Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 1 of 3)

It’s a beautiful day – sunny and not too terribly hot. I ease my car onto the highway, settle back and take a sip of the coffee that I’ve just purchased from one of my favorite coffee shops. Call it a bon voyage gift to myself for the long drive ahead. I’m actually getting a late start. It’s going on 10:00 a.m. and I thought I’d be on the road before dawn – yesterday, that is. Yeah, but there are a million and one things to think about when you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, and I’d fallen way behind. Hmmm…, that wouldn’t have had anything to do with me not making up my mind for so long, would it? Karma, eh?

For weeks, now, I’ve been gradually assembling my gear, perusing topographic maps, and pondering over descriptions of alpine trails. Believe it or not, making sure you can actually make it to the trailhead is half of the concern. Sometimes the trail only begins after a long trek down a road that’s only accessible by foot or pack animal or SUV. For that I rely on my copy of Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners and its companion map package.

Yesterday, however, I ended up spending the entire day making my final gear selections and packing it away just so into my backpack. I stood at the kitchen counter portioning out trail food and combining measures of Grape Nuts cereal and dehydrated milk into little Ziplock baggies that will only require the addition of water in order to make a healthy breakfast. I stood around my bed sifting through pairs of wool socks and trekking shorts, polypropylene jerseys and fleece gloves – selecting them, folding them, and then carefully compressing them into tight little vacuum-sealed packages. I sat on the living room floor taking stock of my mess kit, propane stove, waterproof matches, utensils, 10-in-1 tool, flashlight, survival candle, compass, and what have you. I sat at the dining room table checking out my drinking system, water bottles, and water filtration gear; and I sat on the couch going through my first-aid/survival kit. I’ve got sunscreen and a signal mirror; merthiolate, antibiotic cream, and bandages. I’ve got iodine tablets in case my water filtration system fails and I’ve got Vaseline and Moleskin patches in case my feet begin to blister. I’ve got aspirin and ibuprofen in the event that I succumb to one of those skull-splitting headaches that accompany the acute nausea of altitude sickness.

And as I packed it all away and strapped my tent and sleeping pad into place, my mind was busily churning through the many inglorious backcountry lessons that I’ve learned over the years – contemplating whatever else might come in handy: “Yes, I’d better scrounge up some lengths of rope in order to string up a bear bag,” I told myself. “Oh, and I should bring along some powdered electrolyte mix just in case a bout of altitude-induced nausea leaves me dehydrated from vomiting my guts out. And while I’m at it I might as well tuck away a couple of bags of that stomach-soothing licorice root and fennel tea. It will help get my digestive system back to normal should such an episode come to pass…” And so it was late in the evening of the day on which I was supposed to depart that I finally wrapped things up by weighing myself on the bathroom scale and then hoisting my backpack into place and weighing myself again. Fifty pounds. I’ve definitely carried heavier. I took a stroll around the neighborhood just to make sure that the heft and balance were okay. It felt good. No, it felt perfect.

Everything still feels perfect as I sip coffee and speed westward – listening to the hum of the engine, the whistling wind, the traffic outside, and the insects buzzing along the roadside. I’ve almost made it all the way across Missouri by the time I feel the need to listen to anything else. I slide Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks into the CD player, and by the time I’ve listened to it all the way through I’m well into Kansas and ready to stop for lunch.

I gas up at a Quicktrip and then sit in a patch of shade on the sidewalk eating the salad that I’d made of whatever produce needed cleaning out of my refrigerator. People come and go, come and go, come and go. It reminds me of bicycling across the West. I sat on my share of sidewalks in front of gas stations back then, feeling as though my only job in the whole wide world was to watch the universe unfold. And watch I did, as though each passing moment were a plump and dew-moistened blossom opening up in the sweet light of dawn. Yes…, to be born again…, born again with each new moment. To be born again…

I drive in silence once again until I’ve reached the glorious Flint Hills – rocky here and rolling there, pinched and puckered, looking almost luminescent in the late afternoon sun. I could stop the car and hoist my pack and head out on foot from here. I could just keep walking and walking forever – or at least until my food ran out. Ah, yes, but a mountain stream is calling my name. I’ll be nestled in beside it by the end of the day tomorrow as long as I just keep rolling onward. And that is what I do… I just keep rolling onward.

