The Poetics of Natural Being: Buddhism, Creativity, and Nature

Lama Elizabeth Monson

As a writer, a poet, and a Buddhist, I have practiced to use language to communicate something fundamentally beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond any possibility of description. That something is the deepest nature of our being, a state of being present in everyone, but rarely noticed or made use of. For hundreds of years, Buddhist practitioners have delighted in expressing this primordial way of being in words. They used language, not in its usual role, as conceptual packaging for experience, but as a means to open a channel to direct, non-conceptual experience. Just as the words of a poem, when most successful, reveal a sacred space into which a reader can enter, so too, the songs, essays, and poems of these spiritual seekers harness the power of conceptual language to simultaneously point to and directly evoke experience. Such poems, songs, and essays are fingers pointing to the moon of our deepest nature.

The crafting of language that works to undo reification and awaken experience is a form of artistic expression. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the phrase “Dharma art” to describe capturing a first moment of perception – the moment that takes place before conceptual commentary. In his view, any artistic medium is capable of capturing such moments – writing, painting, dancing, making music, and so on. At the root of this approach to creativity is the idea of no separation between the artist and her medium, the artist and her creation. When capturing that first moment of perception, there is no “I,” no “me” or “mine.” There is simply writing, or painting, or dancing the experience.

In creating Dharma art, moments of non-conceptual perception form the basis for artistic expression. But how do we access such moments? Even though they are occurring constantly, we overlook them. Caught up in the speed of the conceptual mind’s energy, we rush past such moments, missing the vividness, depth, and power of direct experience they reflect. For me, such non-conceptual moments arise most easily when I am in nature. In the presence of the natural world, the overlay of my personal discursive narrative is highly visible, clearly evident in its persistent outflow, but it is also in the natural world that this conceptual overlay can radically cease, break up, shatter and dissolve into the spaciousness of direct sensory experience. It is only a short step from there to pure beingness, awake, aware, joyful, and at ease in the flux of life.

When we perceive the world, it is possible to perceive without language, without concepts as a filter. We can and do perceive spontaneously, through a system of experiencing before language. Each first moment of perception is direct experience. The second moment is usually what we say to ourselves about what we experienced. Initially, we look and see beyond language. We come into contact with sense objects directly, without mediation of any kind. Failing to recognize such moments, we next create a conceptual world, a conceptual experience, with the medium of thoughts – a running commentary that suspends us at a subtle distance from the immediacy of unfiltered experience.

In the natural world, however, we can more easily become present to an indivisible flow of direct sensory experience, only perceived as separate because of mind’s habit to fixate. In this environment, fixation more easily dissolves into the crystalline space of mind itself. In that space of mind, sensory perceptions arise with glimmering clarity. Particularly, the senses of sight and hearing occur vividly , as if “I” and whatever I see or hear are merged in an indescribable way that is only faintly dimmed by the habit of “I” to assert itself – i.e., the tendency to notice and comment, albeit briefly and mildly, on experience itself. Such moments of commentary, when they arise, ebb and flow, come and go, dissolving eventually into space, openness, and brilliance.

The Buddhist spiritual path consists of a journey to access and rest in the nature of the heart/mind – into space, openness, brilliance, and warmth. Such a journey necessarily takes a deep inward plunge through the subtle, conceptual layers that make up our sense of “I,” “me,” and “mine” in order to relax into innate beingness. This inward journey is also an outward one. Ultimately, the nature of the heart/mind is not separate from the phenomenal world within which we speak, act, and live out our human lifespans. These two, outer and inner, are fundamentally interconnected. One of the best access points we have to this innate interconnectedness – to being with things as they are, ourselves as we are – is the natural world.

