Death has been much on my mind and the mind of others around me lately. The actual death of a friend, the continued wars and destruction that we are engaged in throughout the world (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on and on), and the planetary decline/collapse of our biosphere that we are both cause and at the mercy of.
I will share something from my journal that I wrote about death and life recently, from January 22, 2018
I see the birds first, some bald eagles perched in tall cottonwoods, and a quorum of ravens, black splotches of feathers against the pure white snow. I then notice the carcass, ribs poking up out of the pink snow. Two adult bald eagles and a dozen ravens or more are present also. One eagle has been there at the dinner plate for sometime now, as evidenced by the rose color of its head and neck feathers. The newcomer’s feather gleam white in the luminous morning light. Death begets life in a beginningless and endless way.
We are usually disgusted by death and abhor it, although fascinated by its seeming finality and lost in our inability to comprehend it. But what if we looked at it differently, seeing it as a Great Mystery and the great gift that it is? The ravens and eagles understand the giving aspect of it, even if they don’t have the words, although I suspect the ravens know when a meal is nigh.
As I look around I see cottonwoods and pines that we once alive, but that are now among the standing dead, and the telltale signs of woodpeckers, pecking for a meal. Without the thing that we call death, there would be no woodpeckers, no eagles, no ravens and none of the beauty that these creatures offer to the world. Without the deer carcass, that some larger predator likely killed, what would these ravens and eagles eat, especially with so few salmon in our rivers?
We call it death, but when I look at it, I see life or the offering of a life at the least. The great gift that we can give at the end of our life, is our life. In this beginningless and endless place, do we simply fold back into the great cycle of life and death? Is there some other journey that we begin at that time? If we are honest with ourselves, we do not know, so we call it something to ease our worry a bit – the Great Mystery, if nothing else. Our lives too, are mysterious and in reality unknowable. We tell stories and those stories become this “I” and this “we” and both stand in for and create what we think of as “truth” and “reality.” But what is this really?
If death is death and life isn’t life, what is this? Just this….
A Jim Harrison poem comes to mind in which he decides to “swallow himself in ceaseless flow.” I like that description because it could be either life or death and what really is the difference? Here is the poem, titled “Cabin Poem”:
I’ve decided to make
up my mind
about nothing, to
assume the water
to finish my life
disguised as a creek,
an eddy, joining at
night the full,
sweet flow, to absorb
to swallow the heat
and cold, the moon
and the stars, to
in ceaseless flow.
One last glance at the scavengers and the carcass, and I head down the road in this glistening winter palace. I wonder at the world where lines are crossed and then recrossed and where distinctions are blurry at best. And I wonder at this species, which desperately and naturally makes distinctions, tells stories and tries to make sense of this senseless and sensuous world. Even things as seemingly solid and assured as life and death, upon closer inspection, ebb and flow, ceaselessly life the rivers and tides that I love so much. I become amazed at the possibility that lies before me, made possible only when I loosen my grip on categories, on my likes and dislikes.
As I continue on, I near the elementary school and downshift as I approach a stop sign. I pause a moment, taking in and letting go the wild winter scene, before turning right to head down river on East 20.
I sit in the glistening snow, sparkling in the first sunlight I can remember seeing in weeks. The warmth on my cheeks and hands, so comforting in the cold winter air, comes from so far away that it doesn’t seem possible. How could we be so perfectly situated from this everyday star? A bald eagle, wings outstretched, soars in tight circles, calls and alights in the top of a conifer as the last of its eerie echoes fade into the vastness of this place. I hear a hairy woodpecker, a nuthatch, and a raven, these friends of old from within the bare cottonwoods along the river. I hear the river too, singing its sweet song, fluid and serene. An ancient and endless voice.
As a raven’s voice croaks in the sunlight, I think about water and its importance in my life. It plays such a central part that I easily take it for granted – the food that I consume and all the products in my life, from wood to cotton to plastic, have their origin in water or close to it. As I sit in the snowy forest, I think about how much of my food is water. We are last weeks potatoes as Thoreau said, and potatoes are, amazingly, 99% water. If you have ever made latkes or potato pancakes, you will know that this is close to true.
