"Sitting with Ancestors" by Karen Laslo

“Sitting with the Ancestors” by Karen Laslo

Of course, there’s always the traditional Buddhist lineage in which the Buddha mind is passed from teacher to student. This passing of Buddha mind is actually an acknowledgement of the presence of Buddha mind already residing in another. Soto Master Houn Jiyu Kennett, Abbess of Shasta Abbey once bowed to me and said, “Buddha bows to Buddha, Buddha recognizes Buddha.” With that recognition, I’d inherited a lineage of Buddhist ancestry reaching from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha down through the centuries, where, by virtue of the Houn Jiyu’s acknowledgement, now included me. I was taken thereby into a family that extended beyond my own individual genetic one and was given a scroll, which when opened revealed in generational sequence the names of eighty-five ancestral teachers of the Soto Zen lineage. The last name on the list was that of Houn Jiyu, followed by the notation “Lin Jensen, New Ancestor.”

I’ve always treasured this little document, for I can recite any or all of the ancestors listed there, knowing that each of them has received the very same refuges and precepts as I have, and that they have held them in good order so that they might be passed on to others such as me. This lineage is called the bloodline of the Buddhas, the veins of which are the precepts of moral and ethical behavior. It’s no casual thing to receive the precepts, for they constitute a lifetime vow that can’t be fulfilled without the utmost sincerity and devotion to purpose. I’m humbled by the generations of ancestral teachers who, in an attitude of joy and gratitude, devoted themselves to the precepts long before I knew that such even existed.

What I want to acknowledge here is another lineage, an earth lineage that exists outside the formal framework of traditional Buddhist lineage and for which I’m equally grateful. Among these is a personal lineage of teachers who brought a knowledge of earth home to me. Many I’ve met solely through books they’ve written, though putting it that way suggests that an encounter by way of a book is somehow less intimate than an encounter in person. But anyone who has read much can attest to an intimate meeting of mind and heart between writer and reader that sometimes goes deeper than is reached in any other way, even in the daily exchange one has with family and friends.

Walden

Walden

For me, an equivalent to the Pali Canon of Indian Buddhism is a canon of teachings in English that inquires into the human relationship to land. It’s an ancestry of earth literature that includes writings as disparate in time and kind as that of the Middle English Piers Plowman, in which Piers, the humble plowman of the title, appears and offers himself as a guide to the truth, passing through such works as Henry David Thoreau’s mid nineteenth century Walden down to such contemporary teachings as those of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just as every Buddhist scripture or koan, regardless of its discrete content, is invariably about what Buddhists term essential nature or Buddha nature, so too do these writers of earth scripture reach through and beyond the specific content of their works to give voice to the essential nature of our human exchange with earth.

Piers Plowman was written somewhere between 1360 and 1387 by a Middle English poet, William Langland, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. I first read this long narrative verse poem at Stanford University while studying under a fellowship. I was still fresh from a life of farming, and perhaps that’s what accounts for my attraction to a poem that finds ultimate virtue in the life of the land. In the poem, Christ has reappeared as the humble plowman Piers.

urlLike Christ, Piers spoke on behalf of the poor: those who farmed the acres of the landed gentry, those who crafted the essential goods, swept out the stables and cleaned the houses of the rich, those who had little and made do with what life offered. I discovered Langland’s poem one afternoon in the rare books section of Stanford’s library and read it in its entirety seated at a little alcove desk by a window there in the stacks. Will, the narrator in the poem, along with a knight, and an assembly of townsfolk comprised of housewives, milkmaids, carpenters, wheelwrights, farmers, and such were on a quest for Truth with a capital “T.” It was a religious quest actually, and what they wanted to know was how best to conduct their lives so as to bring themselves in accord with what they thought of as heaven’s enduring values. It was then that Piers the plowman came upon them, and turned their thoughts from the sky toward the earth with which they were already so intimate. The little group questioned Piers regarding their quest for truth because despite his apparent lowly and common stature, he possessed a composed and assured presence of person that encouraged them to hope he might be the bearer of the very Truth they sought. So they asked for the Truth.

ForkSitting there in the Stanford library stacks that afternoon, I don’t know what heavenly advice I expected to hear from Piers, but what he told these truth seekers found its way into my heart and gave voice and shape to something I already carried within. Piers told them to “sew the sack to keep the wheat from spilling.” He told them to “spin wool and make flax.” “Conscience,” he said, “counsels you to make cloth to benefit the poor and for your own sustenance.” And then he added, “For I shall see to their sustenance, unless the land fail.” “Help him live,” he said, “who obtains your food.” The knight at this point spoke of his regret that he knew nothing of plowing and working the land. And Piers told him, “I shall toil and sweat and sow for us both, and labor for those you love all my lifetime.”

Piers Plowman, Langland’s Christ of fourteenth century England, was a common field laborer. The Truth he brought to those who sought truth was the truth of necessity, the truth of the essential interaction with earth. The scripture he wrote was the scripture of love’s labor, the back bent to task of bringing forth the miracle that springs from the soil under foot. Is this too simple a religion to credit with our salvation? Ask yourself that now when earthly disregard and misdirection threatens us on all sides. We could do a lot worse than adopt a religion that puts its faith in tilling the earth. Dirt is our proper heaven.

Thoreau

Thoreau

Thoreau, like Piers so many centuries before him, found faith in tilling the soil. In Walden, he wrote, “ I went to the woods . . . to front the essential facts of life,” and he found those essential facts in the cultivation of a few acres of beans, peas, and potatoes. When the weeds began to take hold, Thoreau realized he’d planted too many bean rows and found it to be a daily labor just to keep the weeds down. “What was the meaning of this, so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not,” he wrote. But then, despite the extent of the task, Thoreau confessed, “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” Thoreau has got it exactly right here. Antaeus of Greek mythology was famous for the great strength he derived from his mother, Gaia, the earth. He could defeat even Hercules as long as he remained in contact with the ground.

