Fisher CS. 2013 Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism’s Origin in the Heart of Nature. Alresford UK. John Hunt.
The title grabbed my attention immediately. Was the book suggesting that the buddha and the early buddhists specifically went out into nature to meditate, that they saw something special about being in wilderness? The answer, from my understanding of the author, is a tentative yes.
The buddha received his enlightenment under a fig tree and went on to meditate in the forests of India as well as inspiring many of his followers to spend time in the forests in a mindful way. There has been a long tradition in the East of buddhists going and living out in the forest rather than remaining in a monastery.
The book reads as if Fisher has been very thorough in his exploration of the history of early buddhism.The author had a very difficult task on his hands when he set out to research the book. The events took place two and a half thousand years ago and at a time when people did not record events in writing very much. The people who went out into the forest to meditate were going away from something as much as being attracted to nature. They were rejecting the monastic way of life. They were also less interested in writing things down and more focused on the life they were living. It was the monks in the monastery who did the writing and very often they were not sympathetic to the forest monks way of life. Add to these issues the fact that many buddhists did not see nature in a sympathetic way but as a place with demons and harsh living. Although they were compassionate ‘ the early buddhists viewed animals as violent, victimised, hungry and dirty. Animals were locked into a cycle of suffering with less chance for redemption.’
For many monks going out into the forest was seen as an ascetic challenge to be overcome – poor food, wild animals such as tigers, and difficult living conditions. I gained the impression that many of the monks were more like the early christian hermits who made life harsh themselves in order to be nearer to god. The notion of harmony with nature was not in the foreground. Unlike the christians the buddhists saw their pain, discomfort and fears in nature as a challenge to be overcome and transcended.
I think the book could have been edited down; in places I felt I was being given too much unnecessary detail and repetition. There is a lot of surmising and contradictory information. Many of the monks did not go into what I would term wilderness. They lived in huts outside the village surrounded by trees and within walking distance of others. At the end of the author’s research we are left with very little evidence that we can confidently draw conclusions from.
I did find the book very interesting for its history of early buddhism. It clearly explains the ideas and reasons why people decided to go out into the forest and live a solitary life.
There are some thought provoking discussions on the aesthetics of early Chinese art and Japanese zen poetry. Fisher questions how much their art comes from meditation practice and how much from artistic conventions and romantic ideas about nature. For some, nature was an opportunity for a direct experience and for others nature was used for symbolic and metaphorical purposes. I don’t accept all his arguments but it did make me re-evaluate the authenticity of some writers and artists.
I would have liked more in the last chapter which is about people who choose to live in the wilderness today. Their experiences of retreats in nature deserves more detail. Fisher interviewed a very experienced meditator Carla Brennan who has been on solitary retreats in nature for extended periods. She is quoted as saying, ‘Nature teaches you to be, because it is not thinking about things.’ After about three days there is a transition. ‘Nature forces you to be more in your senses, more connected to your body. You are taken out from your routines. It forces you to be in more harmony with your senses – when it is dark, it is dark. Animals treat you differently. You become more attuned and open.’ I can go along with these experiences. On a retreat with other people it is easier to stay with thoughts. Often you are encouraged to reflect on a talk or consider buddhist texts. Nature has no time for thinking about thoughts.
Johann Roberts leads groups into wilderness hikes. I like what he said,’ Nature is always manifesting not-self, impermanence, and unreliability. There is nothing selfing out there except us. The river is not selfing. If the river gets whipped up by the wind and dumps you over it is impersonal.’
There is also the valid suggestion that there are people out in true wilderness who are meditators and who don’t want to be found or communicate with the industrial world outside. We will never get their story.
An important thread which is not mentioned in the book is the practice of Forest Bathing Shin-rin-yoku, which is not strictly buddhist but is never the less about being in nature for personal wellbeing.
Definitely worth a read if you are interested in buddhism and it’s early history.