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He Likes to Watch the Trees Print

He Likes to Watch the Trees

According to Barry Boyce, if you start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you.

Remember Chauncey Gardner?

Chauncey was the automaton-like nature freak masterfully portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie "Being There" (from a Jerzy Koscinski novel and screenplay). He was actually Chance the Gardener, a middle-aged man whose entire life had consisted of gardening, channel-surfing, and gracious manners.

Let loose on the world, he quickly became a phenom. A walking I Ching, he enthralled the president and millions of TV viewers with his simple horticultural pronouncements: "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.... In a garden, growth has its season. First comes spring and summer, then we have fall and winter, and then we get spring and summer again. There will be growth in the spring."

We often think of this kind of easy profundity as silly, like bad ad copy, or the president’s speech in "Being There": "We must appreciate when the trees are bare as well as the time when we pick the fruit." Yeah, right. Let’s leave nature as the backdrop that it should be and not go around trying to learn things from it, shall we?

So, I began to feel insufficiently serious as winter made its way into spring and summer and I became so captivated by trees, stopping in mid-stride during a perfectly good business day to gaze at them from top to bottom. As sentences containing seasonal shifts formed in my head, the specter of Chauncey Gardener loomed, but I couldn’t help myself. I went to the nature store, and there it was: the Eyewitness Handbook of Trees.

As I read about the ten basic leaf shapes, the parts of a flower, the varieties of fruit, and the types of bark, it occurred to me that the last time I had looked at anything like this was eighth grade or so. It didn’t make it in eighth grade, but now it was captivating. I discovered that a good stand of trees can be an amusement park, if you’re in the right frame of mind.

You start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. They are always reaching out. They tenaciously seek to anchor their roots, no matter how precarious their position. They will uproot sidewalks and fenceposts if necessary. Once those roots are there, the trunk and branches will reach and reach. They’re adaptableÑwhen they can’t reach in one direction, they’ll go in another. A whole forest is like a tug-of-war between earth and sky.

If you want to see diversity at work, look at the trees. Some trees are bulbous, like lollipops, while others are slim and conical, and still others free-form and wind-swept. They provide great relief. They shade us from a punishing sun and breathe out fresh air. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you. They’re dancing to the music of the spheres.

While their taller counterparts, buildings, are so inefficient, trees are the picture of efficiency, with a two-way nutritional system of light, water and gasses that is an engineering marvel. The flowers, fruits, burrs, cones, nuts and pods "devised" to communicate the seed combine utility and beauty in a way that practically defines creativity. And given the chance, they’ll cover the earth with it. They are an organic "art in the streets" program.

If the substructure of a tree is chaotic, its overall look is always of order. The wild fashion it presents to the world by way of the needles, ovals, hearts, and lances on its surface defeats any attempts to impose conformity, and yet each tree has its complete integrity. Trees are democratic in their chaos and imperial in their orderliness.

When an old tree dies, much like a good person, its trunk and branches remain for a while, as a monument and reminder of what they were, until even that falls and they become nutriment for a future generation.

The story of trees in the twentieth century, of course, is that they get in the way and when you cut them down you can do things with them. We live in clearings and we use tree products on a daily basis. Is that all that trees are good for?

As usual, Arbor Day came and went this year without much ballyhoo, a silly, Chauncey Gardner-like thing, not even worthy to be called a "holiday." Next year, though, I’m taking the day off and going to the woods.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

He Likes to Watch the Trees, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.

Pema Chödrön: To Know Yourself is to Forget Yourself Print

Pema Chödrön: To Know Yourself is to Forget Yourself


According to Pema Chödrön, we might think that knowing ourselves is a very ego-centered thing, but by beginning to look clearly and honestly at ourselves, we begin to dissolve the walls that separate us from others.

The journey of awakening happens just at the place where we can't get comfortable. Opening to discomfort is the basis of transmuting our so-called "negative" feelings. We somehow want to get rid of our uncomfortable feelings either by justifying them or by squelching them, but it turns out that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. According to the teachings of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism, our wisdom and our confusion are so interwoven that it doesn't work to just throw things out.

By trying to get rid of "negativity," by trying to eradicate it, by putting it into a column labelled "bad," we are throwing away our wisdom as well, because everything in us is creative energy—particularly our strong emotions. They are filled with life-force.

There is nothing wrong with negativity per se; the problem is that we never see it, we never honor it, we never look into its heart. We don't taste our negativity, smell it, get to know it. Instead, we are always trying to get rid of it by punching someone in the face, by slandering someone, by punishing ourselves, or by repressing our feelings. In between repression and acting out, however, there is something wise and profound and timeless.