It was from this same immediate contact with the earth, the literal physical proximity of seeding, hoeing, and harvesting, that Thoreau drew new strength. And this was not strength of body alone that the earth passed on to him, but strength of spirit as well. It led Thoreau to ask, “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” And then, perhaps unwittingly, he answered his own question, “I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.” I ask myself, what sweeter consequence could there be than finding my day’s work?

Thoreau termed himself “a very Agricola laboriosus,” a field laborer, a tiller of the soil. He liked to walk his bean rows barefoot. He must have known a naked dependence upon earth of a sort that we, in our high-rise condominiums far from the fields that succor us, so often forget. We lose the connection because the essential labor is so often done by proxy in a field remote from our presence. And when that persists, we lose our source of strength like Antaeus who, when deprived of contact with the ground, was crushed by Hercule’s overpowering force.

Emerson

Emerson

In nearby Concord, Thoreau’s contemporary, Emerson, wrote his remarkable essay, “Nature.”

Here [in nature] is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men who come to her.

And then again in a later passage, Emerson acknowledges, as Buddhists have done for centuries, the seamless bond between all manifestations of being, human or otherwise:

We come to our own, and make friends with matter, which the ambitious despise. We never can part with it; the mind loves its old home: as water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet.

Emerson would have us know that nature itself is the abiding teacher that ever brings to us the dharma of earth:

Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after a long time.

Perhaps it has been a long time coming, but there have been those, like Emerson and Thoreau, who did guess the essence of the moment in which wisdom is infused into form and have thus prepared for one such as I am an articulated dharma of earth as witness to what they found. Wisdom is manifest in the very stuff of the earth, and that realization draws our eyes back from the heavens to look out upon the surrounding landscape. We find our way through life by consulting what lies at hand. What can this rock, leaf, moth, field of grass teach me?

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Schumacher

It was E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful; Economics As If People Mattered who first taught me to see how critical the scale of our economics is to the relationship we humans have with work. He saw that the advent of assembly-line manufacture was a soul-destroying enterprise in which work was divided up into disparate and meaningless segments where no worker experienced the construction of the whole. Just hammer in your five rivets as the chassis passes by; never mind the hours and years that are spent without you ever witnessing the car take shape in its entirety; clock out, pick up your pay check; buy yourself some fun on the weekend. Schumacher grasped the heart of Buddhist economics, which honors all activity as Buddha’s activity, and sees work as essential practice. He would not have us expand an enterprise to the point where we can no longer bring the whole of it into view.

Dillard

Dillard

And then, as in any religious practice, Buddhist or otherwise, there’s an area of the unknown requiring of us a respectful modesty that acknowledges the mystery of our lives. I have among the books I keep at hand, a copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek so worn that the image on the cover of the book showing Annie seated at the creek side is so faded and worn as to be something of a mystery itself. But her whole book, every chapter, is rich with the wonder of an earth of unknown origin–not entirely unknown of course in its material origins, but an earth in which speculations regarding its spiritual origins leave us with more doubt than certainty. Annie’s words restore me to proper doubt and return me to the mystery of earth. “We don’t know what’s going on here,” she wrote. “We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it . . . Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher

Langland, Thoreau, Emerson, Schumacher, and Dillard are just a few of the generations of earth writers that figure importantly for me in my own personal earth lineage. Other writers and books are equally significant in their own ways: Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time, Wendell Berry’s Home Economics, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and such fictional works as Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of The Pointed Firs and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. But there are other teachers of earth dharma that have simply walked into my life from the most unlikely directions and who are unknown as such by anyone other than myself. Some of their teachings are of so simple and literal a nature that they might seem of little or no significance. Yet the most unlikely person and event may occasion the very Dharma most needed.

One such occasion occurred when I was attempting to grow vegetables in Sierra Valley, a high mountain valley with a cold climate and short growing season in which a hard freeze could occur any month of the year. When the locals saw what I was up to, they told me, “Forget it. It can’t be done,” and in truth I couldn’t find a single garden in the valley that appeared even remotely successful. But when I voiced my disappointment to Ron McCaffrey who’d been born and raised in the valley, he said his mother, Edith, had been keeping a garden there for years. I checked it out, and sure enough, there was Edith McCaffrey’s garden filled with rows of lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, peas, potatoes, squash, and even a half dozen tomato plants hung heavy with ripening fruit. How had she done it under such difficult circumstances, I asked her. “I learned,” was her answer. Before I left, she handed me a worn and yellowed notebook with entries in it. “You can borrow this,” she said. “It might be helpful.”

"Hand Tools" by Karen Laslo

“Garden Tools” by Karen Laslo

That evening, when I looked into Edith McCaffrey’s notebook, I saw that it was a detailed journal of her experiences in gardening. The first entry was dated 1959. I was reading the journal in 1989. What I’d been given was thirty years of gardening in Sierra Valley. It was as if I’d found a previously unknown sutta of the Buddha’s teachings. Edith McCaffrey was the teacher I most needed at the time, the first teacher of the ancestral lineage of Sierra Valley gardening. I stood to be the second. Edith’s own teacher was earth itself. Everything she knew about gardening had been taught her by the dirt in her backyard. I may seem to be making a big deal out of a couple of inconsequential gardens in a mountain valley, but agriculture on any scale is an intimate exchange between teacher and disciple wherein earth itself is the ancestral teacher whose lineage dates back to the birth of a solar system.

(Earth Lineage is reprinted here by permission of Wisdom Publications.)

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