My ex-wife, kids and I had been attending an American Zen temple near our home for a few months. On Sunday we arrive for the morning meditation service. When we arrived, we notices that an old, beautiful tree outside the temple had been destroyed by the recent strong windstorm. Indeed, large branches from other trees littered the yard
After that morning’s mediation instead of proceeding to the normal temple cleaning ritual, the priest unexpectedly led everyone outside in a very slow, meditative walk around the temple grounds. She start the walk with a Zen chant using ancient Japanese (unintelligible to all of us). As we walked the chant sped up until we arrived at and encircled the shattered, dead tree. “Ah, this is were we were going,” I thought, “now what”?
We stood there in silence facing the mangled tree. The teacher had a stick of slow-burning incense in her hand which she seemed to be offering to the tree. We had never done this before and most of us had no idea why we were there. We stood there in silence for a rather puzzling long time. My kids, with snickers, were sneaking looks at all the adults who were somberly looking at a dead tree. I had to give them a firm look mean “Not now guys”. It reminded me of how I was scolded in church for playing with my brothers during long prayers when everyone was suppose to have their eyes closed.
Finally the teacher spoke up in a gentle voice asking us to raise our arms and join our palms toward the tree. Then she spoke to the tree thanking it for its years of beauty and wisdom. She finally expressed our sorrow for its death and then wished it well in its next incarnation — as if it were listening. Everyone stayed facing the tree in silence a bit longer and then we walked back into the temple to do our daily cleaning in mindful silence.
But I had several questions.
- Why weren’t we told what was going to happen? OK, she is the priest, but really, a little explanation would have been appreciated instead of the blanket of mystery and blind following. Didn’t the priest imagine we would wonder and feel awkward in the ceremony?
- Why were we talking to a tree? Was she serious about thinking this tree was going to reincarnate?
- Did everyone in this group who used chainsaws or ripped weeds out of their gardens perform a ceremony like this ushering each of their ruthlessly slaughtered trees or plants into its next life?
- Did any of the other folks here have similar questions?
But I never asked these questions. No one in the Zendo ever talked about the ritual except for a few people who went up to the priest complimenting her on how beautiful the ceremony was. But I guess my family are irreparable heathens. For as soon as we got in our car we all agreed that the Zen-tree-prayer was wierd. My kids started asking tons of questions but I had no answers that I myself could believe in. Sure, I know the possible answers: We are one with the Universe; Every sentient being is precious; We should show thankfulness for everything in our life. I am sure I could have spun lots of other explanations. But I don’t do that to my kids. So it seemed my wife and I were discovering we weren’t very Zenny. I think the most bothersome aspect of the ceremony (as in much of Zen) was all the seriousness — it was so Japanese. But the Americans practicing there probably thought it was very Buddhist and they were trying their very best to be Japanese.
Yes, I know, many cultures have myths of trees and many cultures worship trees. Oddly enough, had this ceremony occurred in India or Japan I might have overlooked it as quaint. Don’t get me wrong — I value trees. Heck I value the chickens that make our eggs and fill our freezer with good meat. You could think that I am incurable modernist but perhaps I am simply not a nature worshiper.
Fortunately there are versions of Buddhism growing to accommodate our likes: they don’t require their practitioners to embrace both sentimental animistic beliefs nor the worship of foreign cultures. But to find such a group is hard. Indeed in all religious traditions, to find a balance between ancient or foreign cultures that your tradition came wrapped in and your own modern culture, is a constant tension.
The Zen Temple is very close to our house. My wife and I both value silent meditation. We are definitely not Christian but had hoped we could find a contemplative community to join. Yet this is one of many stories which made it difficult for our family to feel comfortable joining the Zen Center.