Zen Tree Prayer

My wife, kids and I had been attending an American Zen temple near our home for a few months.  On Sunday we arrivef 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.

16 Comments

Filed under Events, Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Zen Tree Prayer

  1. Matt

    The core of Zen is zazen and the precepts. Everything else is optional. Don’t let one monk persuade you that her version of Zen is Zen.

  2. DaCheese

    It does sound like the priest is getting a little bit of new-age or neo-pagan animism mixed up in her buddhism.

    Personally I have no problem with expressing reverence for a tree, a season, etc. I’ve done little rituals/traditions to mark the winter solstice before, even though I’m not a pagan or anything like that. It’s just a time of year that’s personally significant to me, and thus worthy of recognition and some quiet contemplation.

    But it ought to be a personal expression, not something you’re led into. Even funerals for people are technically optional, and there is far less reason to assume that everyone would have the same feelings about a particular tree.

  3. It can be hard to discern what is Japanese animism and what is Buddhism when studying Zen as it was transmitted to America. It took me a long time, anyway. Nikaya study helped. And because Zen follows a teacher to teacher transmission it’s possible to get some shall we say? eccentric teachings. Ah, the spiritual cloth can be fraught with wrinkles. I’ve had similar experiences.

    That said, the tree ceremony would not have bothered me. I’m willing to leave my mind open to the possibility that their wisdom is simply difficult for us to discern much as a fruit fly might not be impressed by a Van Gogh or a Mozart Concerto.

  4. “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 yes yes. I have no problem with what some refer to as “cultural trappings” but I also am able to see them for what they are and where they came from. You are quite correct here in that many confuse Asian with Buddhist, or think that they need to be more Asian if they wish to be Buddhist. Nonsense! (but if you wish to embrace some of those cultural elements, more power to ya!)

  5. Touching post….because I have had that sense of both being a part of something/community, and also feeling dissatisfied and bothered by things that are said and done in a community.

    I also have been trying to find a place where I can participate in a meaningful way and in practices that I find meaningful, while also still being myself and not feeling compelled to support that which I find ludicrous.

    Inevitably I have to remind myself that I will never find a place that meets all of my “needs”.

    I think that you will have/do have a hard time also because you dwell in more than one world and appreciate more than one view. Most people don’t and therefore most communities/movements/groups will be deficient in one area or another.

  6. Ed

    Hi Sabio… very interesting post. Had you asked what I thought your response would have been to the tree ceremony I would have guessed correctly. Me too I am afraid. As you know I study with Steve Hagen at Dharma Fields in Minneapolis. We are in the lineage of Katagiri Roshi. Minimalist zen… at the most. Steve teaches the business of “just seeing”. Being Awake. If it doesn’t foster Awakeness, it is absent from our zen center. He does love nature and spends a lot of time in northern Minnesota in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. so I am sure he would have felt something for the dead tree. What I can not say.

    However, there are 4 or 5 other zen centers in Minneapolis/St. Paul and 3 or so would have loved the tree ceremony! They wear robes and bow and have Japanese names and all that “foreigners are magic stuff”. To each…

    I have tried to practice zen now for almost 4 decades. I am a lousy practitioner. But I enjoy the silent meditation… the pure sitting… the seeing… feeling like I might be waking up… You can get that at the center near you or just sit with your family at home. Sitting is sitting. No zen master needed! :-}

  7. Ben Finney

    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?

    If one makes no firm promises or predictions, one will seem wise in retrospect. Also, there is the possibility she was making up the structure of the ceremony as she went along, so couldn’t let you know what was going to happen because she didn’t herself know.

    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.

    There you have the explanation. You’ll never know who else has questions if no-one demonstrates the chutzpah to get up and ask them, in front of the whole group. If we truly value Enlightenment values of questioning and discussion, we need to act on that or lose it.

    If the group cohesion is broken by such questioning, was the group ever worth your time? Conversely, if your questions reveal others in your group who have similar questions, isn’t that worth the risk?

  8. soe

    I’d have to agree with Ben.

    If you think about it, its not wrong to feel strange about something that we do not understand. If you feel that understanding will help you and even others, you should take the step to find out. In the case with the teacher, when you approach her about it, it’ll be feedback and may help in understanding better those that visit the center. That learning can in turn help her to better her teaching everyone there.

  9. “We 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

    Are you really looking for a community or are you hoping to find some group-version of yourselves?

    You put it quite well when you say there is a “constant tension.” But, managing that tension is the point, isn’t it? Maybe community isn’t going to fit you right now.

  10. Matt:
    I was not trying to decide if I liked “Zen” but if we would fit in that community. “Zen” is a whole other story.

    DaCheese:
    I totally agree. You get what I mean. Thanx.

    Dan:
    When you say “Nikaya study” — do you mean studying Buddhist Pali scriptures? Yeah, I still swat fruit flies.

    Adam:
    Thanks Adam, you get what I mean too. And heck, you are into Zen! Smile.

    terri:
    Indeed. We share a lot. Thanx for understanding.

    Ed:
    Steve Hagen always sounds like a fine teacher.

    Ben Finney:
    Yep, asking would have been good, but there was history of several other things plus I could see how the kids were doing, and they are priority.

    Soe :
    I am a “stepping out and asking” sort of guy. I had done it lots before and it was not met well. But thanks for the encouragement.

    Andrew :
    A community of tolerance and minimal “believes” would be nice.

  11. Mahahaha

    Congratulations on discovering bullshit. Or, some may say that the emperor has no clothes, only in this case, there is no danger in saying so.

  12. Marya

    Sabes que si a alguien tù le haces falta es a la existencia, cuando tù ya no estès le haràs falta a la luna, las estrellas todas, el sol, los arboles, la hierba, te hechràn de menos, Dios ya no es el mismo si una hoja le falta aunque sabe que contiuamente se està renovando.
    La ceremonia del arbol sabio viejo, no me parece para nada fuera de contexto si practicas Zen pues me doy cuenta hoy que todos somos uno con el universo y agradecemos al TODO Y A TODOS su espacio en la existencia. Es sòlo agradecimiento, cada cual lo expresa de la manera posible.

  13. @ Marya,
    I don’t feel we are one with the universe or one with a tree. And praying and talking to a tree without warning is weird — no matter how you cut it. But I am glad it would be meaningful to you.
    I went to Google Translate to decode your Spanish, hope I understood it.
    Thank you

  14. atheistbelievers

    Years ago I dated a woman who was a personal disciple of the Zen Master of a nearby monastery. She and a few married women decided they needed to become nuns and cut all worldly attachments after a special advanced meditation retreat. The Zen Master also told her to burn the book “The Tao of Zen” I had found enlightening.
    Our relationship ended. Years later I learned that the Zen Master was fired for having inappropriate relationships with congregation members, etc. My former girlfriend felt emotional abused and brainwashed, and got a degree in psychology. Now she specializes in cult deprogramming.
    I wish them all well. Well, not that Zen Master. I hope he is crushed by a falling tree. Then I would say a prayer for the tree, thanking it for offering the greatest koan.

  15. <@ a.b.: Interesting story ! In Western Buddhist circles, such things are not uncommon, unfortunately. The folks drawn to American Buddhism (I was for a short time), are a different demographic than church goers — it would be cool to get general psych profiles on them to compare.

  16. atheistbelievers

    @ Sabio While I was living in Asia, I saw several news items about Buddhist monks involved in sex abuse of children. I think that celibacy paired with superstition (or maybe it’s just celibacy in general) leads to inappropriate expressions of sexuality. If you haven’t read the book “Lust for Enlightenment” there are some great historical tidbits about Buddhism and sex in there… http://www.amazon.com/Lust-Enlightenment-Buddhism-John-Stevens/dp/087773416X

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