If we just try to get rid of negative feelings, we don't realize that those feelings are our wisdom. The transmutation comes from the willingness to hold our seat with the feeling, to let the words go, to let the justification go. We don't have to have resolution. We can live with a dissonant note; we don't have to play the next key to end the tune.

Curiously enough, this journey of transmutation is one of tremendous joy. We usually seek joy in the wrong places, by trying to avoid feeling whole parts of the human condition. We seek happiness by believing that whole parts of what it is to be human are unacceptable. We feel that something has to change in ourselves. However, unconditional joy comes about through some kind of intelligence in which we allow ourselves to see clearly what we do with great honesty, combined with a tremendous kindness and gentleness. This combination of honesty, or clear-seeing, and kindness is the essence of maitri—unconditional friendship with ourselves.

This is a process of continually stepping into unknown territory. You become willing to step into the unknown territory of your own being. Then you realize that this particular adventure is not only taking you into your own being, it's also taking you out into the whole universe. You can only go into the unknown when you have made friends with yourself. You can only step into those areas "out there" by beginning to explore and have curiosity about this unknown "in here," in yourself.

Dogen Zen-ji said, "To know yourself is to forget yourself." We might think that knowing ourselves is a very ego-centered thing, but by beginning to look so clearly and so honestly at ourselves—at our emotions, at our thoughts, at who we really are—we begin to dissolve the walls that separate us from others. Somehow all of these walls, these ways of feeling separate from everything else and everyone else, are made up of opinions. They are made up of dogma; they are made of prejudice. These walls come from our fear of knowing parts of ourselves.

There is a Tibetan teaching that is often translated as, "Self-cherishing is the root of all suffering." It can be hard for a Western person to hear the term "self-cherishing" without misunderstanding what is being said. I would guess that 85% of us Westerners would interpret it as telling us that we shouldn't care for ourselves—that there is something anti-wakeful about respecting ourselves. But that isn't what it really means. What it is talking about is fixating. "Self-cherishing" refers to how we try to protect ourselves by fixating; how we put up walls so that we won't have to feel discomfort or lack of resolution. That notion of self-cherishing refers to the erroneous belief that there could be only comfort and no discomfort, or the belief that there could be only happiness and no sadness, or the belief that there could be just good and no bad.

But what the Buddhist teachings point out is that we could take a much bigger perspective, one that is beyond good and evil. Classifications of good and bad come from lack of maitri. We say that something is good if it makes us feel secure and it's bad if it makes us feel insecure. That way we get into hating people who make us feel insecure and hating all kinds of religions or nationalities that make us feel insecure. And we like those who give us ground under our feet.

When we are so involved with trying to protect ourselves, we are unable to see the pain in another person's face. "Self-cherishing" is ego fixating and grasping: it ties our hearts, our shoulders, our head, our stomach, into knots. We can't open. Everything is in a knot. When we begin to open we can see others and we can be there for them. But to the degree that we haven't worked with our own fear, we are going to shut down when others trigger our fear.

So to know yourself is to forget yourself. This is to say that when we make friends with ourselves we no longer have to be so self-involved. It's a curious twist: making friends with ourselves is a way of not being so self-involved anymore. Then Dogen Zen-ji goes on to say, "To forget yourself is to become enlightened by all things." When we are not so self-involved, we begin to realize that the world is speaking to us all of the time. Every plant, every tree, every animal, every person, every car, every airplane is speaking to us, teaching us, awakening us. It's a wonderful world, but we often miss it. It's as if we see the previews of coming attractions and never get to the main feature.

When we feel resentful or judgmental, it hurts us and it hurts others. But if we look into it we might see that behind the resentment there is fear and behind the fear there is a tremendous softness. There is a very big heart and a huge mind—a very awake, basic state of being. To experience this we begin to make a journey, the journey of unconditional friendliness toward the self that we already are.

Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

To Know Yourself is to Forget Yourself, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.

Click here for more articles by Pema Chödrön

In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times

Edited by the Shambhala Sun's Barry Boyce and being released to coincide with the Urban Retreat, this new book features the greatest contemporary Buddhist teachers and writers—people renowned for addressing precisely the problems we’re facing today—including the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chögyam Trungpa, Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, and many others.

Click to order In the Face of Fear

So Who Are You? Print
Shambhala Sun | September 1998

So Who Are You?

By: "You are not objects out there, you are not feelings, you are not thoughts-lessly aware of all those, so you are not those. Who or what are you?"

