One day I was practicing a walking meditation in the courtyard. It is a beautiful place. It is at the back of the monastery, and I have no idea how long it has been there. Hundreds of years. The temple celebrated its 512th birthday while I was there, so it is entirely possible that the stones I was walking on were that old. The courtyard is a square shape, and in the center of it, a huge Boddhi tree rises up and spreads out its branches like a dappled parasol of green leaves and chirping birds. The Buddha was enlightened under a Boddhi tree, so I have always felt particularly inspired when meditating in this spot. It was early evening. I was walking with my hands folded behind my back, step by step. Very slowly. Pilgrims here wear white (I don’t know why, but I took to calling all of us practitioners “pilgrims” while I was here. Not being able to talk to anyone else for a month, you develop quite a noticeable dialog with yourself. Little things keep you amused and make you laugh.) My white pants were flowy. With every step, they swirled out around my legs, and I felt the air travel over my warm, sticky skin. It felt good.
Heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing…. I practiced six-step walking. It takes a long time. It is designed to bring your attention into each movement your foot makes as it takes a step. It is a focusing technique, and more often than it brought me close to God, it made me aware of how incredibly busy my mind is, how cluttered with junk and thoughts it tends to be. It is rarely clear. I am rarely “in the moment.” So I walked on, knowing that paying minute attention to every single movement of my feet was actually, surprisingly, good for me. I needed to focus. I needed to clear my mind. I felt the heat emanating from my palms. It moved out in waves from my body, invisible, but alive. I could imagine the waves of heat rippling off the backs of my legs, through the white cotton of my pants, leaving a shimmering trail behind me as I walked. It was so hot.
The birds were chirping in the trees, and the ants were scurrying across the stones. I watched them move in trails, hustling, busy, always on a mission. They would meet on either side of their self-made ant highway, and quickly touch antennas, recognizing each other, and then quickly scurry on. I would avoid these little lines of ants as I walked, timing and placing my steps so that my foot would come down on the other side of them, or just short of their diagonal lines. Heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing… The stones were rough under my feet, uneven and pitted, but they gave my toes some texture to grip, and I held on with each step, balancing carefully on one foot.
The Boddhi tree moved and swayed overhead in the gentle breeze. Leaves floated down, some small, rocking back like little boats as they fell. Others were bigger than my head, crispy, brown, and spiraling down like ballerinas in delicate surrender. They would twirl, twirl, twirl as they fell, and then land upright on their stems, balancing for a moment before collapsing on their sides. Crunch.
The bells rang from the Buddha statues in the trees, making music of the wind. I listened to it and realized that the wind really does have a rhythm, a voice. The bells rang in a lovely melody, making a song as I walked. They would tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, and then die down. The wind would pick up again, and their song would start up, a gentle, playful tune, that enjoyed itself as it sang. I loved that music, wanted to hold onto it forever. But it would always go away. And then it would come back.
Suddenly there was a rustling in the branches overhead. I just had time to lift my head when a chipmunk fell out of the branches and landed about a foot in front of me. He was a small, skittish thing, brown with a tan stripe down his back. I think he was as surprised as I was. He landed on all fours, and hunkered down, his eyes darting around. I stopped, my foot in the air, and watched. His sides moved quickly in and out with breath. His eyes peered up at me from the side, but I think he was in momentary shock, because he didn’t move. I felt the breath move into my lungs and watched, a laugh waiting to emerge from my throat. Then the chipmunk seemed to recover himself, and shook out his head, and darted off into the shrubs under the tree. I released the pressure and laughed, a good, long chuckle to myself as I stood on one foot. Then I continued… lowering… touching… placing.
Several minutes later I was nearing the northern wall of the courtyard. There was a beautiful green plant to my left, towering over my head, the sunlight streaming through its translucent leaves. To the right was a smaller tree, planted in the dark green earth encircled by stones. The tree is always busy with life, ants on white flowers and butterflies resting on the leaves. I had my eyes on the tree, approaching the wall and intending to stop, turn slowly, and begin walking again. There was a tiny green bird in the branches ahead of me, a creature that looked nearly weightless. I imagined holding him in the palm of my hand and throwing him upwards. His whole body fly to the sky, catching air, his skin and bones translucent, shimmering green. He would flutter, take flight, and disappear. I returned from my imagination and kept my eyes on him as I slowly lowered my right foot to the ground. Suddenly I had a strange premonition, remembering the chipmunk. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, if the bird… Just then he fell out of the tree. He landed in the dirt with a silent thump, looked surprised, and shook himself off. He plucked at his feathers with his beak, shook his head again, and looked around before hopping back up into the branches. I couldn’t believe it. I laughed out loud. Two animals falling out of trees in five minutes! Simple pleasures 😉