Charles Fisher has poured decades of Buddhist practice, love of nature and scholarship into this work. He leads us on a journey down the centuries and through the jungles and mountain caves of Asia, following the trail of Buddhist practitioners who have lived and meditated in the wild. The quest takes us from the Buddha himself, discovering enlightenment while sitting at the foot of a tree, right through to the modern day. He homes in particularly on the Buddha’s early disciples, the forest hermits of China and Japan, and the Thai Forest tradition. He does not claim to be making a complete survey of the Buddhist world – Korean and Tibetan Buddhism are covered only briefly in an appendix. Milarepa, that most devoted and joyous of wilderness meditators, is overlooked completely. Nonetheless, for the urban Buddhist (and we are all, by the standards of this book, urban!), the result is revealing, inspiring and daunting.
The book builds on Fisher’s earlier work, ‘Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World’, in which he argues that the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as an antidote to the existential discontent brought about by the change from a hunter-gathering to an agricultural society. You don’t need to have read this, but its thesis is never very far away in the sequel.
The book is no paean to the delights and prettiness of nature. Fisher has spent time in the wild and pulls no punches about the demands of such a life. For sure, recluses down the ages have waxed eloquent about forests, streams and mountains. But such superficial delights are not enough to sustain them. The book attends much more to the wilderness as an escape from civilization, and nature as teacher.
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He begins with a description of the forest in the life of the Buddha, which is both vivid and scholarly. While the Buddha, after his enlightenment, spends most of his time in towns or on the edge of them, he still spoke of the ideal meditation as a solitary pursuit undertaken in forests, at the roots of trees or in empty huts. The first lesson of nature is in solitude and freedom from distraction. As Ajaan Mun put it, it was not through mingling and socializing or indulgence in mirth and gaiety that Buddhahood was attained, but rather in quiet and deserted places, free from confusions and trouble.
More than this, nature reinforces our understanding of Buddhist teachings… “listening each morning to the waxing and waning of bird calls, meeting changes in the weather with little protection, knowing hunger and biting insects.” It is one thing to contemplate change and suffering in the comfort of a meditation hall, quite another to live it in the wild. Discomfort and vulnerability bring an earthiness and bright alertness to one’s practice. In nature, there is no avoiding the Buddha’s teachings.
Not only is there discomfort, but danger too. Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, cultivated his fearless heart in the depths of the forest night. More recently, the early Forest Tradition of Thailand took this on quite avidly as a practice. Fear of tigers and snakes was used as a spur to concentration. Survival of malaria was seen as a sign of the strength of one’s practice. There were monks who didn’t pass the test.
And if discomfort or fear doesn’t divert you from your practice, then nature as teacher has one more challenge. In the author’s own experience, life in nature can be “uneventful, even achingly boring.” Even Ryokan, the great Zen poet, counts the days before the snows clear and allow him to leave his hut – “how many more days must I abide before springtide?” But by sitting with the boredom, a deeper silence awaits him…
Often the moon and I sit together all night,
And more than once I have lost myself among the wild flowers,
Forgetting to return home.
Fisher cuts through any hint of sentimentality with regard to nature. Centuries of revered Chinese and Japanese teachers, recluses and wandering poets are subjected to Fisher’s razorlike acuity. There are those whose writings show genuine signs of having practiced in the wild; and there are the ‘aesthete-recluses’, one step removed from the wild and for whom nature is merely metaphor. Ryokan passes the test. Dogen fares less well, for using nature more as symbol than reality. The great poet Basho is even accused of Disney-izing in his description of a shivering monkey who seems to be in want of a raincoat.
The founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, who spent ten years in his youth as a wandering monk, also comes under the spotlight. He was drawn to the inhospitable heights of Mount Koya and spent years building a temple there for the ‘practice of meditation and benefit of the nation.’ He wrote eloquently of his love of meditating in nature. But, for Fisher, he was tainted by association with civilization, his temple-building being supported by the imperial household, and dividing his time between Koya and civic duties in Kyoto.
Kukai falls foul of Fisher’s sometimes over-rigid dichotomy between wilderness and civilization. His
engagement with worldly affairs is treated as mere compromise, disqualifying him from the author’s roll of honor of the true wilderness practitioners. Yet it would be much more in keeping with Kukai’s own tantric Buddhism to see his political engagement as part of his practice rather than a distraction. He was willing to go beyond his own preferences for mountain life out of a desire to make the Dharma widely available. This was no compromise between wilderness and civilization, but rather a transcendence of it.
After all, the Buddha himself, for all he praised meditation in the forest, spent almost all of his later life in and around human settlement. He allowed patrons to build sheltered settlements for his monk followers. He concerned himself with society’s welfare, and for him this outweighed the ideal of dwelling in the forest. His teachings may have been born in the forest, but were meant for the welfare of the many.
So I suggest a note of caution to the reader. Let’s be inspired by the wilderness tradition but not idealize it. Nor let us take the icon of the forest meditator as a literal standard by which to judge our practice or that of others. (Is it such a great idea anyway to send young Buddhists to their deaths in the jungle?) Human society is where Buddhism is most needed. We may live in towns and cities for a whole mix of motives – comfort and compassion both among them. But to really practice in the city is no soft option, no second-best Buddhism. We can be inspired by the wholeheartedness and vigor of forest meditators. But forests and mountains are not necessarily where we need to spend most of our time.
This book might move more of us to immerse ourselves more adventurously in the wild, at least from time to time, to brighten and vitalize our practice. I hope it does. More than that, I hope it inspires us all to bring a wilderness of the heart to our Buddhist practice, wherever it may lead us.