From ‘Interview with Ajahn Pasanno and Julia Butterfly Hill: The Bhikkhu and the Butterfly’, by Barbara Gates, Dennis Crean and Wes Nisker

Sequoia sempervirens – Humboldt County, California

Inquiring Mind: Julia, did you have any connection to Buddhism when you began sitting in your tree?

Julia Butterfly Hill: Not much. I was raised with a traveling preacher for a father, and we lived in a 31-foot camping trailer that we pulled behind our car, going from church to church throughout the Midwest and South. In my early teens I became disgusted with what I saw as profound hypocrisies in Christianity and with a tradition that really didn’t allow me to be honored as a woman, other than the role I might play for a man.

For a while I thought I didn’t believe in God, and then I realized I was angry at God. But how can you be angry at something you don’t believe in? [Laughs.] Eventually I began to study different religious traditions, including Buddhism, and I started taking little pieces from many of them. But I didn’t really embrace any spirituality until I was up in the tree, when everything—my mind, my body, my heart, my spirit—was completely broken. At that point I started asking myself, How can I make every moment an act of meditation? That was the only thing that was going to allow me to survive. And now that’s the way I try to live my whole life.

One of my practices is to get up in the morning and sit. In my meditation space I have different sacred objects that people have given me, including a little amber bracelet from Ajahn Pasanno. While I’m sitting, I pick an intention for the day based on where I am feeling some weakness or need. So on days when my heart is hurting, I’ll choose to be focused on love. On days when I’m feeling shy and withdrawn, I’ll meditate on connecting with people. I set the intention and then try to live that day with that intention as my meditative practice.

IM: Did you make that practice up or did you read about it somewhere?

JBH: I think it came partly from my reading, partly from my life experiences, and partly from my experiences in nature. I’ve found that all faith-based traditions have a way to tap into sacred wisdom and interconnection, and one fairly common path is through nature. So after I came down from the tree, people were telling me that my spiritual practices were just like tai chi, or just like tonglen [the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving], and I thought to myself, “Wow! My tree taught me all that.”

AP: Julia, you are now out on the road a lot, trying to encourage people to focus on protecting the life of the planet. But I live in a monastery in Northern California, which is to some degree in a cultural and political bubble. From what I read and sense about the current social climate in America [in 2005], people are caught up in a lot of fear. Is that your experience?

JBH: Yes, the common language being spoken is often one of fear. So I am trying to be a holistic practitioner, and my medicine is the language of love, which creates a space where all people can sit down together. Our world is literally dying for us to become emissaries of love, and that love has to be based in every thought, every word, every action. I’ve been blessed to see real miracles happen in that space. But when I fall out of my center and begin thinking of a lot of four-letter words—none of them love—you can bet I don’t have nearly as much success.

From ‘Interview with Ajahn Pasanno and Julia Butterfly Hill: The Bhikkhu and the Butterfly’, by Barbara Gates, Dennis Crean and Wes Nisker

From “Silencing the Inner Critic” by Christina Feldman, in Lion’s Roar, January 2018

“The essence of mindfulness is to see, to understand, and to find freedom within everything that feels intractable and clouded by confusion. Mindfulness is a present-moment experience, concerned with embracing and understanding the entirety of each moment with tenderness, warmth, and interest. In the light of this engaged attention, we discover it is impossible to hate or fear anything we truly understand, including the judgmental mind. We begin to see that the greatest barrier to compassion and freedom is not the pain or adversity we meet in our lives but the ongoing tendency to criticize and fear the simple truths of the moment. Instead of just wanting the judgmental mind to go away, we could begin to ask what it is teaching us.”

From “Silencing the Inner Critic” by Christina Feldman, in Lion’s Roar, January 2018

From ‘After Buddhism’, by Stephen Batchelor

“The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness concludes with this insight: to dwell in emptiness means to inhabit fully the embodied space of one’s sensory experience, but in a way that is no longer determined by one’s habitual reactivity. To dwell in such emptiness does not mean that one will no longer suffer. As long as one has a body and senses, one will be “prone to the anxiety” that comes with being a conscious, feeling creature made of flesh, bones, and blood. And this would have been just as true for Gotama as it is for us today.

Here, emptiness is not a truth—let alone an ultimate truth—that is to be understood correctly as a means to dispel ignorance and thereby attain enlightenment. For Gotama, the point is not to understand emptiness but to dwell in it. To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back to our bodies. It is a way of enabling us to open our eyes and see ordinary things as though for the first time. As the Buddha instructed his student Bahiya, to live in such a way means that “in the seen, there will be only the seen; in the heard, only the heard; in the sensed, only the sensed; in that of which I am conscious, only that of which I am conscious.

[…]

From the age of twenty-seven to the age of thirty-one, I continued my Buddhist monastic training in a Son (Zen) monastery in South Korea, where the sole meditation practice was to sit facing a wall for ten to twelve hours a day asking oneself: “What is this?” I have been guided by this impossible question ever since. It has led me away from a religious quest for ultimate truth and brought me back to a perplexed encounter with this contingent, poignant, and ambiguous world here and now. The Son tradition originated in seventh-century Tang China as a reaction against the overly metaphysical concerns of the established Buddhist schools. It sought to recover the simplicity of early Buddhism by following Gotama’s example of sitting still beneath a tree in an uncompromising engagement with the primordial questions of what it means to be born, get sick, grow old, and die. The Son masters realized that the very way in which you posed these questions would determine the kind of “enlightenment” you might gain. A famous aphorism encapsulates this realization:

Great doubt—great awakening;

Little doubt—little awakening;

No doubt—no awakening.