I am water too, close to 70% and salty. Fresh and salt water mix and mingle in my body, mind and even my thoughts. I am a mass of walking, talking water. So too is the chickadee that calls from the nearby chokecherry, a bird that doubles its feathers each winter in order to stay warm and dry. I wonder how much water is in that little bird, in each of those thousands of feather. Water is life and it flows through us all, through it all.
The river teaches me this with each bursting bubble, the sound that we call the babbling of the river. The snow too, although it seems stationary, is always moving and will soon melt and flow into rivulets, percolate into the ground and will swell the river into torrent.
As I sit in this wintry place, I write a few haiku:
The river flows on
On and on in endless sound
Taking me with it.
I think, who am I?
The ceaseless flow of nature
White snow all around.
Black specks soar above
Snow sparkles in winter light.
I sit and listen.
The river, the rocks
Sit talking to each other
Late into the night.
I stand up, stretch my stiff body and look upward into the sound of ravens, circling and swirling above in thermal delight. There are thirty or so ravens and a couple of eagles, turning together in a great gyre of feathers, bones and water eddying in the vague winter sky.
A few weekends ago now I ran farther than I have ever run before and yet went no where at all. The days leading up to the race I questioned why I had signed up for it anyway, disliking the thought of running and the compulsion to do so. On the eve of the run, Kristin told me that she was proud of me for doing something challenging like this. It was sweet and yet it seemed to highlight in my mind how shallow and hollow I thought running a race like this really is. Its not like I was going out and doing something important or essential. I wouldn’t sign up next year, I thought, and would get back to just running and doing so joyfully.
The morning of the race, I awoke in the flat light of early dawn, making myself a cup of coffee and a couple of friend eggs. Birds were just waking up and the sun just cresting the ridge, when I left for Mazama where I would pick up a shuttle for the trail head where the race would begin. It was a cold morning and got all the more so as we climbed into the mountains. Rainy Pass trail head sits at over 4,000 feet and we all had to flap our arms and jump up and down in order to stay warm. Still my teeth chattered unbelievably.
The race began just in time before I froze in place and we were off mostly running single file on the Pacific Crest Trail heading northward. Up through mixed conifer trees for several miles, over small streams and into the burgeoning day. I started off slowly, not wanting to overexert myself early as I knew we had a 5 mile climb to the top of Cutthroat Pass at 6,800 feet or so. I soon picked up my pace and began passing runners when there was room enough to do so. As the day progressed, so too did my pace and as I crested the top, with its spectacular alpine vistas of snow-capped peaks, I felt exhilarated and strong. I hit the top and flew down the other side, which would be 7 miles of downhill running to the trailhead.
I ended up running faster than I thought I would or knew I could and was encouraged and uplifted by the other runners. Many were complimentary and encouraging as I passed on by and the comradery and community building aspect of the event were my favorite parts.
Ask me if I would do it again next year: before the race I would have said no but now days after the event and I think I would. One thing I learned about myself is that I don’t need the carrot of competition in order to run and I am not sure that I feel compelled to challenge myself in this way. I enjoy running for the simple act of running, especially through beautiful landscapes. For now that is enough and I am happy to be back to either running or not depending on the needs and vagaries of my day.
If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should full know the green mountains’ walking.
~Eihei Dogen (13th century Japan)
We stood in a circle, bowed to each other and at the sound of the wooden clappers, began walking into the mountains. Beginning in logged over, dog-hair thick conifer stands, we were soon striding through dripping and decadent old-growth forest. For 17 years the zen group out of Bellingham have been doing this pilgrimage into the mountains, into the mind of zen. We were also walking into the Sansuikyo or “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” a teaching given by Zen Master Eihei Dogen late in the night in the year 1240. It begins with the line “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way” and thus we began our ritual enactment of the ancient buddha way of mountains and rivers. In silence, we moved up the trail as one body, leaving no one behind, and just like the mountains there was stillness in our activity. Ascending some 1,500 feet over seven and a half miles in this way, we hiked through ancient temperate rainforest and up the slopes of a relatively young and still active stratovolcano.
