Sangha Reflections: On Wildness

· Earth Initiative, Reflections · ,

AS A KID I TRIED TO IMAGINE the rural landscapes around me without telephone poles and electric wires—how the rivers and hills might have looked to the Native Americans or the first European settlers or the deer and raccoons. Even then I was yearning for wilderness and an unobstructed aliveness.

Drawn to Buddhism through Daido Roshi’s teachings of sacred wild, it wasn’t enlightenment I was seeking so much as a fuller, more awake intimacy with the natural world and myself within it. Before encountering the teachings I admired nature, its poetry, its mystery. After my first wilderness trip with Daido I discovered the mountains under my fingernails and their waters in my sweat and pee. We were the same thing.

Over time, an awareness of another kind of wildness emerged—the wildness of emotion, an extravagance of feeling I had learned to call “me” and to which I was deeply, unknowingly attached. “Wildness is a hindrance,” Shugen Sensei once said to me, quoting the Buddha. Through zazen I began to see all that was extra in my interior wilderness. Feelings so familiar they were practically imperceptible fueled the engine of my days, shaped by internal pressures born of anxiety and habit. Now at times, when the pressure drops away, I can catch myself be- fore I ratchet up the stakes unnecessarily.

—Sybil Seisui Thomas


MY FATHER DIED FIFTEEN YEARS ago this summer. It wasn’t tragic. He passed away peacefully, at home, in hospice care. I was kneeling at his side when he took a breath and didn’t exhale. My mother, the former nurse, checked his heart with a stethoscope and pronounced him dead before being overcome with grief.

Prior to that day, all I had ever experienced was domesticated normalcy. Upper middle class suburbs, fine schools, family vacations, parents who made good choices. Everything was predictable and under control. I had sensed there might be something outside my bubble-wrapped life, but explored at a safe distance by study- ing philosophy. With my father’s death, I was dunked in true wildness.

In retrospect, that event sealed my spiritual path. I became an MRO student two and a half years later. Since then I have struggled to maintain a consistent practice. I’m forever trying to build a safe nest out of my work and my thoughts, but there is no going back. I have no doubt that the heart of this life is in wildness, which may be why I am so attracted to wild critters, wild places, and the wild silence of the Monastery. I’m making progress. Last summer, I jumped into the unpredictable river of marriage for the first time, and step-children. I wish my father were here now, but his memory is a constant reminder to me that this life is wide open and wild.

—Paul Chikon Morgan


WHEN MY OLDEST DAUGHTER was nearing two and beginning to express her voracious desires—loudly and persistently and especially publicly—I found myself getting hotter and tighter at each encounter with her will, each encounter with my own helplessness and shame about not being able to control her. I’ve got to shut this down or she’ll be this way for the REST OF HER LIFE, narrated the booming belief inside my head.

At a certain point it came to me to ask my- self, “Is this my actual experience of being human? Is it my job to break her?” These days she is still persistent and demanding, but I have come to see our relationship and respective roles differently, something akin to a plant and the earth. Flowers bloom in rich soil, but they also bloom in the cracks of the sidewalk and on the sides of the starkest mountains. I have to practice with the faith that the earth of my relationship with her is good enough for her to grow—a particular encounter may leave her a little leggy or a little stunted, but fundamentally, it’s enough.

In fact, now she’s old enough to read this over my shoulder. “Why are you writing about me?” she asks. “Remember when I told you that you didn’t come with an owner’s manual? I’m writing about how I’m learning how to be your mommy as you are learning to be you.” “Oh,” says, nonplussed, “at least you’re not writing about my little sister.”

—Lisa Kyojo Smith


REFLECTING ON WILDNESS I am reminded of a dance entitled ‘”Still/Here” choreographed by Bill. T. Jones. When I saw it in 1994, I was drawn to its raw expression and intimacy; I knew it was communicating something deeply felt. Jones choreographed it in response to his grief over his partner’s death and from his work with survivors of life-threatening illnesses. During workshops, these men and women (most of whom had no prior dance experience) were asked to express their unfiltered, inner experience of life, death, suffering, and heal- ing. The piece that came out of this work is so alive and original—full of unexpected and interesting movement. It also reveals another aspect of wildness—interconnectedness—which emerged in the close connection among the dancers and their responsiveness to each other as well as to the space. Yet there were also moments within the piece when the dancers moved completely by themselves, as though they were in a bubble. For me, this evoked a sense of loneliness and isolation patients with life threatening diseases may feel. I also recognized a wildness in the diversity of the dancers themselves: male, female, all different colors, shapes and sizes—like a meadow with lots of different flowers, as opposed to a backyard lawn with the grass all trimmed to the same height.

—Renate Genjo Gebauer


LAST SUMMER DURING sesshin, I had a powerful, serendipitous experience with a a swarm of bats feeding on a group of moths.

