Tree of Wisdom

Oak and maple, palm and pine—trees are our closest neighbors and most patient teachers. Henry Shukman on the common roots of people and trees.

Henry Shukman
7 October 2022
Photo by Photo by Anton Atanasov.

There is a cabin in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico that stands on the side of a steep, wooded ravine. It is hidden deep among the huge ponderosa pines that thrive in the high air. Near the cabin, one lone dead pine soars a hundred feet into the sky. It has been dead a few years now and is known as the “Corkins Tree,” after the cabin’s last owners, and there’s a story attached to it.

The Corkins lived in the cabin for many years and stayed on even after they had sold the property to a friend of mine. They became good friends with him, and my friend was intrigued by the way the husband always referred to the then healthy giant pine as “his tree.”

“We’re close,” he used to say. “I swear, the day that tree goes, I go too. And vice versa.”

My friend took this prediction with a pinch of salt, being a level-headed businessman not given to hyperbole or fanciful stories. Finally, the Corkins’ health deteriorated to the point where the altitude and cold were no longer tolerable, and they moved to Florida for their final years.

My friend used to visit them there when he could. One time, he arrived to find his friend bedridden, clearly on his last legs, hooked up to oxygen and past speaking. They had a silent tearful farewell, and he flew back to New Mexico.

As he approached the cabin, he noticed that the big tree did not look well. Its needles were yellow and thinning. Sheets of its dark bark had fallen away, exposing the silver wood beneath. One large branch had cracked and fallen. There was no mistaking it: the tree was dying. In fact, it was already dead. It never again put out new needles, and today it is a magnificent, lofty skeleton, silver and gaunt, rising like a spire out of the foliage below.

It died when the man died; the man died when it died, even though they were thousands of miles apart. Was it coincidence, or is it somehow possible that the life of trees and people could be so deeply entwined?

Zen likes to teach through things—dogs, cats, shoes, water jugs, flags, streams, roads. Zen could be said to view all phenomena as teachers, each and every one. There’s a famous story of a Christian Desert Father who lived in an Egyptian valley, alone and without books. When asked how he could tolerate his hermit’s life without works of scripture, he said, “But wherever I look, I see the Book of Creation laid open before me.”

Zen’s position is similar. We have no real need of scripture; all things are the dharma. But among the multiplicity of things in Zen teaching, one stands out: the tree.

Once Joshu was asked, “What was Bodhidharma’s meaning in coming from the West?” In other words, what is the teaching of Zen that Bodhidharma brought from India to China?

Joshu answered, “The cypress tree in the garden.”

The monk may have been surprised. All our years of arduous training, and they add up to nothing more than the tree outside?
Another time Joshu was asked whether an oak tree has buddhanature, and he immediately responded, “Yes.”

Zen lore is full of trees. When Yakusan was asked about his awakening, he said, “The withered tree is giving a dragon’s roar.” Unmon was once asked, “What is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall to the ground?” He answered, “Complete exposure of the golden wind.” By golden wind, he meant the autumn wind. But he also may have meant something truly golden and marvelous, which can be revealed only when thoughts of self have fallen away like the autumn leaves and the trunk of self has withered. Then a golden fact that unites all creation may appear. Perhaps this is also what Yakusan meant: that once the idea of “me” has withered, the single “dragon’s roar” of all existence may be heard.

Buddhism itself in a sense began with a tree. After exhausting the possibilities of materialist pleasure and ascetic mortification and finding his heart still not at peace, Shakyamuni sat down under a banyan tree, determined not to get up until he had resolved the “great matter” of life, death, suffering, and identity. After sitting for six days, it happened: he woke from the dream of self and other, life and death, and became a buddha, an awakened one. The tree became forever known as the bodhi tree.

Trees are our closest neighbors. There are dogs, cats, cows, and other domestic animals with whom some of us live, and there are our cousins like the chimpanzee with whom we don’t usually live. On the other hand, pretty much all people live with trees.

We may not live in them anymore, as our ancestors once did, but we remain a tree-dwelling species. In the deserts, they are the oases that provide homes for humanity, with their sheltering palms. In the grasslands, every village and farmstead nestles in its cluster of shivering trees; in the hills of Europe, the stone villages huddle amid pine, oak, and beech. Nor, without trees, would we have had the industrial revolution: coal and oil are the ancient remains of giant trees, and through the release of their vast power, we have paradoxically been able to denude great areas of our planet of its forests.