Along the way, we stopped to honor sacred places, bowing and chanting a part of Dogen’s sansuikyo each time. The first stop was an old-growth western hemlock, miraculously still alive, that had a lightning scar spiraling down its gnarled trunk. Living and dying in this ancient place isn’t particularly distinct and I thought of Shitou’s teaching (the Sandokai or “Harmony of Difference and Sameness”) that things are “not one, not two”. Like the feet in walking its difficult to say which comes first and which comes after. Maybe living and dying, like before and after, are really in each other all along. They are not one, not two; not different but also not the same.
“Because green mountains are constantly walking, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not realize or understand it.”
Our second stop was for lunch, which we shared in silence, and I was struck with how well humans can communicate without saying a word. During this lunch I came to understand not only how distracting talking can be but also what a crutch it can be. Because we remained in silence, we each had to pay close attention to what was going on in order to serve others, in order to share what was available. If someone wanted the bag of crackers or the beef jerky, they couldn’t simply ask and get someone’s attention. In this realm of silence, attention needed to be freely given not raucously garnered. During our usual mode of talking and eating, we can sort of not pay attention because someone will get our attention when its needed. But in silence, we all had to remain firmly rooted in the moment, like the ancient hemlocks all around, in order to engage in the simple act of sharing food. It was beautiful, simple and profound.
After a few more hours of silent walking, we stopped at a babbling little waterfall, which gushed forth from the mountains, through the mountains and through us. This was our second ceremonial site and we continued to read Dogen’s teaching together as the waters poured forth from rock and rubble. It was beautiful to hear our voices mixing and mingling with one another and the waters cascading down the mountain.
“All waters appear at the foot of the (eastern) mountains. Accordingly, all mountains ride on clouds and walk in the sky. Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.”
In thick clouds, light rain (hard to tell the difference), we ascended to an open heather meadow which was to be our camp for two days. Exhausted we set up tents and our camp kitchen and hung our food bags before dropping off to heavy sleep. Ahh the exhausted sleep of mountain walking! We knew the 5:30am wake up bell would ring all too early.
And it did. Both mornings we woke up in this way. First the high sound of the morning bell and later the thud of wood on wood as we set up a makeshift han (the traditional way to call monks to at monasteries), which was struck for ten minutes calling us to meditation. The first morning we sat in the open air, using our sleeping pads for cushions and wrapping ourselves in our sleeping bags for warmth. These were our mountains seats and mountain robes.
The second morning we had set up the log lean-to as our zendo (meditation hall) which has served the group in years past. Both mornings we were visited by well-known camp robbers – gray jays – who startled us by flying shockingly close to our heads to find bits of leftover food to eat. Zazen or seated meditation was interspersed with kinhin or walking meditation which we did outdoors under the looming glaciers and peaks of Mount Baker (10,781 feet). Looking around, there was Mount Baker, Easton and Deming glaciers, Black Buttes, Cathedral Crag, Park Butte Lookout and to the west, the Twin Sisters Range with its own sets of glaciers. Mountains all around, dancing with their toes in all waters, whether frozen or flowing.
This day included an hour and half period of solo time, where each of us sat in a little nook of our own. We were instructed to meditate, write, read or sleep as needed but to no move around a whole lot. I was placed up a dry ravine where rocks cascaded down where water once flowed. I set up my mountain seat, wrapped myself in my mountain robe and just sat. Before leaving camp, I quickly grabbed water, first aid kit and “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” in a greedy way, thinking that I might want one of these things. I quickly discovered that I really didn’t need anything. I just sat, taking it all in and letting it all go like the breath. Nothing else to do, nothing extra needed.
“Keeping its own form, without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices in every place.”
In the afternoon, some of us went on an optional day hike up a trail that took us eastward over a ridge and then up to Park Butte Lookout (an old fire lookout that can be camped in – first come, first serve). As we ascended up the talus, rocky slope, we heard the high pitched whistle call of pikas (small mammals related to rabbits, who make haystacks in order to dry grass for winter), which we eventually spotted among the rocks and rubble. Once we crested the top, we were greeted with a most amazing view. To the north, Mount Baker and Easton glacier carving lateral moraines into the mountain; to the east, a long line of craggy peaks stretching from Canada seemingly to the end of the earth. This was the North Cascades in all its alpine glory – mountains upon mountains stretching as far as I could see. My heart soared and my feet nearly did too!
