“A Pilgrimage in Autumn”

autumn cul-de-sac | october 2010

NOTE: An earlier posting of this excerpt contained several misspellings. This one fixes them!

Regular readers of this occasional blog will know of my current infatuation with the book “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” (Wisdom Publications) by Bhikku Nyanasobhano, excerpted once before here. It may be that this American Buddhist monk’s approach to Buddhist Dhamma accords with my own stumblebum Buddhist path – seeking out the actuality and truth of the Buddha’s teaching in the evidence of daily life, often through the filter of the senses on long peregrinations through the back woods. Yet it is also one of the most beautifully written books you’ll hope to find by an American-born Buddhist, steeped in the teachings of the Buddha and capable of communicating them in vivid, accessible language culled from common experience.

Since we here in West Virginia are now experiencing one of the most glorious Indian summers in many a year, it came as both serendipity and blessing to come to Chapter 13 in the Bhikku’s book this morning, titled “A Pilgrimage in Autumn.” An excerpt follows. But the chapter and book is so rich I encourage those of like-minded sensibilities to buy it for the full flavor of his strolling investigations of Dhamma in daily life.

Or if you attend the weekly 6 p.m. Tuesday gatherings of the Meditation Circle of Charleston, ask me for my copy once I finish or Thad’s when he’s done since he bought the book after I posted the last excerpt. And yes, I realize it’s a form of attachment to be infatuated with a Buddhist book – what’s a stumblebum Buddhist to do but stumble onward, carting along all his contradictions? This chapter also contains a skillful explication of one of the Buddha’s most difficult teachings, that of “no self.” ~ Douglas I.

READINGS | From “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” by Bhikku Nyanasobhano

… OUT HERE IN THE COUNTRY the world looks different – not necessarily more beautiful or cheerful, but more dignified, at least, more graceful and significant. We had been intending to enjoy some of that autumn beauty, but if we cannot we may as well take meaning instead – or not even meaning if we think of it as chunks of information or succinct conclusions, but perhaps the intuition of splendor that the land inspires in us. For we feel that the land is old, ancient with respect to us and our ancestors. Empty woods all around, windy solitude, antiquity, huge oaks in the distance – these shrink us almost to nothing, yet impart something of richness and freedom. We hurry on through our trivial moment with the intention (frail as it is) of glimpsing certainty in old things, great things not made by man.

The noise, speed, and brilliance of what is called society do not, it seems, satisfactorily answer our longing for certainty; at any rate, from the stimulation of our social life we have turned aside for a while, to get far away from even from ourselves so that we might look around unimpeded and contemplate whatever is noble and true. Out here we walk through the wind that streams and lags and streams again, exploring the cold, vital, primitive land until we feel somewhat less bound to our old preoccupations, more concerned with wind, creeks, and brambly meadows. A day of sunshine and stillness would have given us more pleasure, but by now we are not really sorry about it, for the gray weather smooths a fine wonder over everything, suggesting greater truths than we might have suspected in more conventional beauty.

While we are lost in the profundity of the season, the work of walking and looking around becomes agreeable. With no particular excitement we observe the doves flying over the woods and the yellow leaves coasting down from maples to our path. It is not exactly that we forget our problems, but they take on something of the nature of the doves and the blown leaves – phenomenon that sail across our consciousness without violence, just parts of the endless, amazing flux of things.

Exercising the body, attending to the senses, watching perceptions pouring like the wind, we begin to suspect that this “I” we have been so concerned with could be neglected with no loss in tranquility. Surely, just to walk, to observe the blowing pieces of the world, requires no self, no self-regard. Such a distance we have come today, and the path seems quite oblivious, the sky quite untouched by our presence. Whether we despair or exult, the greater universe tumbles on all the same and blessings and troubles come and go; so why should we waste our thought in momentary conceits? The late autumn around us gigantically blows away into winter, and it seems possible we might find peace in the very impersonality of that – seeing and hearing and smelling with no special claim on what streams in and what streams away.

We are glad to notice that we are partly relieved of care as we walk like this far across the alien, vacant land. Somehow the remote grandeur here sets us free to contemplate without expecting any charm or profit; and in our lack of expectation even bare saplings and yellow grass seem welcome and interesting. Stalks of dead weeds sway stiffly in the cold wind, and they too in their plainness and austerity give us some taste of a curious emptiness. For a while a muddy rill runs alongside the path, but it too is so far outside our usual notions of beauty that we waste no time in trying to imagine it as lovely. It merely trickles and flows according to conditions – and that perception somehow suffices for now. It seems the more attentive we become to the changing world the less our personal problems oppress us.