Just before going into the zendo for dawn zazen, I stepped outside for some cool morning air. The sun was just starting to come up, and the eastern sky was a dim blue, just light enough to allow me to witness a group of bats swarming in circles above the front door. As I watched them, I noticed they were diving down in twos and threes to pick off the moths congregated around the spotlight above the front door. I was amazed by how silent they were, even in the midst of this frenzied activity. I watched for several minutes, absolutely mesmerized by their focus and determination. They were so quick and although their movements seemed erratic, their precision and accuracy was obvious and impressive.

As I was observing this scene, a fellow student came out to enjoy the pre-dawn air. Standing just under the spotlight, he was totally unaware of the maelstrom of activity happening right over his head. It was a wonderfully surreal scene, one that I will not soon forget.

—Joel Sansho Benton


OVER A DECADE AGO, I left LA and moved to the mountains of Ojai. I spent that fortuitous day setting up my tent and learning the trails. That night, I had to find my way to my tent in complete darkness. The night was alive; it pulsed under the brush, and seemed thicker behind me. It chased my heels, and wrapped itself around my throat. Under my racing heart, I heard movement, and I imagined I was being watched. Though I made it to the top of the hill, I never did find my tent. After stumbling with fear into the darkness-drenched entanglement of coyote-brush, I scrambled back down the hill. I found my way to the Virgin of Guadalupe; I curled up behind her and waited anxiously for dawn.

The next day, I shared my experience with an elder, and she offered to send me out on my first wilderness walk. So, after the sun had set, I met her at the trailhead. She smudged me out; I was to ask to “gain entry.” Into what, I couldn’t say. Though scared, I was comforted that she was holding space for me at the base of the mountain. Knowing this, I opened a little. As soon as I did, I felt curious and I looked into the darkness. It was velvety, rich, soft, swirling. My gaze softened and traveled upwards and I realized that I was being watched! The stars were alive, and brightly intelligent!

I lay on the ground and let myself be taken. In allowing myself to be entered, I gained access—the stars’ bright intelligence, the wind’s caress, the earth’s solidity, the soft mother Darkness enveloped me. I fell into deep, dreamless rest. —Charla Koren Malamed


SUFFERING FOR ME IS THE runaway, downward spiraling thought process that rips me away from the simple wisdom of my bodily experience and brings me to a place where I am anxious, cynical, emotionally avoidant and impossible to satisfy: true hungry ghost material. Within this state, I am convinced I can solve my problems with the same old thought patterns, and yet, de- spite a lifetime of trying, it never seems to work. This suffering is wild—a chaotic mess. It’s like a patch of weeds that grows back over and over and over.

For me practice has been a taming process, abandoning that relentless voice of self-flagellating, neurotic worry and returning to the sensation of the breath. When I actually do this—not just pay lip service to the idea—I relax. Over time, I have had the palpable sense that I am taming something; this frees up a huge amount of energy, allowing me to enjoy my life more. In taming the neurotic wildness, I am more receptive to the wildness of the raw moment.

—Dan Asselin


THE WILD, THE NATURAL, the undomesticated… I’m attracted to it, I hear the call, and yet… fear arises, too. Years ago, the romantic ideas I had about “being in contact with nature” vanished rapidly during the very first night of my first camping trip. It was storming, and as we were putting the tent up, lightning was finding ground all around us. It felt brutal and dangerous; I felt vulnerable, unprepared, ready to give up. And yet, there I was, with no way out, forced to learn fast and on the spot. I had to rely on my husband’s expertise, accept my dependence, be- come more pragmatic, less idealistic.

It took many trips and many mistakes along the way to start to appreciate the ever-changing situations and respond accordingly to their demands. I realized I had to truly take in the experience as it was, working with my habitual patterns of loving only some moments, wanting more of them, refusing others. I had to develop confidence so that I could allow the unmistakable sense of belonging and connection to come forward…then I found I could rest and listen to the water, the rocks, the trees. I could feel their life.

Do I have to be in the presence of forces beyond my control to know who I am? I believe so, and so I return. I also find wildness in zazen: facing what comes up, fearing it, staying with it, learning from it, holding on, letting go… witnessing and respecting order in what I previously mistook for chaos.

— Zabeth Tenfu Loisel-Weiner


was dancing half-naked
in the desert, unceasing

heart-thumping bass,
bright lights, soft fur,
shimmering between elation

and a chasm of sadness.
Tumbled senses surrounded by smiles,

Now I feel wildness
in a pair of tiny leaves emerging
from the hardened stem of the old jade.

Turning open a worn-edged book
and discovering a thousand-year-dead poet
singing the melody that’s been stuck in my throat.

In a dream a woman dances
between walls, around walls,
through walls.

A white butterfly free-falls
between every flutter,
carried by unpredictable breezes.

This kind of dancing emerges
quietly. At the pace of unfurling summer
blossoms, misted daily by the mountain hum.

—Jess McNally


OUT OF THE WILDNESS OF a disordered mind, I sit down to write without a thought of what I have to say—having apparently nothing to say—and find waiting in the dark, a word, a sentence, a memory that comes to light on the page. Out of chaos, one thing blooms and then another. The words choose us—the best ones, that is—rather than the other way around. We live within this wildness, imposing reason, order, boundaries and limits, like certain wild gardens in England left artfully untended and often fenced off from their more manicured surroundings. Gunshot, birdsong, temple bell, silence—which is wild, which tame?

