photo by Jason Leung

 

The only limits that exist are the ones we have set for ourselves. Take off the blinders and take a step forward. When you’ve taken that step, acknowledge it, let it go, and take another step. And when you finally arrive at enlightenment, at whole body and mind intimacy, acknowledge it, let it go and take a step forward.

This kind of practice is, always has been, and always will be the ceaseless practice of all the buddhas and ancestors. By practicing in this way, we actualize their very being, their very life. We give life to the Buddha.

* * *

There are many ways to address the environmental crisis we are facing today. We can rely on legislation to regulate air pollution, water management and waste reduction. We can turn to science to understand the problems we face and apply corrective measures. We can use fear and guilt propagated by the media, and we can look to religion to offer us relevant teachings. However, a much more powerful force­ than science, legislation, self-interest, and even religion, is love. Regardless of who we are, we all take care of what we love.

Simply spending time in the wilderness can lead us to deeply appreciate its beauty. Environmental organizations, summer camps, and outdoor programs can all foster our love for nature. Nowadays, various kinds of groups offer wilderness immersion workshops that are not just about recreation, but about developing sensitivity to all things wild. Their emphasis is on raising consciousness about our intimate relationship with the environment by emphasizing our identity with it. On a practical level, they encourage the practices of low-impact camping and leaving no traces.

However, environmental research and action, university degrees that focus on ecology and related subjects, green building, and international conferences are only a handful of responses to the dire situation in which we find ourselves. We need a lot more if we’re going to save this planet.

Although it is generally said that mountains belong to the countryside, actually, they belong to those who love them.

Long before pollution, overpopulation, and global warming were even recognized as issues, artists in this country understood the importance of raising our consciousness with regards to our relationship with nature.

The environmentalist Jack Turner once said, “Most of us, when we think about it, realize that after our own direct experience of nature, what has contributed most to our love of wild places, animals, plants—and even, perhaps, to our love of wild nature, our sense of citizenship—is the art, literature, myth, and lore of nature.”

 

photo by Shawn Moreton

 

In the American literary tradition, the writings of poets like Walt Whitman had an enormous impact on people’s perception of the wilderness. To this day, it’s virtually impossible to read Whitman and not fall in love with nature. There were also the writings of the transcendentalists. In 1841, Emerson wrote an essay called “Thoughts on Art” in which he said: “Painting should become a vehicle through which the universal mind can reach the mind of humankind.” In other words, he was encouraging painters to see art as an agent of moral and spiritual transformation. A few years later, the artists of the Hudson River School followed in Emerson’s footsteps, creating art the likes of which had never been seen in the West.

Breaking away from the early influence of the European artists, painters like Thomas Cole, John Vanderlyn, and Asher Durand celebrated the awe and majesty of the Adirondack and Catskill mountains, creating images that went beyond the prevalent view of a human-centered universe. Their sweeping landscapes were reminiscent of the ancient Chinese paintings in which people were portrayed as minuscule dots in a vast, majestic, and unknowable expanse of wilderness.

It’s likely that this new way of appreciating nature was linked to the 1895 New York State legislation that designated six million acres of land—the size of the state of Vermont—to remain forever wild. The Adirondack Forest Preserve was the first preserve to be established in the United States, pre-dating the National Forest Preserve by at least ten years.

The Hudson River painters were not alone in their integrative view of nature. Hundreds of years earlier, Zen artists had already recognized the futility of our attempts to dominate the wild. In their zenga paintings, their haiku, and the quiet harmony of the tea ceremony, these artist-priests constantly expressed the understanding that we are not only a part of nature, but are actually indivisible from it.

The plants and flowers I raised about my hut
I now surrender to the will of the wind

                         —Ryokan

What does it mean to surrender to the will of the mountain? What does it mean to recognize its inherent wisdom? Furthermore, what does it mean to love the mountain, and for the mountain to love its master?

Over almost thirty years I’ve watched Tremper Mountain change with the seasons, the winds. I’ve seen it roar, bolts of lightning flashing over it, trees crashing to the ground, the earth trembling and the river sweeping over rocks and fallen trees. I’ve also seen it warm and placid, loving, nurturing, and protecting. So what is the true nature of this mountain, of any mountain—indeed, of the whole universe?

This is not an idle question. It is becoming more and more evident that this earth will not tolerate our apathy much longer. But even if we succeed in wiping ourselves off the face of the earth, the planet will eventually renew itself. Given enough time, it will heal. The question is whether or not we will be part of that healing


John Daido Loori is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and founder and director of the Mountains and Rivers Order. He is the author of many books on Zen spiritual practice, including The Eight Gates of Zen.

From John Daido Loori Roshi’s upcoming book, The Way of Mountains and Rivers, a prose and visual commentary on Master Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra.