The Natural World as a Powerful Teacher

Elizabeth Monson invites us to consider how the natural world can do far more than provide us with a peaceful environment for meditation.

By Elizabeth Monson

Photo by Daiwei Lu.

There’s a saying in Tibetan Buddhism that while we might start off with a personal teacher, at some point the entire phenomenal world becomes our guru.

This adage expresses the idea that all internal and external phenomena can be a catalyst for awakening. But it’s also true that nature, in particular, is a great teacher. The natural world continually arises as a vivid and ephemeral display. By tuning in to it through our sense perceptions—by hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling the natural world fully—we discover a connection with a deeper and more awake dimension of our being, one that is free from the usual overlay of our conceptual thoughts. As guru, the natural world reveals that being present with things as they are can be a transformative experience.

We can engage with the natural world as an interactive medium within which we can access and abide in the nature of the mind.

Texts from numerous Buddhist traditions describe the benefits of the natural world as a powerful support for meditation. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, the Buddha himself tells his disciples, “Seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I wandered…until…I saw a delightful stretch of land and a lovely woodland grove, and a clear flowing river with a delightful forest, so I sat down thinking, ‘Indeed, this is an appropriate place to strive for the ultimate realization of…Nirvana.’” Many other examples in Buddhist texts emphasize silence, solitude, and removing oneself from the stimulation of daily life as necessary conditions for allowing the mind to settle and relax.

But the natural world can do far more than provide us with a peaceful environment for meditation. As we develop our practice and attention, we can engage with the natural world as an interactive medium within which we can access and abide in the nature of the mind. Encountering the natural world through our sense perceptions returns us again and again to open awareness—a state of being that is fresh, alive, easeful, and awake.

Consider a flower. When we see the bright color of a flower or observe its intricate structure, we experience its directness and simplicity. We see how the flower abides in space as a vivid presence. In the instant we first see it, the flower transmits itself fully, completely, to our perception. Buddhist Abhidharma teachings tell us direct perception takes place in every moment of sensory experience but is so quickly layered over with the conceptual mind’s stories, thoughts, and ideas that we usually miss it. Unfiltered vision is genuine, naked vision stripped of concepts and ideas.

Experiencing the phenomenal world, the natural world, in this way, we see that everything is continuously permeated with presence, a fullness and richness that speaks its own language. Something as simple as a breeze can provide a doorway into an experience of our deepest nature. Rocks, trees, grass, mountains, oceans, and sky all provide a powerful stimulus for us to be present now, in the moment. No conceptual thought is necessary to know their existence. They simply are as they are. The fundamental nature of a tree, its tree-ness, is right there for us to experience and perceive directly, unmediated by cognition.

All our sense perceptions can function like this, serving to wake us up. In a moment of direct perception, the sound of a bird singing can ring like an echo throughout our whole being. In doing so, it can tune us in to mind’s emptiness and its ever-unfurling expressiveness. In its purity, the song of a bird can’t be categorized as “good” or “bad,” or even “beautiful” or “grating.” Birdsong simply presents itself in its naked, most primordial form, a form inherently empty of essence but compelling to our auditory sense.

Meditation helps us gain some grounding in direct sensory experience unmediated by thoughts, ideas, or projections. When we engage in practices such as shamatha and vipashyana, we stabilize our flighty, busy minds and develop our innate mental clarity and strength. We experience firsthand the possibility of letting go into, and becoming one with, the greater context that surrounds and encompasses us. This creates the conditions by which we can experience nondual awareness, the true nature of our heart–mind. Having a direct experience of this ever-present but subtle aspect of our being is the goal of most Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, but sometimes it can seem like a remote possibility. This original state of our heart–mind is actually not so unfamiliar, though. In truth, we experience it continually throughout our lives. We just may not always recognize it.

We so often think we have to find the nature of our mind inside, through deep introspection. But by taking the natural world as guru, we can also tune in to our innate nature outside of what we conventionally think of as our selves. With time and patience, we can come to know there is no difference between “in here” and “out there.” Meditation helps us discover that union between inner and outer, providing a direct experience of their inseparability.

To say the entire world becomes the guru means that as we meditate, relax, and dissolve some of our fixation with conceptual thinking, our sense perceptions become clarified, like a windowpane whose surface has been covered with dirt for a long time. Slowly, as the glass is wiped clean, everything becomes clearer. Birdsong is birdsong. The warmth of the sun is just what it is. There is nothing esoteric or mystical about this. Things just are what they are. Freed from our usual conceptual overlay, our experience of the phenomenal world becomes direct, definite, and clear—so much so that if we allow for it, it has the power to wake us up from our habitual conceptual chattering.

Eventually, seeing things as they are shifts from being an activity or a process we engage in to a state of being, a stance of open awareness in relation to the phenomenal world, which returns its confirmation without words. We usually try so hard to understand, to intellectualize our experience. But we can learn to hear, feel, smell, and taste the world without needing to understand.

While the natural world can be particularly helpful in developing this kind of experience, we can use the directness of any moment of perception to wake up to the greater space of our own awareness. If you live in downtown Manhattan, you can use your experience of the bitter cold on a winter morning or the radiance of the sun’s rays beaming down on the pavement as you walk to work as catalysts for awakening. Even the roar of a large truck rumbling past on the street provides an opportunity for direct perception. Such moments can serve to remind us of the preciousness of this human life, its fleeting beauty, and the need to awaken to a responsible life.

As we learn to abide in natural awareness, with our sense perceptions open, we come to experience the vast, ocean-like power of our deepest nature. When we connect with this part of ourselves, when we partake of the liberating wisdom of things as they are, everything is saturated with this spacious, open, warm, luminous, awake quality. Taking the world as our guru, we can hear the inner language of nature and experience ever more deeply the reality of the present moment. This reality is nothing other than innate wakefulness, an unimpeded, flowing field of energy, a perpetual fount of creativity—and the fundamental quality of our life.

Elizabeth Monson

Elizabeth Monson

Lama Liz Monson, PhD, is the Spiritual Co-Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship. She has practiced and taught Tibetan Buddhism for over thirty years. Liz is the author of More Than a Madman: The Divine Words of Drukpa Kunley and Tales of a Mad Yogi: The Life and Wild Wisdom of Drukpa Kunley.