We are wandering, it might be, through a boundless country of inexhaustible promise, full of themes for reflection, until it seems that if we walked long enough, if our breath did not give out, we might arrive at last in the certainty we have so long desired. But after awhile our breath is not so strong, and our legs are getting a little tired. We stride through the cold weight of wind with less vigor, smiling ruefully at our forgetfulness; for it is surely not the walking, not the physical going , that will ever liberate us from our woes, but the conscious abandoning of clinging. It is right to be attentive, but we cannot think that a passive browsing through sensations – no matter how refined – will ever end in certainty and peace. Causes pile one upon the other – like the leaves that stick and pile in the weeds – and produce results whether or not we understand the process. As long as ignorance is left free to work, as long as craving goes unrestrained, we cannot expect to escape from the grip of suffering. The real beauty and profit of this afternoon’s hike, then, may not be in the welcome colors or the exhilarating mystery of the landscape, but in a deeper mood they suggest to the mind – the attitude of watchfulness, the respect for universal principles, the awareness of change. How we contemplate the impression on our senses and how we discipline our daily actions will determine how far, in the noblest sense, we travel.

Back in the world of warm rooms and social laughter, we had (we thought) a certain presence. Within those comfortable limits of walls and ceilings w considered ourselves significant and solid (if not as contented as we would like to be), and the hubbub and the crowded humanness there reassured us or at least kept up an illusion of purpose and busy selfhood. But out here the proportions of space overwhelm us, and we are reduced to a timid, tiny creature in the vast, cooling season. Although we stare left and right far off through the stark woods our gaze never comes up against a house, a car, a human being, or any symbol of a tame and managed life. We keep looking to be sure, amazed and mystified, until it becomes possible to imagine that the alien, primitive landscape simply has no limits at all. The narrow path ahead of us winds down into the next valley and up through vines and bushes and on again out of sight without sign of ending. It is hardly more of a deer track, but it seems it will outlast our human strength. How quickly our vanity is routed by the empty land. We go on in silence, marveling at the scenes that continually shape and dissolve again.

Will it rain? The clouds seem thick enough. We should be coming back to our starting point soon, but it may be that we have detoured too carelessly and left ourselves with a long returning hike – if indeed we have not crossed the border into some primeval infinity. Rain would be a nuisance; rain would be a misery. Now we are getting a little cold, and we must acknowledge a certain fear of this empty country we meant to enjoy. Here no room echoes pleasantly with our voice. No sounds or signs confirm our importance. We wander now beneath a grove of huge oaks, looking far up with childish awe at the great crooked limbs shifting in the wind and the remaining leaves shaking wildly.

Often we have intended to seek out truth, to get a true picture of our own condition, but out here in the inhospitable land as the season runs by overhead the only truth that seems near is a profoundly perplexing one. With our connections to the babbling world severed, with mind and body roaming along an unknown path, we suspect an emptiness within as well as without. With no one to nod back at us, to encourage our sense of ego, we can only hurry along dazedly as thoughts and moods float loose. We have asked rhetorically for truth but perhaps all along we have really asked for the world to declare itself in our favor, happily revealing itself to be just as solid and benign as we have wished. And now as we see ourselves inching across a windy immensity we cannot hope for that at all but must confront the possibility that we are another conditioned pattern of events in the endless weaving of nature.

To perceive this is not a bad thing, as it turns out. Already we have noticed the exhilaration just in observing and letting the world fly by; and to let our own thoughts go the same way as the detached leaves might be no more troubling – might even be a relief; if we could achieve it over our fear. It is only the defilements of the mind – greed, hatred, delusion, and their baleful offspring – which flourish in the obsession with vanity. A peaceful mind is surely a mind unburdened, relieved of the exhausting weight of ignorance. Out of ignorance we crave and cling – this is our ancient habit – but if in an attentive moment we sense some breeze of a selfless truth should we not make sure to learn the bracing lesson?

The ground on both sides of the path now is deep with still-unfaded red and yellow leaves. Off in the distance we see many old stumps and boulders that stand out like dignified monuments for past worlds, but over their cold shapes, too, brilliant leaves blow and settle. Everywhere the somber, silent earth is covered with color. Next week, after a fading rain or two, who can say? But should we complain, should we lament impermanence? The main spectacle of autumn has already finished, and we have survived well enough. If we are taught the possibility of freedom by such a gray afternoon as this, perhaps it is not the beauty after all that matters most but the looking into the law of things, which may be done in any season. If the rain and snow soon destroy these colors there will be others to come, and other days and weathers to declare the same truth.

When our human vanity is jolted by the heedlessness of nature we are usually driven back toward the reassurance of society; but if we can restrain ourselves a little, if we can contemplate these facts of change and emptiness, we are enriched and enlivened. To have been born in this startling human world – what fortune! And to search for liberation – what blessing! We discover our frailties but we discover too that it is possible to breath and walk and watch the world from more than one selfish artificial point. Long used to habit, we become unexpectedly elated when habit will no longer serve and we are forced by the lonely, beautiful country to teach ourselves from the stuff around us. And it is not, we discover,  just a matter of choosing paths back to parking lots, but of questioning our purposes and duties as conscious beings. What warmth might we foster, what greater light might we attain? …

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