If wild means unnamable and without ego, out of my control, then I find it gazing into the eyes of a small child; in the fluidity of fantasy and dream; in the divinity of a flower, a eld, a river; in the changing sky; in art; wherever there is surrender to the calm of a larger order (dead trees host the living; the living rise from decay.)

But apply that to ourselves? How do I find meaning in the chaos of conflict, in violence, loss, deprivation, dystopia and despair? Impossible, I think. Except through yielding to the infinity (infinite wildness, infinite possibility) within.

—Kathryn Liebowitz


IT SEEMS TO ME THAT “WILD” exists only when I create a separation in my mind. Once I venture outdoors into the natural world with an open heart, I meet only myself. Sometimes what I find is pastoral, sometimes wilderness, but it is possible, if not always easy, for me to relax into either.

If by “wild” we mean untouched or unaffected by humans, there is no wild. Not on this planet. DDT and PCBs are found even deep in the arctic ice. If by “wild” we mean natural, then everything is wild, even the ugliness of malls and parking lots.

Often, we seem to use the word “wild” as a measure—and yes, I prefer to spend time in the “wild” as opposed to the urban or suburban. Being physically in touch with the earth feeds me, nurtures me, frees me. But it makes me no wilder than I am.

—Stephen Sanjo Wilder


I HAVE SPENT MANY HAPPY HOURS alone in the wilderness, watching the bending of tough tussock on a mountainside in a gale—all-encompassing and heart-achingly wild. Early in my life, my parents gave me the skills to venture into the wilderness and to sit quietly in it. Being there introduced me to a sense of things wild. Now I am deeply at rest just being in those spaces.

I don’t find this readily in my day-to-day city life. There is so much that is concrete. Trying to navigate life here I worry, Am I right or wrong? Should I do it this way or that way? I cannot easily feel the wind or find the water. Still, practice helps me explore the wildness in and around me, wherever I am. I travel through it by asking questions: What is it in my life that is tamed? How do I tether my life? How do I trust, or not trust, the wild heart of life?

I see how so many of my efforts to “break free” are simply me straining, gnawing at a leash that is of my own making, how that latest surge of unbridled energy was not yet truly wild, but, perhaps, disconnected and self-limited. Raw and attuned, what could my life be? Could it be wild as a tussock, rooted on a mountain, giving shape to the wind?

—Laura Close


I GREW UP WITH A STEPMOM WHO was obsessively neat, deeply controlling, vain, mercurial, and had little sense of how to interact with the two children she inherited when she married my father.

My childhood was difficult. I was constantly being punished, sometimes being “sentenced” to my room for weeks or months at a time. I often did not understand what I did that was wrong or how to do it correctly. One example: I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom after going to bed, and I was so terrified of wetting the bed, even with the three pairs of underpants I secretly put on, that I would pee in the wastepaper basket in my room. Inevitably this would be smelled out, resulting in more punishment.

One inviolable rule I did understand was that the clothes in my drawers had to be neatly folded and impeccably stacked. I soon learned that there was no possibility of satisfying my stepmom’s perfectionist standards: every few months, she would come into my room and dump the contents of my drawers on the floor as a lesson.

Finally, at the age of eleven, I realized my sense of who I was—my life, in fact—was at stake. I could continue to try to be the good boy, follow the ever-changing rules, bear the punishments while slowly dying inside, or I could let all that go and be who I was. For the first time I understood that I had a choice.

The next time Leona dumped my clothes out, I went into her room and completely “dumped” it. I knew there would be consequences, but I also knew that who I was would not—could not—be de ned by anyone else, or even by my own sense of who I was. And that had to be the bottom line.

Ever since then, I have nourished that flame, that sense of being wild, of listening to the inherent inner wisdom that is my life— undeniable, yet burning within me.

—Ron Hogen Green


IN MY EARLY 20’S, I SPENT two years in the capital of Guyana, South America working as an urban youth development volunteer. Georgetown was was equatorial, full of waving palms and mosquitoes bearing malaria.

Still, the Guyanese believed in the difference between the overgrowth of the city, and the vast jungles, savannah, and mountains of rest of the country. This they simply called “the Interior.” Jumbies, or ghosts, were said to roam there, along with “tigers”—actually jaguars—and some of the deadliest snakes in the world.

The terrors of this untamed region—real, imagined and exaggerated—were always rendered vividly, which was enough to discourage me from any real exploration. For a year, I perched on the coast and did not venture inland. It was not until I met a Guyanese woman who knew her own country and was not afraid of it that I began to be curious. And it was not until I fell in love with her that I considered entering these largely uncharted parts.

The wildness we found together was not without peril, but the beauty was astonishing. I remember the rush of waterfalls over my body, the unbroken green of the jungle canopy, the barking of otters in the jungle river- ways. I saw what I had never seen before, and may never again. Our journeys were a welcome breach in a tame life; once she guided me out, there was no turning back.

—Kathryn Jameison

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