Long before I understood it conceptually, the natural world provided me with a powerful tool for learning how to be. As a young person, I naturally practiced this art of being. Resting in stillness on the top of a mountain, or perching on a cliff above the ocean, I allowed my thoughts to unravel, to slow, and my being to merge with the world around me, to the extent that birds and other animals would resume their ordinary activities as if I was merely another contour of the landscape. At these times, I felt reabsorbed into a field of presence that included all seemingly “outer” appearances as well as those I normally associated with “me” internally – thoughts, emotions, etc. For brief moments, I experienced no difference between “outer” and “inner” because, in fact, no such separation exists. Only the habit of selfing, of separating, of contracting, draws us out of the vaster field of karmic unfolding where everything is equalized. Learning how to relax into this field of non-doing, non-fabricating, is a profoundly peaceful and healing experience. It is a powerful source for artistic expression because if we can simply be, we are in tune with direct sensory experience, in harmony with how things actually are.

Spending time in the natural world offers us an opportunity to let go of the conceptual stream that reifies self and other and separates us from direct experience of things as they are. The world shimmering beyond conceptual limitations is brilliant, energetic and profound. To contact it, we need only be inquisitive; to listen to silence, to frogs, to rain songs and the names the wind speaks. We need to see deeply rather than glance casually; to become intimate; to let our hearts be touched; to refuse the sense of life as a problem to be solved and to appreciate its magic and mystery – it’s not-knowing. When we live life with such intentions, we attract the world’s energy. To become intimate with the world is to wake up to the harmony, beauty, and power of sacred world. Direct sensory experience in the natural world generates art that seeks to expand conceptual consciousness beyond its own boundaries. This kind of art simultaneously expresses and dissolves any solidification or narrowing of our innate human expansiveness.

Let me provide some examples of art, in this case, writing, that use direct sensory experience as a leaping off point for artistic expression.

Awakening in the early morning, I am reminded that when a Navajo person awakens, she faces east to greet the light. She chants an ancient Navajo prayer invoking beauty. Beauty in front, beauty behind, beauty to the side, beauty above, below, and in the center. Beauty as interconnectedness, a recognition that joy stems from acknowledgement of the human’s interwoven place in the natural world. To face east in the morning is to greet the dawn, that indiscernible moment when dark becomes light, a timeless moment without edges or borders, without boundaries. It is a moment that escapes the conceptual mind’s continual efforts to categorize, reify, and box up the fullness of experience. No one can precisely say the exact moment when darkness gives way to light. There is only a flow through light’s soft permutations as dark drops away and the sky expands in light. All experience is just like this moment of opening and flowing. If we can relax into this flow of experience, we can dissolve into each new permutation of beingness. This takes a certain subtlety of mind because awareness must relax itself and the ‘watcher’ must splinter into pure presence with “what is.”

“What is” is a paradox of stillness and movement, flux and stasis, vast spaciousness and individual particularity only distinguishable as such when experience rises up and asserts itself to itself. But, relaxed back into itself, experience merely unfolds and dissolves like a cloud unfurling in an open sky. The ritual act of greeting the dawn, of placing oneself in beauty, represents a stance, a positioning of mind/body that acknowledges its own paradoxical non-being in the midst of unfolding being. “Beauty” then, as an act of the symbolism of the self that points to the self’s essential “third place” – not being, not not-being – a fleeting flash of perpetual presence.

Friday, my day off. I reflect that practice is a process of forging a bridge to freedom. A means by which to connect naturally to openness and presence. I go out into the beauty of emerging spring – delicate beauty in pale green leaves, half-unfolded, fine, raw-boned; in the sprinklings of white and yellow flowers dusting the naked limbs of the trees. Sky deep blue. Air cool and fresh. Sunlight sparkles on the surface of the pond and wind scatters diamonds over the water. Easy to drop into open space and present awareness – easy to let thoughts dissolve upon arising; to feel penetration into the truth of how things are – radiant displays, luminous rainbows, interconnected and dependent, vibrant, alive, impermanent, a flow of continual energetic expression. Easy too to sense unimpeded awareness, like the space of a diamond, unbreakable, clear and open, awake and present within each manifestation of phenomena and self. Easy to rest within the body’s senses – visual presence, empty sound, whispers of smell – unfolding, dissolving like the clouds in the sky, not separate from that sky. Easy to rest, effortlessly, allow tensions to release, thoughts to release, feeling the habitual focus on “I” loosen, relax, coalesce and relax again.

If ‘read’ rightly, this is a profound lesson, no less critical than Zen Master Dogen’s story in the Shobogenzo of the monk Toba’s awakening by the sound of a valley stream rippling through the night. “How sad that so many countless times the voicing of the Dharma by the manifest body of the Buddha has escaped our notice. What, moreover, do you see when you view the contour of a mountain, or hear when you listen to the sound of the valley stream? … What a pity that its sound and form lie within the landscape, unseen. And how glad we will be for the occasion and conditions when It reveals Itself in the landscape!” What indeed do I see in the rolling contours of these hills whose trails I walk? What do I taste in the colors of the delicate, opening leaves? What do I hear in the slow breath of wind through the branches of the trees? What do the soft sprinklings of flowers smell? And what the naked, just-born leaves? That feather of wind in high branches – does it hear?

Dharma art uses language to speak nature’s words – words that can unravel and expand the self. How many ways can a poet describe the patterns of light and water that sweep over the surface of a lake when the wind blows? Can the way configurations of ripples mimic the haphazard flow of thoughts through a busy mind be evoked? Sweeping in and blowing through the vastness of our being, stirring up energies that could easily resettle if we knew how to let them? How does the poet evoke the feathered edges of a white cloud in the moment of its simultaneous arising and dissolving in the blue sky? That pulsing, ever-moving flow of white vapor, swaying like a Mardi Gras dancer’s headdress? How describe the light that illuminates the inner space of the mind just as it infuses the spring forests with columns and shafts of luminosity? How put into language that frees, the surging joy that the return of birdsong brings to the heart? To describe woods alive with song, with the fluttering of wings and the chattering challenge of chipmunks arguing over their nests? How describe individual tones in the frog chorus that shouts its desire to the darkling sky? One frog, two frogs, three frogs, a thousand, more.

Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra: “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment.” In Dogen’s words, no place to land, to rest. All assumptions of “truth” undercut by a language of negation that allows the inquiring mind no place to stake a claim. Always the object disappearing into non-language, non-fixation. The habit of dualism, the project of “I” that seeks to solidify “other” undermined and a space of not-knowing opened through language for direct experience. We are faced with the ongoing incomprehensibility of a fundamental being that is without existence, without non-existence, beyond both, beyond neither. Such being gives rise to conditioned existence, to the multiplicity of things. This is the basis of the codependence of the whole universe – totally interpenetrated mutual causality and co-origination. A very big sentence. As Buddhist teacher, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyal, describes it – everything leans, intimately dependent on something else to appear as it appears.

This life is on the earth, in the earth, with the earth for as long as we remain intertwined. A life of the animal, the body, the branch and leaf, the river and lake, the cry of the loon. Who will remember the power of the loon’s haunting cry to shatter the self’s illusions if I do not? Who will recall how sunlight ignites the cells in the body if I do not open my flesh to light? Who will bear witness to the sorrow of loss that this planet’s destruction will unleash even in those whose feet never touch the earth’s dark spaces? These questions haunt me. There is need. We must expand ourselves to encompass all this. The self cannot continue to hold its “self” together, but must relax its boundaries, blur its edges, alive and vital, open to things as they are, fractured into centerless space.

In my journals from thirty years ago, my past voice speaks to the present from canyons and mountain summits, from canopies of western pinyon and aspen leaves. These words I speak back to myself are portals, gateways into the interbeing that my younger life so easily accessed before I gave myself over to words and thoughts and to the cultivation of inner space, and the inward journey. Now, turning again to the outer world, what relief, what joy to find no difference – to see the beauty that is all around. Beauty before me, beside me, behind me, above me, below me – to walk the beauty way is to be attuned to the universe, unfolding not outside, not inside, both, and neither.