I’m gaining altitude with each passing mile. The engine whines steadily and the temperature gauge rests solidly in the black. Perhaps my concerns about it holding up on such a long drive were ill-founded, after all. I slide a collection of the works of Thelonious Monk into the CD player and let such rhythms as Ruby, My Dear help the engine propel me onward. I pass what must be hundreds and hundreds of bright white wind turbines just to the north – spinning like an assembly of pinwheels that a child might have stuck into the front lawn. To the south, an occasional oil well pump turns slowly and lopsidedly, as if winding down to some fateful conclusion. Oil wells and wind turbines – two ways of being…, two ways of seeing. Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed. The engine whines. The temperature gauge rests solidly in the black. The odometer turns and another mile is past. And as I keep on rolling across the vastness of the Plains, I wonder just how many more miles I have left.

The sun is beginning to sink as I pass field after field of sunflowers – their blossoms facing east and drooping low, as if the weight of their seed is almost too much to bear, as if a long day spent gazing up at the sun has left them tired and ready for bed long before the sun has taken leave. Just as the sun is about to set I cue up John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and it’s almost as if the music is rising up from the prairie as I roll on past. Onward, onward…, into the sun…, into the night… Ba-dum, ba DUM…; ba-dum, ba-DUM…; a love supreme…, a love supreme….

It took a long time for the sun to disappear – like a cymbal splash that keeps on shimmering as it fades until you suddenly realize that you just can’t hear it anymore. I’m beginning to grow sleepy, but I’ve still got over a hundred miles to go before the town of Limon. The highway now is mostly filled with truckers and people driving with their bright lights on and people driving as fast as they can – as if the speed alone will keep them awake. Such driving used to piss me off, but I’m feeling different about things now. We’re all just doing what we think we need to do to make it to our destination. We’re all just fellow travelers on a dark and lonely road. I tuck in behind a trucker and let his taillights help me stay between the lines. Somebody else tucks in behind me and together we slip on through the darkness toward Limon.

It’s almost eleven by the time I ease the car to a halt in front of a motel that I’ve stayed at numerous times before. It’s in the older part of town – holding its own even as most of everything else has faded away. I ring the bell and a man stumbles out of the adjoining room. His face is puffy and red from him having been awakened from slumber, but as soon as he speaks in his Polish-American accent I realize that I’ve met him before – years ago when I last passed through town. I mention that little tidbit of information to him as if it’s almost incomprehensible, but it doesn’t seem to interest him in the least. Imagine that!

“Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed,” I think to myself as I hoist my backpack from the trunk of the car and shuffle off to my room. The man in the room next door is sitting outside drinking a beer and reading a book. We exchange greetings and I close the door behind me. I slide open the window to let in the cool night air and plop down on the bed. Tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping high up in the mountains beside a roaring alpine stream. I can almost hear it already way off in the distance – rushing down the mountainside. Hmmm…, perhaps it never left me from the very first time I saw it. Perhaps it’s always been here deep inside me all these years.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
Sunflowers at Sunset image courtesy of Pixomar via:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

God's Country - An Exploration of Equanimity

I was in Colorado all last week – land of tall mountains, sweeping vistas, wild forests, and gushing alpine streams. You know…, God’s country. Colorado is a place I never seem to tire of, and yet before this most recent visit I hadn’t been in years. Hmmm… By the way, that’s an interesting expression, isn’t it – calling someplace ‘God’s country’? After all, if you believe in a creator, then certainly everything must have been touched by his or her hand. And if you’re not inclined to believe in a creator, then surely your tongue must be stuck in your cheek when you use the expression – as, of course, mine is! Nonetheless, we call this place ‘God’s country’ and that place ‘Hell’s Half Acre’. This place here is the ‘Garden of the Gods’ and that over there is the ‘Devil’s Tower’. Places that move us by virtue of their exquisite and nurturing beauty we call ‘God’s country’, while places that scare us, or bore us, or are seen to be connected somehow to the earth’s mysterious interior forces are deemed to be the work of the devil – or at the very least they are ‘godforsaken’. It’s interesting how we put ourselves in the position of deciding what has been created by whom!

