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Lions Roar : May 2014
skeleton, silver and gaunt, rising like a spire out of the foliage below. It died when the man died; the man died when it died, even though they were thousands of miles apart. Was it coincidence, or is it somehow possible that the life of trees and people could be so deeply entwined? zen liKes to teach through things—dogs, cats, shoes, water jugs, flags, streams, roads. Zen could be said to view all phenomena as teachers, each and every one. There’s a famous story of a Christian Desert Father who lived in an Egyptian val- ley, alone and without books. When asked how he could tolerate his hermit’s life without works of scripture, he said, “But wher- ever I look, I see the Book of Creation laid open before me.” Zen’s position is similar. We have no real need of scripture; all things are the dharma. But among the multiplicity of things in Zen teaching, one stands out: the tree. Once Joshu was asked, “What was Bodhidharma’s meaning in coming from the West?” In other words, what is the teaching of Zen that Bodhidharma brought from India to China? Joshu answered, “The cypress tree in the garden.” The monk may have been surprised. All our years of arduous training, and they add up to nothing more than the tree outside? Another time Joshu was asked whether an oak tree has bud- dhanature, and he immediately responded, “yes.” Zen lore is full of trees. When yakusan was asked about his awakening, he said, “The withered tree is giving a dragon’s roar.” Unmon was once asked, “What is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall to the ground?” He answered, “Complete exposure of the golden wind.” By golden wind, he meant the autumn wind. But he also may have meant something truly golden and marvelous, which can be revealed only when thoughts of self have fallen away like the autumn leaves and the trunk of self has withered. Then a golden fact that unites all creation may appear. Perhaps this is also what yakusan meant: that once the idea of “me” has withered, the single “dragon’s roar” of all existence may be heard. Buddhism itself in a sense began with a tree. After exhaust- ing the possibilities of materialist pleasure and ascetic mortifi- cation and finding his heart still not at peace, Shakyamuni sat down under a banyan tree, determined not to get up until he had resolved the “great matter” of life, death, suffering, and identity. After sitting for six days, it happened: he woke from the dream of self and other, life and death, and became a buddha, an awak- ened one. The tree became forever known as the bodhi tree. trees are our closest neiGhBors. There are dogs, cats, cows, and other domestic animals with whom some of us live, and there are our cousins like the chimpanzee with whom we don’t usu- ally live. On the other hand, pretty much all people live with trees. We may not live in them anymore, as our ancestors once did, but we remain a tree-dwelling species. In the deserts, they are the oases that provide homes for humanity, with their shelter- ing palms. In the grasslands, every village and farmstead nestles in its cluster of shivering trees; in the hills of Europe, the stone villages huddle amid pine, oak, and beech. Nor, without trees, would we have had the industrial revolution: coal and oil are the ancient remains of giant trees, and through the release of their vast power, we have paradoxically been able to denude great areas of our planet of its forests. Trees are our natural environment. They are our friends like no other species. Warmth in winter, shade in summer, said the poet Alexander Pope, of trees’ gifts to humanity. Where people are, trees are. Many cities are filled with trees. Some even look like woodland from the air. For thousands of generations, trees have provided people with windbreaks, shade, shelter, fire, and one of the primary fabrics of our dwellings. In the Valley of the Dee in Scotland, there is a yew tree that has been dated at more than two thousand years old. It would have been growing back in the days when Pontius Pilate was a boy there, in the remote northern Roman province of Scotland, where his father was stationed as a centurion. People say the boy Pilate used to play in this very tree. Thus a tree alive today in Scotland is connected to that other “tree” on Calvary two thousand years ago. But trees also manifest our inherent con- nectedness in other ways. Thomas Hardy wrote: “Portion of this yew is a man my grandsire knew.” It’s a touch macabre, but we all recognize the truth of it: the graveyard loam is made of a lot of dead things, including human remains, and the trees are nourished by PHOTOByANDREWgLENCROSS