Under the Cottonwood Tree

A Zen awakening in a land of enlightenment.

It was all about the trees. You’d think it would have been about the mountains, deserts, the apocalyptic sunsets, or the artists, poets, native peoples, the food, the chile, the something exotic. But it was the trees. I was in Taos to write a book about D.H. Lawrence’s time in New Mexico. At least, that was why I thought I was here. I was fresh out of England, in my 20s, and had enough money from a publisher in London to rent a small studio, feed myself, and move on when necessary. I was footloose, free, fortunate, and I knew it. It never occurred to me I might end up staying and putting down roots.

I liked my studio. It was made of adobe or looked as if it was, was central enough that I could walk to the Smith’s store and the Plaza, and it stood within a long grove of cottonwoods. There were three other units in the compound, and all day the trees stirred in slow motion above us, and the dappled light moved about over the gravel between our little homes.

Most afternoons I strolled through the field beyond the hissing trees to get my groceries. This field was just like fields in England, with scruffy clumps of knee-high ordinary grass, and the cottonwoods were like the willows of England, with long, quivering leaves. I felt as if had come to a warmer, less rainy version of home.

Then, one day, something odd happened. As I was returning with my plastic bag of shopping, I was overcome by a wave of sleepiness, so much so that I decided to take a nap right then and there. It would be nice to rest in the open air, I thought. But I'd seen a blue-gray snake in the rough grass the day before, and looked about for a safe place to lie down. The best bet seemed to be among the cottonwoods. There was a tree that had taken a stumble in its growth and bent a knee to the ground.

It was easy enough to clamber up and wedge myself between a branch and the trunk, about 10 feet up. With my back against the bark, before I knew what had happened I had dropped into deep sleep.

While there, an old Indian man appeared on the ground below me. “Hey!” he called up. I looked down at him. His wrinkled, leathery face smiled up at me.

“Sunshine! Tree!” he exclaimed, grinning at me slyly

.

I woke up giddy, refreshed, dazed, and proceeded to return to my adobe unit and my literary labors. But that odd visitation stuck with me. I never could figure out if I had been asleep or awake, if it had been a dream or if the man had really been there. Why did he say what he said? The day had been sunny, yes, and I had been in the tree. He had been describing the situation. But why? Since he was a Native guy, I began to wonder if he had been giving me a name, the way Native Americans did, based on what was there. Sunshine. Tree. I even toyed with the idea of adopting “S. Tree” as a nom de plume. But why would I want a new name? I knew who I was. I was me. I shook the idea out of my head and got back to work.

Cut forward several months. I’d been living in a writer friend’s basement in Santa Fe, had a cheap old bike, and had made good progress on my work. My friend was an avid Zen Buddhist, and something about her way of doing things–calm, clear, decisive, simple–appealed to me. I wanted to be calm, clear, and decisive, like her, and to write with the breathtaking efficiency and success that she brought to the task. Maybe Zen was the secret. After all, a lot of famous American writers have done it: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Matthiessen, Snyder.

I didn’t know that New Mexico was one of the chief centers of the American “Zen Boom.” Since the early 1980s, Santa Fe had had not one but two Zen centers, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist center, and other assorted exotic religious institutions. There were Zen centers in Albuquerque, Jémez Springs, and Taos. I had stumbled into an epicenter of Western Zen.

I took up daily meditation, and it helped. I was already calmer and more efficient. I had liked it from the start, when an ordinary-looking guy had led me into a restful room he called the zendo. It was a nice room. It hit you immediately: a peace about it. It was close to square, made of thick adobe, like so much of the town, and was cool and quiet. Nothing was in it except a row of black cushions around the walls. It ought to have felt Spartan, yet it didn’t. Instead, it felt thick with rest. There wasn’t much to zazen: he showed me the posture, and told me to start counting my breaths.

“That’s it?” I asked. “Nothing more?”

“Not really,” he said.

It was strange: it wasn’t that it was a marvelous thing to be doing. Yet it was enjoyable. Thoughalso slightly scary, as if you didn’t know what might come at you next. There wasn’t quite nothing to do. Yet there also wasn’t quite something to do. It was in between.

When we came back outside, everything was brighter. The leaves of the trees nearby glittered and shook, and I was overtaken by a wave of hope, though I didn’t know what exactly for.

I did it every day and grew to love it: I’d feel a warmth, a pressure, in the middle of my chest. Sometimes, for no reason, I’d start crying, as if some old, sweet sorrow were surfacing and releasing itself, though I couldn’t have said what it was. I thought I had come here to write a book, but maybe that wasn’t the end of the story. I grew to love the hills around Santa Fe, hills of chunky red earth very unlike England, fragrant with pine and juniper—and the town, too, its red mud buildings squat and hunched against the sky, fragrant with the woodsmoke that began to be burned as summer rolled into autumn, overseen every day by savage sunsets that took over the city and flooded the streets with light so thick you could have spread it like butter. I fell in love with a woman, too, a singer-songwriter, the kind of woman I could never have imagined winning back in England: a wheat-haired, long-limbed goddess from the album covers of my youth, when American country-rock had taken over the English airwaves. She was a seeker. Somehow, amazingly, here in New Mexico, it was OK to be a seeker. Back in England, there was no such thing. There was no “seeking.” Life was as Newton and Einstein had said it was. The Bible was a fairy tale written long ago by ignorant men, and had been discredited. Nothing had replaced it. Nothing needed to. The answers were known, except for a few details. The scientific view had won. It had explained everything.

I was basically an atheist, and that wasn’t about to change. Yet I wanted peace, like everyone else. And somehow, just by sitting still every day, I seemed to be finding it.

But that was before I did my first Zen sesshin.

Sesshin literally means “touching the heart.” What it really means is an intense, weeklong, dawn-tonight Zen retreat.

It was being held in the northern mountains, and I traveled up there aching with anxiety. Rightly so. The first few days were unmitigated hell.

It was my knees that really got me. It wasn’t hiking, biking, running, kickboxing hard—I was just sitting still on a cushion. Yet every time I sat down at my place in the zendo and heard the bell signal the start of the meditation period—the beginning of total stillness, no fidgeting tolerated—the first thing that happened, before the long trains of difficult thoughts began to clunk out of their sidings in my brain, was that my knees would start to spark with pain.

And there were the shoulders, the lower back— stabs of pain, then cool sheets of cramp that would make me sweat. At the same time, it was only the pains that kept me awake. I seemed to have unearthed vast reservoirs of exhaustion and fatigue. Again and again I’d nod off, only to shake awake again to the hell of immobility.

And all that was nothing to the mental anguish. Why was I doing this? My friend had suggested it. The teacher was great, the location stunning, she said, with aspens, Douglas firs, ponderosas, elk, and horses. It was advertised as a Zen retreat for “burned-out environmentalists.” I had somehow imagined a kind of inner luxury—a chance to regroup, recharge, relax. Like a long massage. Instead, we were up at five, sitting still until nine p.m.

What had got into me? A piece of late-millennium folly. Enlightenment is only one check away. I began to hate myself for doing it. The only good thing was that I’d never have to do it again. I could cross it off the list once and for all, and go back to being a low-level, once-a-day Zen guy.

Late in the week, the teacher had us sit outside and listen to the wind. The old ranch was deep among ponderosa pines. At 9,000 feet, a bright, clear wind was blowing through the tall trees that surrounded the field we were in, and the sound was fascinating. It plunged and roared like a jet engine.

But on the uneven ground, my knees were hurting like never before. I was surely damaging them. Just as I was figuring out if I should get up, another deep gust of wind slowly traveled through the pines and caught my attention. And, suddenly, things changed. The pain was still there, the sound of the wind was still there, but it was the strangest thing—there was no longer any me. Where had I gone? All things were just as before, yet everything had turned on a dime, because suddenly there was no me to whom they were happening. It was as if a flashbulb had gone off in my skull, and that’s what it illuminated: no me. The idea of “me” had been just that—an idea. Now it had burst like a bubble in a breeze.

With it gone, there was unimaginable relief. All the worrying, all the fretting—and all along there had been no one home! It seems strange that this should have been such a happy experience, yet it was glorious now to be seated outside on the grass, hearing the wind in the trees, and experiencing the sensation in the knees that had previously seemed unbearable. Now it was only an interesting tingle.

The rest of the retreat, deep peace suffused everything. I was so happy it seemed as if I could hear the grass growing. I remembered the Jewish saying: Every blade of grass has an angel bending over it, whispering, “Grow, grow.” Atheist though I was, I almost thought I could hear that whisper. Everywhere a magical light shone, as if all objects contained an inner lamp, now revealed. What was this?

That was the start of my Zen training. I began to dedicate myself to finding out what Zen could do for a human being, and why, and how. The years took me to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; to the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, where I taught literature and writing; to Joan Rieck Roshi, a Zen teacher in Albuquerque; and, eventually, to Japan, where I entered training with her teacher, a Japanese master. Then, finally, to Mountain Cloud Zen Center, in Santa Fe, where I had first learned to sit zazen, and which was looking for a teacher and invited me in. I was right back where I started.

A monk once asked the venerable old master Joshu, who lived in China from 778 to 897, what Zen was really about. Joshu answered: “The cypress tree in the garden.”

He could just as well have said: the ponderosa with the wind blowing through, or the shivering cottonwood. Many of us bounce from city to city in the course of our lives. But the trees show another way: not searching broadly but deeply, finding what we need right where we are. Perhaps it’s no wonder Zen has taken root out here. The mountains, trees, and wind may be all the guidance we need. ✜