Equanimity – Either Way

Buddhists often talk about cultivating equanimity – about not allowing our peace, happiness, satisfaction, well-being, or contentment to be dependent upon any particular causes or conditions. So, your coffee shop’s espresso machine just broke down and they can’t make your usual tall, skinny, four-shot latte with a caramel drizzle… Well that’s okay; a brewed cup will be quite alright. So, your friend has called to say that she has to work late and that’s going to keep you from going to that art opening that you’d planned on going to... No big deal; you’ll find something fun to do together. That’s equanimity. No matter what happens, your sense of well-being is maintained.

Ah, but we seem to revel in our preferences, don’t we? If you watch situation comedies on television you see neurotic preferences elevated to existential importance. Our neurotic preferences make us who we are! Without them we’re just boring and bland and (worst of all) uncool. Sure, it can make for fun comedy if you can leave it at that, but we don’t. We go out into the world and build our unique personae by bundling together various collections of neurotic preferences. Perhaps it’s some end-stage refinement of our consumer culture or something. It’s kind of funny, though, so often at the Missouri Zen Center when someone asks our teacher his preference on something, his response is: “Either way.” Would you like to have tea in the zendo or on the porch? Either way. That is equanimity.

Something that I really appreciate about meditation retreats – sitting sesshin as we call it in the Zen tradition – is that equanimity just seems to arise all by itself as they unfold. As the hours and days pass by and all of your ideas and preferences and expectations have had a chance to dissipate, then everything that presents itself becomes interesting and “worthy” of attention. Food, no matter how simple (or perhaps because it is simple), becomes satisfying and enjoyable. Work can be attended to without any of the usual ideas about what work is “supposed” to be (work). A break in the schedule can be richly spent just sitting and watching the sunlight play on the varied shades of leafy green in the garden, or watching a butterfly fluttering past on the subtle breeze. There is nowhere you would rather be. There is nothing you would rather do.

Going to God’s Country or Staying Home – Either Way

 Okay, where was I? Yes, of course, God’s country! So last week was supposed to be the week of the Great Sky Sesshin at Hokyoji, a rural practice center founded by Katagiri roshi (one of my teacher’s teachers). Now, Hokyoji may very well be in God’s country for all I know. (I hear it is beautiful up there.) I’m going to have to check it out for myself on some other occasion, though, because just as soon as I’d set aside the vacation time and sent in my check – voila! Sesshin had to be cancelled.

The first thought that popped into my head after hearing the news of the cancellation was that I really, really need to head out to Colorado and climb some fourteeners. Fourteeners, in case you’ve never heard the term, are mountain peaks that are at least 14,000 feet tall; and Colorado (you know…, God’s country) has over fifty of them. Now, it’s not like I’m a mountaineer or anything. I possess no technical alpine climbing experience. In fact, I have a certain pesky and intermittent fear of heights. Go figure! Nonetheless, I love the mountains, and I’ve even managed to make my way to the summits of a number of them. Ah, but that was years ago… You know, I could just as easily stay home, as well. That was my second thought. I’ve certainly got enough household projects to keep me busy. Wouldn’t it be great to just spend a good, solid ten days wrapping them all up? Either way. So, tell me, when is equanimity really just a bad case of indecisiveness?

I spent the ensuing weeks mulling all of this over – exploring my intentions and motivations, and the benefits and drawbacks of each course of action. Did I have some aversion to simply wrapping up those household projects once and for all? Would the world be a better place for me having gone or having stayed? (Mind you, I was contemplating going alone, so I couldn’t even point to the bonding or relationship-building value of experiencing something new with another person.) Just why did I feel the need to go anywhere, anyway? Was I feeling that life had grown boring? Did I need to be entertained? Was I simply feeling the need to go somewhere because, um…, that’s what people do – they go places? It seems to me that we often engage in travel merely for the sake of entertainment – to see something new after having grown bored with life closer to home. It’s not just a matter of going to a new restaurant, after all; it’s a matter of going to a new restaurant, in a new city, and in a new country. Yes, I know, I can appreciate the transformative potential of travel when undertaken for the right reasons. So often, though, it seems to be merely translational – a collecting of post card-like experiences, a keeping up with the Joneses, a checking off of items (like consumers in an experiential marketplace) from some “bucket list” that somehow represents our idea of a life that’s been well lived. (Please see the link regarding translation and transformation on the main blog page.)  On the other hand, though, might there be something holding me back from just doing what it was that my “heart” seemed to want to do? What was I stuck about? Was I apprehensive that age might have gotten the better of me? Was I fearful of going it alone in the wild mountains of Colorado? Was I worried that my car might break down in the middle of nowhere and leave me sitting in Podunk for a week waiting for it to be repaired? Hmmm…, and just why would that be so bad, anyway? After all, it would be kind of like sitting sesshin! And that is precisely how I made up my mind. I would go out to God’s country with the intention of settling into the experience as if I were settling into a sesshin – mindfully, meditatively, and with an openness to be transformed.

