Monday, July 18, 2011

Scaffolding, Redwood Trees, and Touching the Earth: Weeks 4 & 5 in the Marketplace

I've discovered a trail near my house for Sadie and I. It's a five-minute drive to get there, then once you're on the trail, it's hard to believe you're in Oakland. However, we must remember how Oakland got it's name, right? The Land of Oaks. But it's not just oak trees that thrive in Oakland. There are actual redwood trees around here. And Sadie and I have found them. Thank goodness. I always forget how important it is for me to be in nature until I've been away from it for too long.

Sadie is definitely my dharma gate these days. She is my mirror. What she needs, I need. Take today, for instance. The painters arrived to get started on the house. This will be a big undertaking for them as it is an old Victorian. They are scaffolding as I type these words. Hammers banging, scrapers scraping, the underlying murmurings of Spanish-speaking dialogue surround me in my small apartment. I am very grateful for the efforts being made to beautify my home, I said to myself as they arrived shortly after nine this morning. By one o'clock, I turned to Sadie and said, "We're going to the trail." She wagged her tail, "Yea, good, we're going to the trail, we're going to the trail, we're going to the trail..." Within moments, we were both free on the trail, surrounded by nature, only the occasional hums of cars in the distance reminding us that we do, indeed, live in urbania.

There are various paths off the beaten path, and today, I let Sadie lead us down one we had not been on. That's when we passed the redwood trees. Awesome. I mean, they're old, that's what they're known for. And this is Oakland, which is not known for it's redwood trees, let alone its forestry. Yet, here they are, just a mile off the 580 freeway, tucked away in a small forested area, breathing life into our fair city. The Native Americans believe that trees are the lungs of the earth. Some trees, more than others, have a lot to say. Some trees, more than others, have breathed a lot more for all of us. Are they sentient beings? Do they "focus" on their breath the way that I do when I am meditating? Does a tree have a conscience? Imagine where we would be without our trees.

Now that I think about it, Gotama (Buddha's name before he became enlightened) experienced enlightenment under a tree. There he sat, according to legend, after giving up his hunger fast and receiving rice milk from a peasant woman. "I will not leave this tree until I have sought enlightenment". I'm paraphrasing here, but that's the gist of it. How much life from the earth, through to the tree, was being breathed into him as he sat, night after night, fighting off all of his own private demons, until that fateful moment when he touched the earth, telling Mara, "the earth is the witness to my enlightenment." It was in that moment when Mara realized that his large army of witnesses was no match to the earth, and he disappeared, leaving the Buddha to his seat of enlightenment.

I think what I love so much about that story is that for the first time in Brahmin history, this Buddha (apparently, there were several other Buddhas before this one) did not reach out to the many gods that the Brahmins had historically worshipped to serve as his "witnesses". Rather, Gotama touched the earth, something that he was a part of. I think I'm so drawn to this story because this is the essence of Buddhism, this connection to all beings; there is a humanity aspect to this notion of spirituality; and tied into that humanity is our connection, our relationship to the earth. Karen Armstrong, a theological historian, in her biography, Buddha, describes it best:

"It not only symbolizes Gotama's rejection of Mara's sterile machismo, but makes a profound point that a Buddha does indeed belong to the world. The Dhamma is exacting, but it is not against nature. . . . The man or woman who seeks enlightenment is in tune with the fundamental structure of the universe."

So, really, when I'm walking through the woods with Sadie, taking in the breath of the trees, I am connecting to something much deeper than just a few trees, something much older than just an idea about "religion", however we choose to define religion. We're all breathing the same air, essentially, co-existing, co-arising. But moreso, on a practical note, when I'm watching the painters scraping off the paint, standing boldly on the scaffolds made of wood, twenty feet above the earth, inches from my kitchen window, I can see that they, in essence, are touching their own version of the earth. They, too, are "in tune with the fundamental structure of the universe."

Speaking of the painters, they're gone now. Day one is out of the way as the house reveals its old layers of paint, exposing itself to the elements, until the painters arrive tomorrow to continue their job, scraping and scaffolding, scraping off the old paint to make room for the new paint.

And maybe Sadie will lead me down a different path.

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