A wolf in grandma’s clothing:
Big eyes, tall ears, sharp teeth--
And a traveler with a red hood.
What a bloody mess when they meet!
Bill saw Myonen going into the woods with her dogs. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“To see the white wolf inside the forest.”
“Don’t be silly, everyone knows there are no wolves in Massachusetts,” said Bill. “Beside, white
wolves are only in the Arctic.”
Myonen entered the forest.
A long time ago, sitting on a rock by pools deep in a state-owned forest, I looked out beyond the trees to a clearing far away and saw a large white animal. In all the years that I’d been visiting that spot I’d seen deer, coyotes, and bears, but nothing white, not even a dog. I thought it might be a white wolf, and every day thereafter, for years, I looked out towards that distant clearing, seeking it.
The great stories of our lives are searches, journeys, and quests. Whether it’s revelation, a holy grail, a snow leopard, an odyssey, enlightenment, or going home, these tales are archetypal for most cultures and peoples. Even if we don’t have a grand plan or lofty ambitions, chances are we still see our life’s arc as some kind of quest or journey of discovery.
And every quest and journey needs help. Not just help from the rational mind, but also help from the irrational, from otherworldly dimensions, from all the things that make no sense. Day by day the curtain comes up briefly to reveal glimpses into other worlds, marvelous aspects of ourselves. Magic happens, coincidences occur, strangers make uncanny remarks, sudden bursts of memory and revelation come seemingly out of nowhere. A stranger emails from halfway round the world with an idea, an offer of help. A deer appears in the woods, veers, and runs right towards me, passing within two feet of me just as I’m pondering the feasibility of a retreat with Lakota elders in their sacred Black Hills.
We are the universe and the universe is us, so there’s no such thing as a call with no response, only the response is in the universe’s language, or infinite languages. Can you listen? How attached are you to daily routines keeping you from looking right or left? How attached are you to your rational mind? There is nothing wrong with our rational mind, but when we rely on it excessively we leave out the intuitive, the irrational and imaginary. We leave out the white wolf in the forest.
When we embark on a quest or journey, what are we searching for? Is it anything that can be defined or summed up by our logical brain? Is it anything that makes sense?
Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo.
“I don’t know,” replied Hogen.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replied Jizo.
At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.
Mystery is the provenance of nature, so is it any wonder that so many meditators go to do retreats in mountain monasteries or forest refuges? But everything can be rolled into your practice, from obeying the urge to stroke a colorful piece of silks to an old melody you can’t get out of your head, from the impulse to tell a story to a haunting memory that won’t let go. Without meandering in accordance with the wishes of our heart, practice can become dry and rational, or else too rarefied, because it doesn’t include the full human being.
An added bonus of pilgrimaging aimlessly is that one question need not come up: Am I there yet?
Our friend, photographer Peter Cunningham, captured a pilgrimage to Zen masters in Japan, and especially the intimacy between teachers and Western disciples as Zen traveled West, accompanied by the words of writer, naturalist, and teacher Peter Matthiessen. He was delighted with the name he came up with for a book about the flowering of Japanese Zen over almost a millennium: Are We There Yet?
Isn’t that the question we ask about our own shorter, more condensed lives? Am I there yet? Have I fallen short? Maybe I shouldn’t have turned this way, I should have gone there. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this, I should have done that. Maybe I shouldn’t have started to begin with, it was a fantasy and a waste of time and effort, maybe even a waste of a life.
Did I ever see a white wolf in the woods of Massachusetts? Was it a memory? A dream? Does it matter?
I pay attention to the daily changes, to how trees come down after storms, their branches carted off by the stream, the ducks landing in the pools, coyote scat on the trail. When you do this day after day for years, you no longer even notice when you enter or leave the forest. The woods are such a part of you that leaving and entering don’t matter, even the white wolf doesn’t matter.
My dogs are old now and we don’t even make it as far as the rock by the pools anymore. In the winter, with the ground buried under snow, we walk only a short way in, look up at the tall pines and down below at the frozen creek, and turn back. Those few footsteps are all that’s needed. The hoot of an owl is all that’s needed; the slow, winding fall of a maple leaf long past its prime is all that’s needed.
Since each step is a destination, why go far?
Wick, Gerry Shishin. The Book of Equanimity, Wisdom Publications, Boston, MA 2005, p. 63.