I know, I know, I could have done that with a paint brush in hand here at home! Oh well…, I’ll let you decide whether I made the right decision as you read subsequent blog posts inspired by my journey out to God’s country. Next up: An Alpine Stream of Consciousness.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
Image of Gray's Peak is a Photoshop composite of photographs taken by the author a number of years ago.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can

Please indulge me once again as I rework an article that first appeared in the Missouri Zen Center’s June, 2010 Sangha Life publication under the title ‘Doing What We Can’. I think it serves as a nice companion to my previous post – even though nearly nine years separate their respective inceptions. During the process of adapting that original article for a wider (not necessarily Buddhist) audience, I came to realize that it fits into a larger theme – one in which a journey begun for one reason (desire) is a journey that continues for quite another (aspiration). I hope you enjoy it.


Each and every one of us desires to live a life that’s free of suffering. For some, that means accumulating enough money and power and material things in order to ensure that they will never want for safety, comfort, or ease; or if they do it will be but a fleeting desire – one quickly fulfilled by bringing an appropriate measure of resources to bear upon the offending circumstances. For others, the desire to live a life that’s free of suffering entails following some religious or spiritual path, one that affords them the good grace and protection of their God or gods in this life, or at least promises them a suitable existence – perhaps even heavenly – in their next one.

Desire seems to be especially prevalent in religion and spirituality these days – whether manifested as an insatiable thirst to be right about that which can never be known, or in the need to be favored in the eyes of our creator, or in the barely veiled covetousness of the so-called Prosperity Gospel: “God wants you to be successful”, “God shows his approval by blessing you with abundance.” Interesting, isn’t it, how God wants for you precisely what you want for yourself! Of course, many of the more New-Agey sorts of spiritual practices are even more blatant in their embrace of desire – untethered, as they are, from anything resembling the message of humility lying at the heart of longer-standing religious traditions. Practices related to wealth manifestation; visualization techniques intended to bring the bounty of the universe in line with what we want; rituals meant to uncover our “true self”, which, in such contexts usually means “me, after I get everything that I want” – these are the staples of New Age spiritual practice. “You wouldn’t be in this painful position if you just knew the secret to focusing the positive energy of the universe within you.” “You’re not getting what you want in this life because you just don’t have a clear enough image in mind of precisely what it is that you want.” Yes, you know what I’m talking about! This is wish fulfillment fantasy writ large!

Do I paint an unflattering picture of spiritual practice, one in which the fundamental motivation is just as selfish (without being as honest) as it is for the individual whose motivations never stray from the material realm? Sure, the nature or quality of that which is desired is different, as are the means of obtaining it; but for materially and spiritually motivated individuals alike, the motivation to engage in actions that enhance the likelihood of getting what one wants remains the same. Now, you might be expecting me to contend that we Buddhists are so much higher-minded than all of that. Sorry, fellow Buddhists, I’m not. I actually think that most of us, at least with respect to our initial motivation, begin practicing the Awakened Way because of our desire to bring an end to our suffering, pure and simple.

Ginny Morgan, a Buddhist teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition with whom I’ve enjoyed numerous residential meditation retreats often speaks of the bewilderment that students face when life suddenly deals them a “cruel” blow – as if the depth of their spiritual practice should somehow provide immunity from the vicissitudes of existence. Ginny calls it “expecting a cookie” – expecting a payoff. After all, we’ve been good, and being good is worthy of reward, isn’t it? Shouldn’t our goodness recalibrate the karmic payback machine so that it always works in our favor?