The witnessing of awareness can persist through waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The Witness is fully available in any state, including your own present state of awareness right now. So I'm going to talk you into this state, or try to, using what are known as "pointing out instructions." I am not going to try to get you into a different state of consciousness, or an altered state of consciousness, or a non-ordinary state. I am going to simply point out something that is already occurring in your own present, ordinary, natural state.
So let's start by just being aware of the world around us. Look out there at the sky, and just relax your mind; let your mind and the sky mingle. Notice the clouds floating by in the sky. Notice that this takes no effort on your part. Your present awareness, in which these clouds are floating, is very simple, very easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply notice that there is an effortless awareness of the clouds. The same is true of those trees, and those birds, and those rocks. You simply and effortlessly witness them.
Look now at the sensations in your own body. You can be aware of whatever bodily feelings are present-perhaps pressure where you are sitting, perhaps warmth in your tummy, maybe tightness in your neck. But even if these feelings are tight and tense, you can easily be aware of them. These feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, easy, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them.
Look at the thoughts arising in your mind. You might notice various images, symbols, concepts, desires, hopes and fears, all spontaneously arising in your awareness. They arise, stay a bit, and pass. These thoughts and feelings arise in your present awareness, and that awareness is very simple, effortless, spontaneous. You simply and effortlessly witness them.
So notice: you can see the clouds float by because you are not those clouds-you are the witness of those clouds. You can feel bodily feelings because you are not those feelings-you are the witness of those feelings. You can see thoughts float by because you are not those thoughts-you are the witness of those thoughts. Spontaneously and naturally, these things all arise, on their own, in your present, effortless awareness.
So who are you? You are not objects out there, you are not feelings, you are not thoughts-you are effortlessly aware of all those, so you are not those. Who or what are you?
Say it this way to yourself: I have feelings, but I am not those feelings. Who am I? I have thoughts, but I am not those thoughts. Who am I? I have desires, but I am not those desires. Who am I?
So you push back into the source of your own awareness. You push back into the Witness, and you rest in the Witness. I am not objects, not feelings, not desires, not thoughts.
But then people usually make a big mistake. They think that if they rest in the Witness, they are going to see something or feel something-something really neat and special. But you won't see anything. If you see something, that is just another object-another feeling, another thought, another sensation, another image. But those are all objects; those are what you are not.
No, as you rest in the Witness-realizing, I am not objects, I am not feelings, I am not thoughts-all you will notice is a sense of freedom, a sense of liberation, a sense of release-release from the terrible constriction of identifying with these puny little finite objects, your little body and little mind and little ego, all of which are objects that can be seen, and thus are not the true Seer, the real Self, the pure Witness, which is what you really are.
So you won't see anything in particular. Whatever is arising is fine. Clouds float by in the sky, feelings float by in the body, thoughts float by in the mind-and you can effortlessly witness all of them. They all spontaneously arise in your own present, easy, effortless awareness. And this witnessing awareness is not itself anything specific you can see. It is just a vast, background sense of freedom-or pure emptiness-and in that pure emptiness, which you are, the entire manifest world arises. You are that freedom, openness, emptiness-and not any itty bitty thing that arises in it.
Resting in that empty, free, easy, effortless witnessing, notice that the clouds are arising in the vast space of your awareness. The clouds are arising within you-so much so, you can taste the clouds, you are one with the clouds. It is as if they are on this side of your skin, they are so close. The sky and your awareness have become one, and all things in the sky are floating effortlessly through your own awareness. You can kiss the sun, swallow the mountain, they are that close. Zen says "Swallow the Pacific Ocean in a single gulp," and that's the easiest thing in the world, when inside and outside are no longer two, when subject and object are nondual, when the looker and looked at are One Taste. You see?

Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. Copyright Ken Wilber, 1998.

    So Who Are You?, Ken Wilber, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.

When Men Were Men Print

When Men Were Men


The message is, says bell hooks, that it's fine for women to stray from sexist roles and play around with life on the other side, as long as we come back to our senses and stay happily-ever-after in our place.

Books on the bestseller list always intrigue me. I like the idea of picking up a book that lots of people are choosing—I wish I could say reading but I know better. More than ever before books are bought and never read.

Anyway this is my explanation for reading The Horse Whisperer. I was moved by passages in the book that had to do with healing from trauma-being wounded and finding wholeness again. As I reached the end of the book, and the author neatly resolved all conflict and everything was back in its happily-ever-after place, I felt annoyed but not surprised. From high culture to low, so much art betrays its themes, the movement of its own narrative. Often these betrayals are there to please a consuming public that can only bear coming face to face with things out of order, with chaos and disruption, if in the end order is restored.

When I read the novel I did not feel it was a book about male domination. In fact a clear distinction was made in the book between the idea of taming something wild in ourselves or in animals, and domination which seeks to destroy that wild spirit. But seeing the movie disturbed me because it represented the narrative as being fundamentally about a powerful woman being put in her place—being taught the good old lessons of sexism: when men speak, women and children listen; but real men rarely speak, that is, unless they are talking to other men, and career women are cold, frigid, controlling ball-busters who, if they could just "get a good fuck," would learn who is the boss. Ah! but there is no fucking in this movie. Those rough edges of disappointments in marriage and feeling passion for someone who is not your husband are all smoothed out in the film, as are all the other conflicts which gave the original story its emotional edginess and passion.

I begin with this digression because it is clear to me that movies are playing a major role in bringing back and glamorizing sexist thinking about male-female roles. I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about the contemporary feminist movement and all the ways it has changed our lives for the good. And, like practically everyone I know whose life was transformed by this movement, I am always stunned that mass media continues to act as though everything feminism put in place was bad. Everywhere we turn feminism gets blamed.

In the movie "The Horse Whisperer" the cold frigid woman begins to warm up when she loses her job and gets in touch with traditional femininity. I was most struck by how the interaction between the adult woman and man becomes adolescent in the worst sense. It reminded me of the movie "One Fine Day," where two divorced adults behave like teenagers without a clue as to how to relate to one another. Sexist ways of representing career women rule the day in that movie as well. By the end of both films the little woman regains her femininity and all is well.

As a nation we have experienced one of the most amazing cultural revolutions—fundamental changes in how we understand and organize gender. When I was in my late teens I was still surrounded by men and women who believed in the innate inferiority of woman and the superiority of man. When I entered college my professors were still insisting that women could not be great writers. On one hand it's amazing how much sexist thinking has been challenged and has changed. And it's equally troubling that with all these revolutions in thought and action, patriarchal thinking remains intact. Now we live in a world where individuals who want to can choose to resist and reject sexism and those who want to keep sexist thinking alive, do.

Lots of people hunger to maintain or come to terms with patriarchy, or a book like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus would not be so successful. Increasingly, a body of New Age literature (mostly written by men) is emerging which assures us that male and female are androgynous, but it's important to keep the side on top that corresponds to your gender. So if you are female it's best that you cultivate your feminine side more than your masculine side. And vice versa. Whether in movies or popular books the notion that men are men and women are women is making a comeback. The message is that gender warfare would end if everyone just accepted that women and men are different and respected these differences. This way of thinking has always been at the heart of benevolent patriarchy. It neatly ignores the reality of male domination, especially in the domestic household.

Whether it's "The Bridges of Madison County" or its more recent incarnation "The Horse Whisperer," the message sent to women is that it's fine for us to stray from sexist gender roles and play around with life on the other side as long as we come back to our senses and stay happily ever after in our place. Oh! and our more rational, emotionally sensitive male partners are there to welcome us back when the lessons are learned, when the shrew has been tamed. No matter the interventions of feminist thinking, the truth remains—patriarchy rules. All these images of benevolent patriarchy are dangerous because they cover up and mask unequal power dynamics that actually keep women and men apart—unable to experience intimacy, unable to know and love each other fully here on earth.

bell hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College in Kentucky. She is the author of Wounds of Passion.

When Men Were Men, bell hooks, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.

Click here for more articles by bell hooks

Taking the First Step Print
Shambhala Sun | September 1998

Taking the First Step

By: Claude AnShin Thomas, a Zen Peacemaker Priest from Concord, Massachusetts walks on pilgrimage across the United States .

Every day we get up at six in the morning and pack. Then we do sitting meditation and a Buddhist service. We also chant a Verse of Atonement: "All evil karma ever committed by me since of old/On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance/Born of my body, mouth and consciousness/ Now I atone for it all."
If breakfast is available we eat, and then we prepare sandwiches for lunch, if those are available, too. We start walking no later than nine and keep on walking until our lunch break at one-thirty, when we have a rest for about thirty minutes. Then we continue walking till we reach the next town. It’s important not to arrive too late, so that there is still time to approach the local churches and ask them for help, a place to stay and some food to eat.
My name is Petra Schaumburg. I’m 32 years old and a German citizen. I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism for two years, and a year ago I met Claude AnShin Thomas, a Zen Peacemaker Priest from Concord, Massachusetts. Claude founded the Zaltho Foundation to promote peace and non-violence, and he travels around the world giving public talks and leading mindfulness retreats.
Last year, at a retreat in Germany, he talked about a pilgrimage across the United States and invited us to join him. We would have to walk fifteen to twenty miles a day, carry everything we needed in a backpack (no support vehicle), and bring no money.
I was not certain, so I did a street retreat with Claude in Berlin last October. Then, too, we took nothing with us: no money, food or blankets. We lived for five days on the streets, begging for everything we needed. Even basic things like taking a shower or brushing my teeth weren’t possible for this period of time. Living on the streets brought me deeply in contact with my basic fears, my dependence on safety, my greed for material things, and my attachment to comfort. It was five days of letting go, dealing only with what I have and what I am, with no possibility to pretend or to hide. After those five days I decided to do the pilgrimage across America.
My decision to walk for more than seven months in a foreign country required some preparation, quitting my job, giving up my home, storing all my possessions, and learning to ask for dana, the Buddhist term for selfless giving. I had to ask many people for their support, both monetary and non-monetary, and each time I asked I had to explain what I was doing from scratch, putting my motivations to the test again and again.
As I write this we are now in northern Kansas. We are a group of nine people, two American Vietnam veterans, six Germans and one Swiss, walking across the North American continent from Yonkers, New York to Albany, California. We walk to raise awareness among the people we meet and to pierce the cloak of mystery that surrounds Buddhism in many areas of this country. We walk to encourage dialogue between the faiths and to point out how much more sense lies in discovering the similarities among the various religions, rather than always worrying about the differences. Respect and tolerance practiced in a sincere way will eventually lead to peace, and if we want things to change, we have to start within ourselves.
In Nazareth, a town in eastern Pennsylvania, the secretary in the first church we approached gave us a list of telephone numbers for all the other churches in town. One of the ministers we talked to said, "There is no way we will allow you to stay in our church." But a Catholic priest named Father Webber invited us to come and meet with him in person. Sitting in his office, he expressed his doubts and fears about letting us stay in his church, but being a man who "walks the talk," he felt a strong obligation to help because that’s what his faith is about.
Eventually, after checking our ID’s, he agreed to provide us with a place to stay for two days. During those days we talked with him several times. We attended services where we were introduced to the community and had the chance to speak with the people afterwards. The priest did our laundry and went with us to get food. He also helped us to find a place to stay the following night. On Easter he came to visit us on the road.
Our encounters usually follow a pattern: after the first doubts and suspicions, people start opening up to us. We’ve participated in meetings at a Quaker Meeting House and spoken at a Quaker school. We’ve held ecumenical dialogues with churches from different Christian traditions in every state we’ve been in.
Of course, we have not always been successful. In Clearfield, Pennsylvania, we approached all of the churches in town, as well as the Salvation Army. None was willing to put us up for the night. A big reason was that we are a Buddhist group; a second was that we are mixed (men and women). All the people we met there were very friendly and helpful, trying to find a place for us to stay, anywhere but within their own four walls. We finally ended up sleeping in a pig barn on a fairground in the pouring rain and, eventually, snow. One of the churches that turned us down invited us the next morning for breakfast. After a freezing night in a pig barn, I was very grateful to have a warm drink and a bite to eat.
In Ohio, only four churches in the entire state gave us hospitality, but the people were wonderful. In Poland, Ohio, we met two women out for their evening walk. We asked them for directions to a church. Instead they took us home, cooked for us and introduced us to their neighbor, who practices Tibetan Buddhism. We spent two nights in that family’s home, were interviewed by a local newspaper, and met the Youngstown, Ohio, Buddhist sangha. Their 10-year-old daughter, Laura, had seen an omen of our coming: all the trees in their garden had started to blossom on the morning we arrived. Upon meeting us, she said happily to her dad, "I told you they were coming. I knew something special was going to happen."
As we walked from Poland to Randolph, the police stopped us. An anxious onlooker had called them to check us out. Suddenly, police officers in three cruisers came to a stop and questioned us very aggressively. We explained to the officers in a clear and sincere way what we were doing, and they gave us rides in their police cars to the next large town and helped us find a place for the night.
Claude Thomas says that one of the realities of healing is that we all have to step into the unknown. From the unknown, healing is possible. The greatest gift I’ve received on this challenging pilgrimage has been to be able to concentrate on my breath and be present in moments such as the ones we had with the policemen in Ohio. Dealing with their aggression by just being present and holding their fear, rather than responding in the same way, prevented the perpetuation of their suffering and ours, the first step towards peace. Moments like these, when we don’t know what will happen, are the moments when healing is possible. They are there at every encounter on this long walk across America.

Claude AnShin Thomas and his group expect to walk into California in September, 1998. You can read updates on AnShin’s American Zen Pilgrimage, as well as information about the Peacemaker Community, by visiting

    Taking the First Step, Petra Schaumburg, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.

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