“Because mountains are high and broad, their way of riding the clouds always extends from the mountains; their wondrous power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”
Our last day, we awoke early again to the sound of the bell and the han calling us to meditation. After a couple of rounds of zazen and kinhin we ate a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and then set about to breaking down camp and packing up to leave. A clear day in the mountains with clouds coming and going on Mount Baker in a never-ending game of hide and seek. I reminded myself to remember that just because it is covered in clouds it doesn’t mean that shining, lovely Mount Baker is not there. We did another ceremony, this time facing the mountain itself before beginning our descent back to the trail head.
“The Buddha said, ‘All things are ultimately unbound. There is nowhere that they permanently reside.” Know that even though all things are unbound and not tied to anything, they abide in their own condition.”
We continued to flow downward as mountains walking, stopping frequently for short breaks especially for our knees. Again, as one body we moved and there was stillness and silence in our activity. We stopped twice more on the way down to perform our ceremonies and to recite the rest of the sansuikyo. The first stop was a rocky gulch, looking northwestward down a long, green drainage (Middle Fork Nooksack, I believe).
“Mountains have been the abode of great sages from the limitless past to the limitless present. Wise people and sages all have mountains as their inner chamber, as their body and mind. Because of wise people and sages, mountains are actualized.”
We trudged onward and downward, experiencing the mountains as walking, constantly walking. Lunch was had again in silence in a meadow at the top of a pass. After a needed rest, we continued down the trail to our next ceremony site, which was a rocky outcrop overlooking mountains beyond. As we chanted the final part of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” I looked around and noticed a strange assemblage of tree species. There were western hemlock, like all the forest around, but also Alaska yellow cedar, Douglas-fir, western white pine, subalpine or Pacific silver fir, and a creeping species of juniper. Wow, this was a place where species came together that are not normally found together. What a special place!
“There are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.”
My pace slowed as we neared the parking lot, which it usually does when I am coming down out of mountains. I am both excited to be home with my family and reticent to return to town. Such beauty and imagination was experienced in the mountains and waters and I wondered how I could cultivate that same sense in my everyday life. Could I see mountains in traffic, mountains in frustration, mountains in worry? Could I learn to see rivers in anger, glaciers in paperwork, cascading waters in the conditions of my life? This, I now saw, was the green mountains constantly walking, and the practice of the wild that I came here to do.
A lovely day-hike or a difficult trail run as I learned. From Rainy Pass Trailhead – out to Lake Ann, up to Heather Pass then on to Maple Pass and back via the knife ridge between Lake Ann and Rainy Lake. Over 2,000 feet gain in elevation and 7.5 – 8.0 miles. Lots of smoke but less than down in the Valley. Spectacular alpine scenery and wildflowers galore! Plus a good excuse to stop by the Mazama Store for a slice of pie and a coffee (or beer if you prefer).
River gonna take me, sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home.
I waded out into the flowing water, careful not slip on the slippery cobble of the river bottom, and stopped in mid-river to gaze into its clear waters. Staring into, nay through the water, I could see each and every rock and pebble as though looking through the clear, rarefied air. I was looking directly without the intermediary of flowing water with nothing to obscure my gaze. But if I cocked my head to the side, the angle allowed me to see the glare off the water’s surface and a thin veil of water-glare came between me and the rocky river bottom. I looked straight on again and there was nothing between me and stones; nothing except my thinking mind of course.
We think of water as being blue because we have been taught to name it like that, to “know” that water is blue. Rivers, lakes, ponds and oceans are blue. We all know that, right? And because of this knowing, we usually perceive it that way too. Not only does our perception affect our cognition, but our cognition (what we think and know) affects our we perceive the world. This river was definitely not blue – it was multi-hued and calico like the cat I had been petting that morning at our friend’s house. Looking in directly, I could see greens, browns, whites, grays, and speckles. No blue to conceive of.
But there is a time and an angle when rivers do look blue (reflecting a blue sky) or green (reflecting streamside trees) or white (opaque with glacial melt). At times I can look directly and deeply into a river and other times when I see the world reflected like a mirror. At both of these times, if I don’t think too much, I see myself in the river. Do I see my true self or the narrow self that I all too often think I am? Can I see, as Han-shan wrote, that “the unobstructed spirit is clear.”