Alas, true spiritual practice is much more complicated than that – even as it retains its simplicity. True spiritual practice, no matter the religious tradition, takes us through layer after layer of meaning as practice and understanding deepen, and intention becomes purified. What starts out as a more selfish motivation gradually transitions into a more all-encompassing one. Desire becomes subsumed by aspiration. Thus, the Buddhist who takes to meditation, desperately wanting to alleviate his own suffering, might one day find himself reciting the Bodhisattva vow “to save all beings” – and meaning every word. Recall the difference between translational and transformational practice discussed in an earlier post. Without coming to grips with the nature of our desire we will always remain on the plane of translational practice – rearranging the furniture in the living room of our ego.

But as our deepening practice takes us to that place between desire and aspiration, we might actually find that our suffering has intensified! The increased awareness or awakening that we thought would free us from “our” suffering has only brought us face to face with just how much suffering is “out there” in the world. We’d like to do something about it, but what? There’s so much to do. And, anyway, our lives are so fleetingly short – like dewdrops on a blade of grass, as Dogen says. My practice was at just such a place some years ago as I said goodbye to the corporate world and headed out from Portland on a cross-country bicycle trip, hoping to answer the question: what can I do?

I was fairly well-seasoned by the time I made it to Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon, having weathered the Coastal Range, Cascades, and Blue Mountains of Oregon; the Sawtooth Range in Idaho; and, of course, the Rockies. Such trials open up the traveler to seeing things we might not otherwise have seen, just as practice opens us up to insights that might not otherwise have visited us. The Wind River Canyon is about fifteen miles long and a half mile deep in spots. Picture if you will the many layers of the earth’s crust, deposited over millions of years. Now picture those layers tilted at a relatively steep angle as one end is lifted up by forces deep inside the earth. Finally, picture a river – a recent arrival on the scene – flowing down this sloping landscape and slicing through its layers. Since the Wind River flows at a shallower angle than the layers of deposition, a journey upriver through the canyon is like a journey back in time. Whereas the mouth of the canyon opens up onto the relatively recent red mudstone beds of the Triassic period, some 225 million years ago, it begins by cutting through Pre-Cambrian granite that is nearly a billion years old.

As I made my way up the canyon – past the grayish-beige of the Permian Period, the yellow, peach, and creamy rust of the Pennsylvanian Period, the creamy buff of the Ordovician Period, and the gray-brown of the Cambrian – I became more and more keenly aware that my very existence is supported by, dependent upon, and the result of all life that came before. Stem reptiles, lunged fish, invertebrates, the first flowering plants, single-celled life forms – if each and every one of those beings had not strived to its fullest, doing its part to fill in the web of life as completely as it could be filled, would we even be here today? This realization was given even greater poignancy by the fact that the Triassic Period marked a brand new blossoming of life after some catastrophic event caused the vast majority of all of those life forms to become extinct. On one hand, we might wonder what those now-extinct lives amounted to. But on the other hand we might ask how the right genetic codes could have been arrived at, the ones capable of surviving such a catastrophe, if each life form had not done what it could.

Doing what we can – what else can we expect of ourselves? We can hold ourselves back from doing something because it may not measure up to what we consider to be making a difference. We can lament the shortness of our lives, the limitations of our bodies and minds, and the vastness of the work to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are here right now with work to do. The “lowliest” amongst us have done their part, lived out their karma, and paved the way for new generations of life. Let’s not lament the “lowliness” of what we have to offer. Let’s simply aspire to doing what we can – for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps that is where spiritual practice really begins.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Through the Lens of Deep Time

This post incorporates passages adapted from an article previously published in the Missouri Zen Center’s December, 2001 Dharma Life newsletter (now Sangha Life) under the title ‘Ashfall or Awakening’. I was very much affected at the time by events taking place in the then brand-new post-9/11 world. Sadly, the theme of that original article is just as pertinent today, some ten years down the road. 

