As a student of pilgrimage and environmental history there is so much to learn about the intersection of the inner and outer landscape. In the context of human history, this intersection is laid upon the physical environment. Environment influences or directs the path of history and cannot not viewed as insignificant or "background." Humans have only been "modern" for a thousand years and industrial for only a few hundred. Our natural environment is still our mental and spiritual home even though we have done our best to tame, control, or destroy it. Learning to walk in meditation is not only a spiritual practice but a process of pilgrimage.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Trappist monk and contemplative who lived in the Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky, explored the intersections of religion and nature. He began a dialogue in the form of travel and letter writing having direct engagement with other faith practitioners. His personal pilgrimages into the interfaith dialogue included raising moral questions of social and environmental justice. A fierce if not radical anti-war activist, Merton tackled some of the most pressing issues of the sixties and understood that harm to the environment was direct harm to people. At a time when the Viet Nam War was raging he reached out to brothers of faith in Southeast Asia who lived and worked in those war-torn landscapes. Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn responded by coming to Gethsemane from his sangha in Viet Nam in 1966. It was the only time they met but their lives and activism became entwined over environmental injustices caused by the war.
In a trip to present a lecture to religious leaders at a monastic conference in Thailand, Merton was found deceased in his room after his morning presentation. There are conflicting reports about the circumstances of his death with substantive reports that he was being watched by American intelligence at the time. I'm no conspiracy theorist but given the political atmosphere at the the time and the spate of assassinations that occurred that year, we can be sure that Merton's anti-war activism and his growing affinity for Asian religious traditions raised concerns among some sectors of government in the U.S.
So why is Merton on my mind on this early Saturday walk in the near-peak Pennsylvania autumn woods? I was reading Merton's essay "Fire Watch" written on the night of July 4, 1952, from his book The Sign of Jonas the night before and it was fresh on my mind. He was imagining the time and circumstances of his own death as he crept silently around the abbey on night watch until he comes to the door to the catwalk...
And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars? (1)
In the conclusion to his lecture to religious leaders the morning of the day of his death, December 10, 1968, seemed nothing but a radical call for cross-cultural understanding.
And I believe that by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have. The combination of the natural techniques and graces and other things that have been manifested in Asia and the Christian liberty of the gospel should bring us all at last to that full and transcendent liberty which is beyond mere cultural differences and mere externals—and mere this or that. I will conclude on that note. I believe that the plan is to have all questions for this morning's lectures this evening at the panel. So, I will disappear. (2)
I hadn't planned on walking far this morning but I did want to walk slowly. In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn, I took deliberately slow steps along the shoulder of the old dirt road in walking meditation. Thich's birthday was October 11 and he is now 93 years old (!). Their friendship was short, lasting only two years until Merton's death. The two monks exchanged letters and engaged in activities that would bring their cultures together through visitations and conferences. In his essay "Thich Nhat Hahn is My Brother," Merton writes,
I have said Nhat Hanh is my brother, and it is true. We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. This unity of the young is the only hope of the world. In its name I appeal for for Nhat Hanh. Do what you can for him. If I mean something to you, then let me put it this way: do what for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were. (2)
Walking slowly along, I was thinking about Merton's fire watch and looking into the great, dark forest of his imagined transition. I wasn't thinking about making time or miles, but making observations. A cloud bank filtered the sun - it will rain later. In the subdued light the dark trunks of trees were backlit by warm yellow, fading green, and orange. The forest floor nestled under a rich brown blanket. Breathe in. Walk four steps, exhaling. I came across a stump that sheltered a little gang of mushrooms looking all the world like tiny monks gathered for choir. It was a giggle-worthy moment and Amos, not very happy with the slow pace of this walk up to this point, stopped and investigated them cocking his head and wagging his tail.
Walking meditation is a process and a practice. It helps not to have an energetic coonhound tugging at the end of his leash, but it's possible. It's deliberative and focuses the mind on the physical act of walking. Lift a foot, swing it forward, place it down. Walk several paces, breathe. Rest, breathe. Notice the breath. Proceed. Lift a foot, step forward...
Thinking about walking and the great forest all around me, I could feel the words I'd read the night before rooted in the soft earth, supple and fragile. Transitory. If my mind wandered I would bring it back to the fire watch, shortening my steps, slowing my pace, looking through the door of my busy mind. Thich Nhat Hanh developed the practice to bring us back to earth and to reaffirm our connections with it. "Breathing in I know Mother Earth is in me. Breathing out I know Mother Earth is in me." You can't help but smile while doing this.
I only walked a little over three miles in two hours. Amos had some tug-and-jog time but most of our walk was spent at a snail's pace. He was happy carefully checking out every tiny scent and snuffling through clumps of leaves. Our turn-around point was a vertical stone that marked some forgotten property boundary and it warranted a long visit since it seemed alone and a little lonely. It was so quiet I could hear the leaves falling. I studied the landscape around the stone and saw that it marked an intersection of an old woods road and the dirt road I was following. It reminded me of the crossroads stones in Northern Spain, some now surrounded by busy traffic intersections, but most I encountered were solitary posts that marked a crossing point where there were no signs or traffic lights. Tall enough to cast shadows east and west, these markers were directional as well as way points between villages and meeting places and most were marked with yellow arrows for the pilgrims on their way to their destination. In the genre of pilgrim literature, however, the journey was not made by the destination but by who and what they met along the way. Sometimes the vertical stones were holy men, sometimes they were radical monks.
(1) Thomas Merton. The Sign of Jonas. (Abbey of the Lady of Gethsemane, 1953).
(2) Patrick O'Connell. Thomas Merton: Selected Essays. ( Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2013)