Trees are our natural environment. They are our friends like no other species. Warmth in winter, shade in summer, said the poet Alexander Pope, of trees’ gifts to humanity. Where people are, trees are. Many cities are filled with trees. Some even look like woodland from the air. For thousands of generations, trees have provided people with windbreaks, shade, shelter, fire, and one of the primary fabrics of our dwellings.

In the Valley of the Dee in Scotland, there is a yew tree that has been dated at more than two thousand years old. It would have been growing back in the days when Pontius Pilate was a boy there, in the remote northern Roman province of Scotland, where his father was stationed as a centurion. People say the boy Pilate used to play in this very tree. Thus a tree alive today in Scotland is connected to that other “tree” on Calvary two thousand years ago.

But trees also manifest our inherent connectedness in other ways. Thomas Hardy wrote: “Portion of this yew is a man my grandsire knew.” It’s a touch macabre, but we all recognize the truth of it: the graveyard loam is made of a lot of dead things, including human remains, and the trees are nourished by it, no less than they are by our exhalations and we by theirs.

But what if our connection to trees runs closer still?

Take the story of Zen master Kyogen. After years of intense scriptural study, he was asked a question by his master, Isan: What was his original face before his parents were born?

Kyogen could not give an immediate answer but confidently strode off to his store of scrolls and began searching for an appropriate response. Finally, crestfallen, he returned to Isan to confess that he had not been able to come up with anything. Would Isan please tell him the right answer?

Isan said, “I could tell you, but you would not thank me later.”

Having felt proud of his scholastic accomplishments, Kyogen now felt dashed. He left the monastery, convinced that he did not have what it took to become a good Zen monk.

For years Kyogen worked as a simple laborer. One morning he was sweeping out the yard at an old shrine when his broom happened to flick a pebble against a tree growing nearby. The stone hit the trunk with a pronounced tock. At that sound, Kyogen’s world suddenly fell away. He was left bereft of everything and suddenly realized a great truth about his existence, which he finally recognized as the answer to Isan’s question.

“One knock,” he declared, “and I have forgotten everything I ever knew.” The whole world as he had construed it fell away and revealed something marvelous about both himself and the tree against which the pebble had knocked.

In deep gratitude Kyogen washed, changed, lit incense, and bowed in the direction of Isan’s temple. “How grateful I am,” he said, “that you did not answer the question for me all those years ago. If you had, I could never have realized what I have now found.” Ever after, he taught by means of a famous koan, known as Kyogen’s “Man up a Tree.”

Dogen said, “Plants and trees are mind. Tile and pebble are Buddha. People don’t want to believe this.”

When all our ideas have fallen to the ground like leaves, when our sense of self and our attachment to life and death has fallen to the ground also, then the true life of the dharma can bloom in us. We find it pouring forth all around, a creative force beyond all reckoning in which we fully participate.

When I was twenty-three years old and fresh out of college, my first writing assignment took me into the Sahara Desert. One morning I found myself setting off before dawn into the Great Western Erg, the largest sea of sand dunes in the world, in the company of an old man and his donkey. All day we slogged up and down mountains of sand. In the evening, when we finally reached the oasis, I was so dazed with heat and exhaustion from the long hours under the fierce sun that I didn’t even realize what was going on.

The donkey moved toward something that shone like a mirror in the last of the light, beneath hundreds of tall pillars that rose into a thatched roof. Only when the donkey’s lip touched that mercury-like surface did I realize it was a pool of fresh water, and that we were standing beneath hundreds of palm trees. A wave of joy rose up: we had reached not just a place of water but a place of trees.

In the distance I heard a voice singing hoarsely, then another answer it, in an unearthly antiphony. We were led to a walled village of red mud amid the trees and fed dates, couscous, and camel’s milk. I discovered that every evening at dusk, the men of the village would hitch up their robes and climb into their palm trees. Pulling themselves into the crowns, they would perch amid the fronds and call to one another like birds.

It was a local adaptation of the daily call to prayer, normally delivered from the top of a minaret but here transplanted to the high fronds of desert palms. Over the suede expanse of land growing soft at dusk, it was one of the most beautiful ceremonial moments I ever witnessed, with the trees turning dark and the voices drifting out over the wide plain, as if the trees themselves were singing; as if man and tree were one.

Henry Shukman

A Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage, Henry Shukman teaches at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe. He grew up in Oxford, England, and came to New Mexico in 1991 to write Savage Pilgrims, a memoir about searching for D. H. Lawrence’s past. Shukman has published seven books; his latest novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times editors’ choice.