‘Ashfall’ refers to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, a place that I visited on one of my many road trips west. It was also on that trip that I became exposed to the writings of Loren Eiseley – literary naturalist, philosopher, and one of Nebraska’s adopted sons. I’ve enjoyed Eiseley’s work numerous times over the years since then, and even if this post only serves as an introduction to his writings, I will consider it a great success. Please enjoy!

Beside An Ancient Waterhole

Twelve million years ago, in the savannah-like world of what is now called Nebraska, something that might have looked like the billowing clouds of a gathering thunderstorm began advancing across the land. And as those clouds grew taller and darker and closer, perhaps the animals grazing or watering downwind occasionally lifted up their heads to gaze at them in anticipation of the cool breezes and refreshing water that they might bring. But even as they eyed that approaching storm, the camels and rhinoceroses and saber-toothed deer and oreodonts of that ancient world were already chewing the last nourishing mouthfuls of grass or swallowing the last thirst-quenching gulps of water that they would enjoy for the rest of their lives. No, this was no ordinary thunderstorm gathering on the horizon. This was the coming ashfall of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption on what is now the Snake River plain of present day Idaho.

Shortly, enough ash had fallen to cover the vast grassland as if with snow, and as the grazing animals scratched their way to mouthfuls of once-sweet grass they further stirred up the ash, causing the glass-like particles to hang in a suffocating haze all around them. With each breath their lungs became less and less effective, and their bodies began to succumb to disease. Thirsty, weakened, and distressed, they gathered about their favorite waterhole – a place already littered with the bodies of the birds and turtles and other aquatic life that was among the first to succumb. At best, though, that turbid water provided only momentary relief to their parched mouths and throats, even as it slowly killed them.

In such a weakened state as that, the grazing animals were easy prey for the predators in their midst, and the bone-crushing dogs that gathered to feed upon their bodies when they fell. But the predators and scavengers themselves were slowly dying and could do little more than gnaw on whatever prey or carcass they could find – unable to gain any satisfaction at all. Day after day, the carnage mounted until little remained alive of all that had once found a home on that vast savannah. The wind began to blow and the ash began to fill in the hollow of that waterhole, burying the bodies of babies beside their mothers, and birds crushed underfoot – predator and prey alike. Today, at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, this heart-breaking scene has been unearthed, and the fossilized remains of those ancient beings now reveal in incredible detail the story of their life and their demise. 

Deep Time

Perhaps that seems like another world, one so far removed from this one that it might well reside in another dimension, but of course it doesn’t. The only thing separating that world from this one is the passage of time – deep time. In deep time the wind blows relentlessly across an empty landscape, without an ear to hear it. In deep time the sun and moon blink incessantly overhead like strobe lights, without an eye to see it. In deep time oceans gather from the once icy tails of asteroids. In deep time continents break up and collide, and mountains rise and fall. Entire species arise and pass away upon the measureless field of deep time. 

Human beings have only recently come into existence on this field of deep time. Likewise, an awareness of deep time has only recently arisen within the consciousness of human beings. Perhaps it is early even now to speak of the awareness of deep time as if it were a universal human attribute. After all, debate still rages to this day between adherents of the various scientific disciplines undergirding the theory of evolution and believers in the theologically rooted concept of creationism. Debate notwithstanding, by the year 1960, Loren Eiseley felt secure enough in our awareness of deep time that he chose the title 'How the World Became Natural' for the first chapter of his absolute gem of a book, The Firmament of Time. Provocative title, no? Hasn’t the world always been natural? Indeed, but it hasn’t always been natural in the minds of men and women. For that we needed an awareness of deep time. 

Eiseley (1960) points to two significant events that set the stage for the world to “become” natural. One is Isaac Newton’s discovery of the force of gravity – the so-called weight driving the intricate clockwork of this celestial machine. Prior to any knowledge of the natural law of gravitational attraction one could only speculate about the guiding hand of God, or whatever other divine creator one might conjure up. The other event that Eiseley credits with helping to usher in the natural world is Olaus Roemer’s 1675 discovery that light does not, as was previously believed, instantaneously appear over here after being emitted from over there. The celestial clock had further revealed its inner workings when Roemer noticed a delay in the reappearance of one of Jupiter’s moons following an eclipse. This delay allowed the speed of light to subsequently be calculated as 186,000 miles per second – a speed that opened up awareness to then (and perhaps still) unimaginable distances. 

