The Mountain Shifts, Becomes A Tree…

(I like to put a photograph up here,
but I’m practicing using my own photos—
and I don’t have one of a Giant Sequoia.
So please, imagine, if you will,
a picture here of a magnificent Giant Sequoia
with the rising sun just touching
the topmost branches…)

After all these years, all these many years of practicing shikan taza meditation, I suddenly made a shift that felt quite profound. Part of shikan taza is to “sit like a mountain”. This morning, sitting with a Buddhist group in Second Life, I was feeling chilled, my back felt all wrong and heavy, hurting. Either I couldn’t find the mountain, or when I could find it, it felt… just wrong. Suddenly, like an unexpected gift, it came to me to sit like a tree, like a giant Sequoia, upright, stable, yet… lifting.

I don’t know what the essential difference is between tree and mountain. The mountain has always felt solid, real, immovable to me. Perhaps that is the change—from immoveable to flexible, from stone/earth to living wood. The mountain has always felt alive, but this was still a shift from alive like Earthmama to alive like a tree, rooted in the earth, branches spread wide in gratitude, and mind illuminated with the warmth of the sun.

Looking at the Chinese five elements—fire, earth, metal, water, wood—I notice that earth supports wood, trees grow out of earth. So perhaps this progression is simply a natural one. It feels like that.

The shikan taza meditation, as I’ve known it, was to “sit hard”, sit like a mountain, mind like a cloud, holding expectant gratitude. This different view was still sitting, focused and solid, but like a tree with deep roots, somehow lighter than the mountain—still a part of the earth, but… different. Lighter. Capable of motion, of flexibility, giving with the wind yet being strong. Growing upward.

This ability to bend and adapt seems important just now—accepting whatever changes come, accepting the increasing wear and tear of age, not expecting to be rigid, unchanging. Letting go of the deep roots in the earth. You know, it’s only now I realize how uncomfortable those roots were becoming and how much they needed to change and soften. Accepting the roots of the trees, impermanent, growing, changing, eventually dying, was such a relief! And oddly enough, it felt like gravity shifted, as if something—the life of the tree, the sap rising perhaps—was lifting me up.

As I followed the energy up from the tree roots, the enclosed grateful heart of the mountain became branches spread wide, receiving light, receiving warmth, vital and alive, in deep gratitude.

The “mind like a cloud” became branches at the top of the tree, bathed in the light of the rising sun. Illuminated. While the cloud always felt light, it didn’t feel quite like this, as if infinite warm light was flowing in and through… the most remarkable feeling.

For me, the whole of shikan taza has always been rooted in feeling, not in thinking. It’s a shift of focus from “thinking about” to “feeling” and then to “being”. I don’t know if this is the “right” way, the proper Zen way to do shikan taza, but it has helped me immeasurably over the years. And now this change that feels so profound?

Who knew? I’ve been practicing shikan taza for over a quarter of a century, ever since I first read about it in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen, and suddenly, sitting there in the virtual world with a small group of people, it shifted. This feels like a gift, a benison of warmth and light.

I am so grateful.