten new snow recently and I continue to enjoy the heck out of winter and especially skiing.

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

Some days ago I hit the trail behind our house and headed towards town before turning up a steep trail called Powers Plunge. It challenged my cardiovascular system and I felt like a turtle crawling up a steep bank. There were two climbs and I was tired and sweating after navigating the second and gentler of the two. From there I headed on towards town yet again, on a different trail this time, looping on around to head back home. All in all, I skied over 18 km (11 miles) in an hour and half or so. As I neared home, I crossed over Wolf Creek, pausing to gaze at its ice-bound beauty and I composed this short poem:

The creek flows thick
and solid with cold.
Over, under, around and through
Ice flowing in ways I cannot
imagine, in places I cannot
maneuver. Ice into ice,
water through water.
A ceaseless dance of change –
changing form, the formless,
the molecules remain the same.

 

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

by David LaFever

Privilege

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(From mid-February 2018)

Sitting, looking out a four-paned window at two rivers, the Methow and the Chewuch. Late winter sky – gray with brightness – and the sun coming through in a wheel of rays. Up valley a storm, dark and brooding. Snow clouds obscure Gardner Mountain, all the way down its shoulder.

I have been skiing a lot lately – all Nordic skiing on the largest groomed trail system in North America, right here in our valley. Today I skied to town from home, a little over 9 km (5.4 miles) in thirty minutes or so and immediately ran into friends. I love small towns, where everyone knows nearly everyone else. No anonymity here, but also a place where fame can turn to infamy if you aren’t careful. This means I must be responsible rather than reactive.

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Yesterday I skied with a couple of friends. We took off from the Gunn Ranch trailhead, contouring up the mountain-side and on into a forested nook to a couple of backcountry huts. Covered approximately 15 km (9-10 miles). Gorgeous, fun skiing with good people and a wonderful dog. Spectacular views of the North Cascades mountains under a bluebird sky.

Back a few weeks ago now, my friend John from Vancouver and I skied from Mazama to Winthrop, which is over 31 km or more than 19 miles on a groomed Nordic ski trails. John and I pushed ourselves and it took us 3 hours and 5 minutes. We arrived at the Winthrop trailhead, worn out and happy. I immediately started talking with some other folks and found out that they had just done the same thing. Cool, I thought. Then I found out they did it in the same amount of time as us, and noticed that they were much older than John and I. My ego deflated instantly. Bummer. Then I thought, “This means that I might be able to do this too when I am in my 60s or 70s.” Cool! All these vacillating thoughts occurred in an instant. Oh, how the ego-mind does go and take me with it!

I am very grateful for all this skiing and don’t want winter to end just yet. These ski trails along with alpine skiing of all kinds makes this such a wonderful place to live. And I feel both the need to take advantage of this, this being one of the reasons we choose to live here, and the guilt of being able to do something so unnecessary when so many are struggling to survive. I recognize the privilege that I have and carry around with me (the so-called “Invisible Knapsack”), which allows me to live a life that includes Nordic skiing several times a week in winter, and am appreciative of it. Sometimes I feel guilt associated with it, but more often I feel the responsibility that comes with it. How do I use this privilege? How grateful am I for what it allows? How much understanding of and respect for others do I engender?


by David LaFever