A Good Day in “Church”

My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of church-going. ~ Aldous Huxley

This morning I left the house with my rakusu, but also with my backpack, my iPad, hiking boots and socks, a copy of Emerson’s Nature and a volume of Whitman’s poems. Which was silly, because when I awoke this morning, I knew I was going out to the woods instead of the zendo.

I’m not sure why a walk in the woods was preferable to going to the zendo. I know I’ve always been rather solitary (even my kids have now picked up on this and will chastise me about needing to be more social). So I don’t know if it’s that or my growing sense that the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen — meaning the rituals, chanting and sutras — do not resonate with me as much as the ideas of Buddhism. I absolutely find value in zazen, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the precepts, but everything beyond that seems to me to be beyond the point. And then I will check myself with “Well, are you just being lazy? Or being a fair-weather Buddhist?”

Now I see that it’s not laziness. I have plunged headlong into my studies of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, precisely because their lives and work resonate with me. I danced around with them (superficially) for years, and now I feel like I’m finally “getting it,” finally feeling immersed in it. And I think it’s because it’s American.

This isn’t racist or jingoistic: Buddhism as flourished precisely because it has always adapted itself to the culture of its new hosts. I’ve felt for sometime that there were common themes in Zen and New England Transcendentalism. Now I find that, while Emerson and Thoreau were, to varying degrees, influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, a lot of what I took to be their Zen-like thought was actually rooted in Greek and Roman stoicism. So now I’m getting acquainted with the Stoics, and sure enough, there are striking parallels with Zen.

So these ideas have arisen at all times and in all places (which happens to be one of Emerson’s themes). The writings of the Transcendentalists resonate with me because I recognize the ideas from my own thinking as well as from my Taoist and Buddhist reading, and because it is writing grounded in my own culture.

Between this and my continuing doubts regarding rebirth and karma across lifetimes, I’m just not sure I can still call myself a Buddhist. Based on my beliefs and outlook, it still makes sense to me. It just may not make sense to other Buddhists. But then, a true Buddhist would never refer to himself or herself as such.

I wrote the above while sitting in my car at the boat launch on the north side of the Monksville Reservoir. When I finished, I took a brief stroll down to the water, exchanged pleasantries with some fishermen, and went back to the car to head over to Long Pond Ironworks for a short hike.

When I exited the parking lot onto the winding, fairly desolate road leading back to the main road, I had what I can only describe as a “Twin Peaks Moment.”

There, pacing slowly up and down the road, was a Japanese man (certainly east Asian, but struck me as decidedly Japanese) playing bagpipes. This was wonderful on many levels.

One, we were in the area of New Jersey known as The Highlands. Two, after reading some of Nature and writing the above about Zen and western culture, what are the odds of being met with a Japanese man playing bagpipes? Three, he seemed to be improvising (and doing it beautifully), occasionally throwing in almost jazz-like quotes from “Amazing Grace” (granted, a staple of bagpipers everywhere, but it also happens to be my favorite piece of music ever). I lowered my windows and slowed down. When I was along side him, I gave him a thumbs up and he gently nodded while continuing his performance. I kept driving slowly, listening to the pipes fade with the distance, then happened upon a young woman in the middle of the road, standing still on rollerblades and holding a cellphone to her ear but not talking. When I looked toward her to offer a greeting nod, her face was expressionless, and her left eye was eerily cold and dead.

When I pulled out onto the main road, I couldn’t stop laughing. Whatever choice bit of synchronicity this was, I took it to be an omen that I’m on the right track. It was exhilarating.

The short hike at Long Pond was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped at one of the lookout platforms and read a little bit of Whitman:

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

[2011]

Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

Today my Uncle Harry would have turned 99.

He was the oldest of four sons. My dad always said it was Harry who got the family through the Great Depression. He was like a second father to me. He gave me my first Bible, my first dictionary, my first rifle, my love of the mountains, and along with my dad, my love and appreciation of America and its history.

While I have no recollection of my parents ever hitting me, I very clearly recall the day when I was five years old, bumped my head getting into my dad’s car, and uncharacteristically uttered an expletive. As soon as the word left my lips, I felt Harry’s hand smack the back of my head. It was the only time he ever did something like that. Lesson learned.

In the late 50s, Harry purchased a little over two acres of land in Sussex County, New Jersey. His plan was to build a house there for himself and his aging mother, to grow his own food, and to hunt and fish in the as yet unspoiled countryside.

First he built a small, one-room cabin in which he could live while working on his project. Shortly after the house’s foundation was put in, he took ill, and the house project was abandoned. But he kept the land and the cabin, and it became my favorite summer destination.

My dad and I (and later my younger brother Joe) would ride out there with Harry in his ramshackle Ford Falcon. It really was paradise for a young boy. Fishing. Exploring. Catching newts. Learning to shoot targets with a muzzle-loading rifle. Campfire cooking. The night sky ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. The thrilling mystery of being able to pull in stations from Canada through the clear night air on the portable radio. The stillness of the deep woods, with no planes or cars humming in the background. Just the wind in the trees, the cicadas, and later the sounds of all those night creatures.

When Harry died, he left that cabin to me in his will. He had stipulated that it be sold and the money used for my education. I convinced my parents to hang on to it, and I did return there a couple of times with Dad. But it wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Eventually, my parents did sell it to the owner of some adjacent property, because he promised not to develop it. I’ve returned there several times over the years, just to see if I could still find it. Though the cabin is slowly returning to nature, the gentleman has kept his word.

Given my later appreciation of the works of Henry David Thoreau, I have wished more than once that we could have kept the cabin. Regardless, Harry and the cabin are with me still.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ha.

[2011]