Thirty years ago, at age twenty, I backpacked alone for four months through the US southwest. One evening, camping above the falls in Yosemite National Park, I wrote:

At the end of the day, as the sun lingers on the horizon, I find a place of peace, with pen in hand. So much has come together today, so many scattered threads drawn in to make a whole. The land reveals itself to me in stories. So many stories that I am overwhelmed with possibilities. I see as through a shining curtain of light. I am a tiny drop of water, held together by a surface tension, shimmering in the turning of the light, lying still and unmoving. The land weaves her stories through me, a temporal vessel, making them speak before falling back again to silence. My own stillness reflects the natural world. To be still, in one place, to learn that place, where the tiniest details sing. The world always sings, but I have not heard. Moving too fast, running too frantically, hearing nothing but the machinations of my troubled thoughts, caught in ruminations of childhood events, of lovers, of every act or situation of significance, coming no closer to peace inside myself, knowing nothing, saying everything.

The natural world speaks stories to me. The way two squirrels chase each other around and around a tree, spiraling up and down, one on the other’s tail, pausing occasionally, chattering wildly, tells me the story of myself. I kept going west with the rivers, flowing down, down to the sea. The end and the beginning, the place of pure chaos and the place of comforting order. When the tide turned over, something turned over inside me. Something released and flowed off across those dark waters and I was free to go. Now peace settles within me. For how long, I cannot say. But while it’s with me, colors are brighter, trees redefine themselves in the shifting light, mountains unroll like a multicolored tapestry, wild spaces where my soul flies free and loosely with the touch of the wind. I want to cry with the coming of dusk, if only because there is so much beauty, inside and outside.

Past self speaks to present self, recognizes the space of no-time, separate from manmade time, larger, brighter, encompassing far more. Do I hear my own words with whole body and mind, see the past self with whole body and mind? Is the self past? Is the self present? Is there a future self? Or is there merely this unbounded recognition of the essential that works its way on occasion to the surface of consciousness? How live from that space of being?

Studies of autobiography touch on this topic. Even the word, “autobiography,” is pregnant with reflexive self-knowing, this unique characteristic of the human being, the ability to reflect upon our own experience, so crucial to shedding the ignorance that keeps us bound in patterns of reactivity and suffering, so critical to taking that slightest of turns into the light, the luminous ground of being, like a twilight sky infused with brilliance. What if we are no more than these pieces of ourselves strewn across landscapes, scattered through dreamscapes, dropped like pieces of shining rock or breadcrumbs on the trails we walk, going nowhere but home, seeing nothing but the universe of stars and moon when we finally know where to turn our gaze? The self that is permeated with everything knows itself and forgets itself. Only then can we tolerate the awe, the reverence, the flood of beauty and love that defines us, outlines us, overflows us. An excess of being. Philosophers have explored this. An excess that exhausts our attempts to encompass it.

Thirty years ago: Moonrise in the desert. The emptiness is very wide, long against the edge of the sky. You watch the colors move, sifting together until they are one color, one part of the emptiness that leans out from where you sit, in every direction. “Great,” you say, hearing the sound of your own voice, flat and small. The word echoes in your head as you repeat it silently to yourself. A coarse word, you think, the sounds, even unspoken, grate against you like sand in an uncomfortable place. When the word finally loses meaning, its sounds all jumbled together, you let it go like a butterfly you once held cupped in the narrow space between your palms. The word flies away, a bright-winged collection of color. Now, only silence around and inside you. The silence is better than the ridiculousness of your voice making sounds, so you say nothing, indeed, can think of nothing to say. The emptiness hunkers down against the far horizon like a dog turning around and around before dropping to the ground with a thud that is nearly audible.

You stand, remove each article of clothing with a slowness that echoes of ceremony. You fold your jacket, your shirt, your pants. You even match your two socks together before raising your hands to set loose the length of your hair. A night wind awakens from a nearby crevice and begins to play with the long strands. You lie down on the blanket you have placed facing east, the direction of deepest darkness in which a few stars shine out bravely. It won’t be long, you think, your hand running the length of your body from top of thigh to shoulder bones. The wind cools your skin, tightens your breasts, strokes you with a touch far gentler than your own. You lie still, feeling light leak from the sky behind your head, the darkness settle over the earth like a soft shadow.