Discussion of cosmic evolution and the vast expanses of time required for it to take place commenced fairly openly from that point on – at least within the scientific community (Eiseley, 1960). It would be some years, however, before the concept of deep time was allowed any closer to home. Regardless of what might be true “out there”, “this” world was a mere few thousand years old – deduced to be so by a close reading of the genealogical information contained within the Christian Bible. Fossils, then, were not fossils as we know them – created by the gradual replacement of decaying organic matter with inorganic minerals. Rather, they were “formed stones”, formed like all things are formed, via a process of creation. Their very existence, some individuals contended, was intended to test the faith of men.

It is the work of James Hutton in the 1700s that Eiseley credits with opening wide the door to the world becoming natural. Whereas our concept of time up until then had been confined to that which could be imagined happening over the course of some small multiple of human lifetimes, Hutton’s work allowed us to glimpse the reality of deep time. What previously could only be imagined to be the result of discrete events such as catastrophic earthquakes and torrential floods (the work of an angry or dissatisfied creator) could be seen anew as the result of gradual (and natural) processes acting over uncountable millennia. Hutton, whose doctoral dissertation was on the circulation of blood in the body, seemed to straddle two worlds – one in which he was just as likely to use the then prevalent metaphor of ‘earth, the self-correcting machine’ as he was to reflect upon ‘earth, the living organism’ – existing at once in a state of “growth and augmentation” as well as “diminution and decay” (Eiseley, 1960, p. 24). It is Hutton who Eiseley credits with first glimpsing deep time in our earthly realm. He writes:
One has the feeling that [Hutton] sensed, on his remote Scottish farm, when frost split a stone on a winter night. Or when one boulder, poised precariously on a far mountain side, fell after a thousand years. For him and him alone, the water dripping from the cottagers’ eaves had become Niagaras falling through unplumbed millennia (p. 25). 

Emptiness, Deep Time, and Awakening

Human consciousness is, for reasons of survival, finely attuned to events that take place on the field of “ordinary” time. But it is through the lens of deep time that the Buddhist concept of emptiness can most readily be comprehended. Through the lens of deep time we can clearly see the absolutely fleeting nature of all phenomena, and their dependence upon the causes and conditions that preceded them. When viewed through the lens of deep time we can easily see that our individual existence is but a bubble within a great ocean of potential; we can relinquish our assumptions regarding the specialness of this world and this age; and we can relinquish the conceit that we humans are so very different from the rhinoceroses and oreodonts and bone-crushing dogs that fell upon that deadly bed of ashfall long ago. After all, our volcanic eruption is taking place in this present moment as we burn up the remains of every distant world that we can get our hands on. No, we're not all that different from those animals of long ago seeking refuge beside their waterhole. Perhaps you’ve already scanned the horizon and glimpsed our approaching storm. Perhaps you’ve already begun to feel as though you’re living a suffocated existence within a culture devoid of any meaning. And, yet, we still gather around the waterhole of egoism and materialism where we gulp polluted water expecting that our insatiable thirst will miraculously be quenched.

The Buddha saw this long ago. “Bikkhus,” he said, “[the world] is burning.... Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion” (Samyutta Nikaya SN 35). Thankfully, though, zazen is like a deep breath of fresh air – a long drink of cool water. But to say that zazen quenches our thirst is not really accurate. It is more accurate to say that zazen allows us to realize that what we desire will never really quench our thirst, that what we fear can never really harm us, and that how we think about ourselves and our place in the world is rife with delusion. Zazen allows us to get up off of our cushions and go about living what Rosan Yoshida roshi calls ‘Limitless Life’ – not desiring anything, not fearing anything, not deluded by anything.

So, what “bones” will we leave behind? Will they reveal a pitifully suffocated existence? Will they display the teeth marks of a desperate struggle for survival? Or will they reveal at least some semblance of awakening?


Eiseley, L (1960). The firmament of time. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Samyutta Nikaya SN 35. Adittapariyaya sutta: The fire sermon (√Ďanamoli Thera, Tr.) Access to Insight, 14 June 2010,

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank