Two perspectives by:
A Humanist Perspective
By Jerry Lusa, Sunday Services Committee
Wilderness comes in different forms: the literal kind, actual places that are uninhabited, uncultivated, undisturbed by human activity, and the figurative kind that embody confusion, bewilderment or a vast quantity. Shakespeare wrote of a “wilderness of monkeys” in The Merchant of Venice. I have trouble picturing that. For me, wilderness recalls the forest, for which I have a deep reverence because that is where I first found grounding.
My sister-in-law once said I was a Natty Bumppo. I had forgotten the protagonist in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Like the fictional Nathaniel, I have spent innumerable hours exploring forests.
Throughout my childhood my mother would bring my brothers and me to her parents’ house nearly every afternoon. We were invariably told to “go play in the woods”, the woods being a few hundred acres of wilderness in northern Stafford Springs abutting the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary over the state line in Massachusetts. We frolicked in those woods, but it was the play of youngsters, oblivious to the grandeur – and realities – of the wilderness around us.
In the late 1970’s my brother and I were commuting from home to the University of Connecticut. The Arab Oil Embargo of a few years earlier raised fuel oil prices such that we switched to heating our house with a wood stove. Our search for firewood led me back into the forest, this time that of my father’s uncle Francis who had recently sold his timber rights to a forester who in turn had taken the prime parts of trees and left the tops to decay.
Most days on the way home from UConn we would go into the forest and bring out a load of logs for firewood. We usually filled the pickup truck before dark, and we would spend the rest of the daylight exploring the forest, looking for hawk nests, signs of deer, or good rock climbing sites. It was a contemplative time for me, alone in the woods after a day immersed in, and often overwhelmed by, the buzz of people and ideas at Connecticut’s largest university.
It seems silly now, but I first went exploring those woods with fantasies of truly magical things happening out there; that I could befriend a deer for example, and that they lived anthropomorphic lives. Call me a romantic, but my thoughts were chaotic at the start of college. My view of the world at the time came largely from my imagination, which is not a very grounded worldview. Four years immersed in the woods showed me the realities of the wilderness. Deer lived a life that necessarily precluded interacting with humans. I saw in their tracks, beds and droppings a complex way of surviving in the wild. Watching them from a distance, or from hideouts, I witnessed the constant vigilance that defined their lives. Theirs is the life of wild animals, not what I had imagined. I was only a visitor who returned to a heated home, prepared foods, a hot bath. The gnats that bothered me in the woods would not follow into our truck. No predators, two- or four-footed, would stalk me. The deer spent the day among the gnats and mosquitoes, fearful of humans and their dogs, shivering in a pine grove in the freezing rain. They would spend their nights sleeping on decaying leaves or melting snow as each curled alone against the cold.
By learning and acknowledging the reality in which deer live, I learned to be honest with myself about the world. I weaned myself of my own imaginings and desires, and accepted the harsher, blander and ultimately more grounded truth of life in the raw. The power of this newfound honesty about animals in the wilderness would help later when I worked to understand myself and people.
By Nancy Thompson, UUS:E Buddhist Group
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha’s followers went into the forest to meditate, only to be frightened and distracted by the sounds they heard in the darkness. They feared what they heard there — demons, evil-doers, harmful animals — and went back to the Buddha, scared. He taught them loving kindness meditation, which they used to extend friendliness to forces they feared around them — and those fears dissolved. Contemporary teachers say that our modern-day fears, desires, paranoia, unhelpful mental habits are the equivalent of what the early Buddhists perceived, and learning to befriend them rather than fight them brings ease.
In another story, the Buddha told of a man who spent the night cowering in a corner of his room, afraid that if he moved, the snake he saw in the opposite corner would notice him and strike. When day came, he saw that the snake was, in fact, a rope, and the danger was all in his mind.
Most of us don’t have actual snakes in our rooms. But, as Vinnie Ferraro, a Buddhist teacher, says, our minds can be like a bad neighborhood — you wouldn’t want to go there alone, or unarmed. Study and meditation can provide the weapons you need to venture into your internal wilderness or wildness. At its core, Buddhism is about developing awareness — uncovering habitual conceptions so that it’s possible to see when a snake is a snake and when it’s a stick, and to act accordingly.
It’s also important to venture into the external wilderness. Meditation retreat centers are usually located in rural areas to offer those on retreat the chance to disconnect from their lives and experience silence. Many people feel a connection to their spirit or original mind in nature, when humans’ constructions are removed.
Buddhism is connected to nature. The Buddha reached enlightenment sitting under a tree, as the morning star appeared in the sky. Earlier that night, as he sat under the tree and Mara, seen both as a demon and as a mind state, questioned who he was to think he could become enlightened, it is said that the Buddha touched the ground, saying that the Earth was the witness to his life.
On another level, the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, head of two of the largest Tibetan lineages, have talked about Buddhists’ relationship to the environment and the need to protect it. The Dalai Lama has focused on the environment during his May speaking tour in the US. “In 1959 I came from Tibet and escaped to India. Now the whole world has some problems, but there is no other place to escape,” he told an audience of 11,000 people at the University of Oregon. “Environmental protection, taking care of our world, is like taking care of our own home. This is our only home, so we have to take care, and not only for our generation.”