The night is warm, earth beneath you bleeds slow heat from the hot day into the blanket and you snuggle down, buttocks and head carving indentations in the sand so that you feel molded to earth, grown there like some strange, living stone, your breath slipping unseen to mingle with the night breezes. You bend your knees, spread your thighs apart and plant your feet. Raising your head a little, you can see down the shallow valley between your breasts to the deeper one where your thighs meet. It is this position you need to take, having calculated the exact spot where the moon will rise. Above you, a night hawk swallows air with a sound like breath on paper. You lay your head back down, pressing your palms to the earth beside you. Underground, the unseen rivers are singing. A song of voices with a prevailing rhythm moves beneath the surface of the earth, calling the silver light of the moon into the sky, rocking you with your thighs spread in a dance of dark water, turning with the moon, pulling at your blood until your body drums to the beat of the dark water.

Natural reverence, another phrase that echoes Dharma art, is a state of open receptivity, a drinking in and filling up with the full spectrum of life’s experience. So often, so easily, we exist on the side of our lives, at a distance, great or small, from the energetic force of our experience. This holding back, this stance of fear, or hope, attachment or aversion, continually strengthens the barrier between us and everything, everyone else. It is the ultimate experience of isolation, loneliness, the downward spiral of negative thinking into which we sink ourselves. What could it mean for us, as human beings, to step past the resistance, the barriers of thought and concept, idea and habitual response, that keep us separate? What could it mean to live in the fullness of our lives – to take in completely both the maple tree blazing in her autumn beauty and the thick, dark, struggles of human doubt, grief, fear, and sorrow? To live present to the spectrum of experience without resistance or attachment?

What is Dharma art but a moment of timelessness from which we slip back into the passage of time, the relative truth of this life’s impermanence, it’s fleeting glory, it’s immanent destruction and loss? We may think that enlightenment or nirvana or waking up, or whatever we want to call it, is a state in which sorrow and pain do not arise. But life is full, rich, overflowing with the spectrum of experience. The only shift is one from suffering to attendance upon the unfolding of our being, complete with sorrow, grief, and joy. We must stretch this fabric of being to encompass the vastness of interbeing, the endless expanse of universe, bright with stars; the turning of the earth through its own cycles of change, of birth and death, the slow, indistinguishable shift from one way of being to another.

It is here that I see the challenge of our days and the imperative of artistic expression to recall us to the sanity of pure presence. Observing the dissolution of the earth’s stability into motion, into flux more perceptible to our human senses than ever before in human history, we are faced with a challenge. Climate change has brought home to us the glaring truth of impermanence, when we can no longer deny the cycle of things has changed, somewhere, somehow, when we turned our eyes away. Now, we must stretch very large, our boundaries must become completely permeable if we are to hold, without drowning, the unbound forces around and within us.

The closer we come to abiding with things as they are, the more whole, healthy, and skillful our lives can be. Our whole lives can become works of art. The natural world, just as it is, continuously demonstrates the perfection of art in harmony with life. In this sense, the natural world trains us as artists, points out to us the nature of who we are with its qualities of spaciousness, unimpededness, and clarity. Since the natural world is ultimately an appearance of our own minds, when we access its wisdom, we access our innate, non-conceptual knowledge or knowing of things as they are. The natural world is an ever-present and ever-active pointing-out instruction, an introduction to mind’s nature that provides us with a boundless, organic source of creative inspiration. When we tap this source, art not only captures moments of direct experience, but it becomes a living continuity – a perpetual process of creative unfolding into which we surrender.

Lama Elizabeth Monson is the Spiritual Co-Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship, a Dharma organization based in the New England area and the Managing Teacher of Wonderwell Mountain Refuge, a Buddhist meditation retreat center in Springfield, NH. She has been studying, practicing and teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages for thirty years. Elizabeth holds a PhD in the Study of Religion from Harvard University and an MFA in Writing and Poetry from the Naropa University. She is interested in developing practical methods for incorporating the Buddhist teachings into everyday life through the practices of kindness and compassion, through direct engagement in the natural world, and by focusing on ways to recognize the natural state in every moment of our lives. She is the co-translator of More Than a Madman:The Divine Words of Drukpa Kunley (2014), a translation of the autobiography of the Tibetan yogi, Drukpa Kunley. She is currently writing a biography of this Tibetan Buddhist saint for Shambhala Publications.