The quality of your “doubt”—of the questions you ask—is directly correlated to the quality of your insight. To ask such questions viscerally will engender a correspondingly visceral awakening. To pose them intellectually, with “little doubt,” will lead only to intellectual understanding. For those who are not stirred by existential questions at all, awakening is not even conceivable. Son practitioners rejected the metaphysical learning of scholar-monks not because they disagreed with their conclusions but because they disagreed with the way the scholars posed the questions in the first place. To practice Son means to ask these questions with the whole body, with “its 360 bones and joints and the 84,000 pores of one’s skin,” so that it becomes a “solid lump of doubt.” Moreover, the doubt needs to reach a critical mass, “like a red hot iron ball, which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit but cannot.

To sustain this kind of urgent perplexity entails learning how to remain in a balanced, focused, and inquiring frame of mind without succumbing to the seductive lure of “it is this” and “it is not that.” To pose a question with sincerity, you need to suspend all expectations as to what the answer might be. You need to rest in a condition of unknowing, vitally alert to the sheer mystery of being alive rather than dead. In this way, you cultivate a middle way between “it is” and “it is not,” affirmation and negation, being and nothingness. To tread this middle way in practice is like walking a tightrope: the path is constantly wobbling and shifting. We inhabit a linguistic realm where we cannot avoid using terms like “is” and “is not,” and a moral realm where we are bound to express preferences and make choices. The polarities embedded in human consciousness are useful, if not indispensable, in providing a framework to guide our course through life. They are like the pole carried by the tightrope walker that provides the crucial stability to take the next step. The point, therefore, is not to reject dualities in favor of a hypothetical “non-duality” but to learn to live with them more lightly, fluidly, and ironically. The danger of duality, against which the Buddha warned his followers, does not lie in oppositional thinking itself. Rather, it lies in how we use such thinking to reinforce and justify our egoism, cravings, fears, and hatreds.”

From ‘After Buddhism’, by Stephen Batchelor

From the ‘Zengo Nyūmon’ (禅語⼊入⾨門), by Kusumoto Bunyū’s (久須本⽂文雄) – 1982

“Above, not a tile over his head;
Below, nowhere to stand.”

There is a stone water basin near the Zorokuan tearoom at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. The water basin (chōzubachi, ⼿⽔鉢) is “provided so that in the roji [露地, garden] the person [host] who calls and the person called [guest] can together wash off the stains of worldly dust.” The center of the basin which holds the water is square, and the square is surrounded by four Chinese characters to which the square lends the character-root or radical for “mouth.” The four in clockwise sequence from north to west are 吾唯⾜知 (ware tada taru shiru) or “I alone know contentment.” […]

Just now I threw away everything into West Lake.
With whom can I share this clean feeling of release?”

From the ‘Zengo Nyūmon’ (禅語⼊入⾨門), by Kusumoto Bunyū’s (久須本⽂文雄) – 1982

From ‘Bendōwa’ (辨道話), in the Shōbōgenzō (正法眼蔵), by Eihei Dōgen (永平道元)

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“ Do you know the virtues gained from such practices as reading scriptures and invoking Buddha names?” It is vain to think that simply moving your tongue and raising your voice is meritorious as Buddhist service; to pretend it is the way to enlightenment is even further off.

As far as reading scriptures is concerned, the point is that the Buddha taught models of immediate and gradual practice, and if one understands them and practices according to the teaching, this will surely enable one to attain realisation. It is not a matter of vainly expending thought and assuming that is merit for attaining enlightenment.

Trying to reach the dharma by ignorantly making millions of verbal repetitions is like heading north to go south. It is also like someone trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Someone who reads passages in religious works while remaining in the dark about the path of spiritual training is someone who would pay a visit to a doctor and leave the prescription behind. What is to be gained from that? Keeping sound flowing incessantly from the mouth is like the springtime day-and-night croaking of a frog in a rice paddy: ultimately, this too produces no benefit.”

From ‘Bendōwa’ (辨道話), in the Shōbōgenzō (正法眼蔵), by Eihei Dōgen (永平道元)

From ‘The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching’, by Thich Nhat Hanh

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The Kumano Kodō (熊野古道 ), Wakayama (和歌山県), Japan

“Many people are awakened during a difficult period in their lives, when they see that living irresponsibly has been the cause of their suffering, and that by transforming their lifestyle they can bring an end to their suffering. Transformation is gradual, but once we see clearly the causes of our suffering, we can make the effort to change our behaviour and bring our suffering to an end. […]

The Buddha advised us to identify the kinds of nutriments that have been feeding our pain and then simply to stop ingesting them. We do our best, and we ask our brothers and sisters to help us. We can’t expect our difficulties to go away by themselves. We have to do certain things and not do other things. The moment we resolve to stop feeding our suffering, a path appears in front of us”

From ‘The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching’, by Thich Nhat Hanh