Signs and Wondering
The second afternoon of an eight-day silent Zen Buddhist retreat on an island in Puget Sound, I was dive-bombed by a bald eagle.
Here are the facts: The retreat center (a rented Christian summer camp, more about that later) has a labyrinth, where the meditator must walk every pathway to reach the center, to which all paths finally lead. While there are twists and turns, finally the pilgrim can make no mistake.
So in silence I walked the labyrinth. I’d like to write that my heart was filled with thoughts of gratitude and love to match the grandeur of the setting, but in fact I was obsessing about being alone in midlife and the possibility of being poor as a church mouse in my dotage and whether my head has the courage to embrace the hard paths my heart has chosen.
I completed the journey amid these grousing thoughts and stepped away from the labyrinth to hear a whoosh and a whistling literally at my ear, close enough that I executed a little leap of alarm. I had binoculars around my neck and it is an abject illustration of how poorly I dwell in the present that I took so long to raise them to the sky, but when I did I spotted the eagle – unmistakable with its broad wingspan and white head and flying at its side a dark-headed juvenile.
Why the dive-bombing? Eagles are not skilled hunters like hawks, who hunt on the wing with great dexterity and precision. If hawks are the fighter pilots of the avian world, eagles are C-150 transports, big and lumbering. They use their size to intimidate smaller, more successful hunters into dropping or abandoning their catch, and it is perhaps unhappy evidence of the interconnectedness of all things that the forebears of the American Empire chose for our national symbol a bully and a thief. (“An opportunist,” chides an older, wiser sister.)
Barn swallows populated the camp, building their mud nests under its eaves, with four or five gaping baby mouths emerging whenever mama or papa returned with food. Walking through the grass must scare up chiggers or mites, because the swallows swooped and dove around my feet, their mouths open to catch bits of flying protein. Perhaps, I thought later, my dive-bombing eagle was using me as a blind, hoping to sneak from behind and use its bulk to knock a swallow to the ground – the only way I could imagine this feathered behemoth catching the deft and agile swallow. And in fact the next morning I found a partially disemboweled swallow on the steps of the meditation hall. Impossible to consign such a graceful creature to a garbage can, so I placed it under the bushes with a bow and a prayer.
And now I come to the point of my labyrinthine story. Maybe the eagle was on the hunt, or maybe I was buzzed by the juvenile who was being dare-devilish and experimenting with its flying chops, or maybe I was being handed a sign. Or maybe all three.
Through page or pixel I sense a grimace among the empiricists but I assure you, I am one of yours; hear me out. Cutting-edge physics announces daily more evidence of the truth at the heart of all our great religious traditions: No duality (Buddhism), we are all one, in Atman (Hinduism), or God (Judaism), or Beauty (Platonism), or Christ Jesus (Christianity). There is no separation between self and other.
Every year we understand more how the mind constructs our reality (the only word, wrote the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks). Its single-minded goal is to enable us to perform essential tasks in the world and yes, to experience its beauty. But the molecules of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen that make up my body have no precise boundaries; the very margin of my skin, so clearly and cunningly defined by the neural pathways of my brain, is in “reality” porous and permeable. Every moment of our lives we breathe in the world and in the next moment exhale gases of our own making. We are of the world as it is of us.
All matter influences in more and less infinitesimal ways all other matter. The universe is one great organism, as the biologist Lynn Margulis has eloquently observed, in which there is no death – death is an illusion – but only transition from one form of life to another. How like Western thinkers, stuck on Thomas Aquinas’s pyramid of being with guess who at its peak, to define consciousness and then arrogate it to ourselves! For all we know – for all we really know – what we call consciousness is our particular human experience of a universal awareness shared by every plant or creature or even object, with its origins in what for lack of a better word we call God.
In meditation, it is not consciousness (a blessing) but self-consciousness (a burden) from which we seek to liberate ourselves.
In this universe in which interdependent forms are continuously arising and evolving, is it not possible to understand the eagle’s descent as connected in some integral way to my walking the labyrinth? Is it not possible to imagine that human beings possess not a higher but a similar form of consciousness as our brethren among the so-called lower creatures? And that our fit and proper evolution is toward letting go – an experience and embrace of the universe as it is, rather than the universe as the comprehensible, controllable place that we want it to be? Just wondering.
In the family tree of religions, surely few are farther apart than Buddhism and Mormonism – think “Lhasa” and “Salt Lake City,” or “Dalai Lama” and the scrubbed young proselytizers in starched white shirts and polyester ties who show up at my door.
And yet here we were, a group of American Buddhists, many of us clad in black robes from the traditions of medieval Japan, chanting litanies in Anglicized Japanese and ringing gongs and doing our deep, day-long meditations at a camp run by the Community of Christ, a breakaway sect of Mormonism. No question but that this is a bona fide church camp, as evidenced by those awful metal folding chairs designed to induce hemorrhoids and back spasms, and bunk beds in tiny cabins with mattresses the length of an average ten-year-old, and chest-high shower heads, and yellowing photographs of people working hard to have a good time.
Across almost twenty years these two disparate traditions have developed a mutual respect that verges into love. Our Buddhist priest reports that though at their first visit, years earlier, the Buddhists felt suspicion and unease, today all the Mormon staff (most of them volunteers) are friendly and open-hearted. Some bow and place their hands in gasshō, the traditional Buddhist gesture of greeting.
At the week’s end we install a ceramic Buddhist prayer wheel, a steel-blue urn decorated with leaping salmon and glazed with rainbow iridescence, that the Buddhists are donating to the camp in honor of its 50th anniversary. Using old-growth red cedar, the Community of Christ caretaker has been working late into the night to complete a small temple to house it, using drawings of similar structures from medieval Japan.
On the last night of our retreat we gather, Buddhists and Community of Christ Mormons, to dedicate it, and I am honored to say that I played the tiniest role in its construction and installation, a little bit of me left behind in this spectacular setting. We chant the greatest of Buddhist prayers, the Metta Sutta (“may all beings be happy . . . let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world”) and join the caretaker in singing an old campfire song about opening our hearts.
Would our hosts be so accepting if, instead of ordinary looking prosperous suburbanites, the visiting Buddhist sangha included men and women with nose piercings and tattoos and dreadlocks? Good question, but for one moment at least, under the eagles’ watchful eyes on this island taken over a hundred years ago from the native Samish people, there is no separation, no duality, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, we are all one in Beauty, in Atman, in Christ Jesus, in God.