Zen on the Trail

· Earth Initiative, Reviews

Book review by Hokyu JL Aronson

Many years ago, still in college, I hitchhiked north from Berkeley to the uppermost reaches of California, my last ride dropping me off at the foot of Mt. Shasta in the southern Cascade Range. I didn’t yet know of the Zen monastery there but I’d come on a quasi-spiritual quest all the same. A friend had recently committed suicide and, in his honor, I wanted to test the fragile membrane of my own existence, going deep into solitude amidst the quiet embrace of a mountain landscape.

Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage by Christopher Ives (Wisdom Publications, 2018)

Being April in the neighborhood of 10,000 feet, it didn’t take long to reach the snow line as well as the conclusion that my gear, as much as my wilderness skills, were ill-suited to the challenge. Still, I emerged from the experience with a renewed appreciation for my own life and its place within—and part of—the natural world. I also experienced how such opportunities can help process grief and find a semblance of peace while working with difficult emotions.

Buddhist scholar Christopher Ives explores this impulse and other pulls to the path in Zen on the Trail: Hiking as Pilgrimage. For Ives, it’s a marriage of two passions, both explored over a number of decades. Ives first moved to Japan in 1976, spending five years in cultural immersion and Rinzai training. He returned to the US in the early eighties to pursue graduate work at Claremont College in California under the guidance of Masao Abe, a renowned figure in Zen Studies.

Subsequent teaching stints in the Pacific Northwest and currently Stonehill College in Massachusetts have been accompanied by his lifelong fervor for wilderness expedition, both locally and globally. He’s the kind of guy you’d want with you on an extended camping trip: knowledgeable, contemplative, resourceful and a good storyteller. And that’s essentially what you get from this unpretentious volume. While Ives’ previous published works have targeted fellow academics—most notably in the sphere of Buddhist ethics—Zen on the Trail marries a rich overview of Zen/Shingon/Shinto/Daoist philosophy with more personal meditations on how (and why) to do mindfulness in the mud. 

To accomplish this, Ives marshalls a veritable survey of quotes from poets, spiritual masters, philosophers, ecologists, and those writing more broadly about the practice of pilgrimage across traditions. A chief source, acknowledged numerous times throughout the book, is Gary Snyder, Zen wanderer of a previous generation. Snyder’s landmark book of essays, The Practice of the Wild (1990), explored the human relationship with wilderness, repeatedly questioning what we mean by ‘nature,’ ‘wild,’ and even ‘human.’ 

Ives’ writing is more approachable than Snyder’s and his aim, perhaps, more modest. He takes the reader along on an overnight hike up Mount Pierce in New Hampshire and, over the course of nine or ten chapters, has us walk a number of miles in his boots, smelling what he smells, aching where he aches, noticing what he notices, and witnessing his wandering thoughts, as well. This dimension of the book offers a step-by-step guide to getting off the cushion/ couch/ computer and connecting to the elements. By exposing ourselves to what is essential, we peel back the particularities of our lives and their more domesticated concerns. “On the trail,” he writes, “in a liminal state, most of our normal markers have been stripped away, for we are all grunting under packs and sweating in similar clothes. Granted, gear freaks with wealth may have snazzier parkas and more bells and whistles on their packs, but we’re all peeing under trees.” This equalizing aspect of nature practice helps us identify with our fellow hikers and with the forces of nature themselves. Like the mountain, we are biological processes made manifest in solidity, humidity, movement and temperature.

Early in Zen on the Trail, I wondered if Ives might be overreaching in his conflation of hiking and pilgrimage. But as the evidence accrued, I found myself savoring each connection. (They are not always inherent connections but they are there for anyone willing to engage the outdoors on that level.) For starters, there is the ritualistic aspect of both endeavors; actions taken in a prescribed manner—perhaps repeatedly—following tradition, in the hopes of attaining a greater sense of connection with nature-God-oneself, or perhaps to expiate one’s shadows in the presence of a greater power. 

He writes, “Like rites of passage and other forms of ritual practice, traditional pilgrimage is usually grounded in a belief that there is something sacred that exists apart from day-to-day existence, and that we can draw closer to it when we go to power spots, the thin places, or better yet, the thick places where that higher reality has manifested itself in all of its power in the past and may well do so again in the present.”

Clearly, we are making some kind of exchange, if only for perceptual access. Both we and what we perceive, in union, are altered through the experience.  Ives points out that the root of the term sacrifice is to make something sacred. And like the pilgrim walking along the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, doing hajj in Mecca, or visiting the 88 temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, certain sacrifices must be made. The sacrifices, one hopes, are in balance with the rewards. But as with meditation intensives, some of those rewards are tested, and perhaps most appreciated, in the process of reacclimation with life at lower altitudes. 

In a section at the end of his book titled “True Home, True Pilgrimage,” Ives invokes an Australian Aboriginal proverb: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love…and then we return home.” He also includes this famous stanza from a T.S. Eliot poem: 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

As with anything worth pursuing, Ives and his chorus of guest voices seem to be saying, true exploration never ends. But without exploration, there can be no returning, and without both, there can be no true knowledge.

One matter not explicitly addressed by Ives is the fact that he is describing his own solo hike throughout the book and relating other times when he seems to have gone solo. Certainly one need not go it alone for awareness, quietude, and insight to thrive on a trail. Pilgrims’ progress is aided by companionship. Safety and other practical considerations are not small things. And Ives admiringly describes the Japanese Buddhist tradition of shugendo, in which groups of practitioners hike the Omine ridge southeast of Kyoto, chanting as they go, visualizing the topography as a specific mandala filled with buddhas and bodhisattvas.

However, the approach to hiking laid out in this book, while scalable and infinitely modifiable, seems to require a degree of intentionality that not all our travelling companions will be game for. We cannot take for granted the value of sangha; fellow mountain devotees with compatible dedication, walking alongside us in reverence for this great Earth and all its wonders. They need not be Buddhist practitioners, or even human. (Dogs have much to teach us about staying in the moment.) 

And yet, to the degree that we’re able, we need to let go of self-awareness if we want to recite an aspiration or poem at the outset of the journey, or if we feel called to bow in the direction of a wildflower that has arrested our attention, or if we feel the need to drop into silence for a while. Ives offers no suggestions for how to cultivate a shared approach amongst hiking partners that would fully accept these practices as part of the journey. But I imagine if asked, he’d start by offering some simple advice for anyone wishing to make hiking a communal, meaningful, and deeply personal experience. It’s the same advice I’m happy to be able to give any practitioner of the path: read this book and recommend it to a friend!

Hokyu JL Aronson is a monastic at Zen Mountain Monastery and co-editor of MountainRecord.org

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