I planted a tree in my backyard on Friday--a Japanese Maple. It's beautiful. Tall and red and scrawny. While digging the hole, I wasn't thinking much about the tree. I was just trying to avoid straining my back, as I had an all-day sit the next day. But when the tree was in the ground and I stood back to admire my work, I was filled with a complete reverence for life.
Here was this tree in the soil, drinking water and ready to spread its roots, where there had been no tree an hour before. This was life--frail and vulnerable--and I had the privilege of nurturing it. I had a hand in the life of this tree.
In five years, when my wife and I sell our house, the tree will still be here. And in ten years, it will (hopefully if the new owners don't cut it down) still be here. And in another ten years.
And here's where it gets weird: it felt like the tree and I were one. Not like I experienced some mystical bond with the tree, because that would imply that the tree and I were separate. It's more like the tree and I were the same. (I know how corny that sounds, but it's as close as words will come to capturing the experience. "Not two, not one.")
Theodore Roethke wrote a great poem, "Cuttings (later)" about his intimacy with a plant (ha ha, you dirty-minded middle-schoolers):
"This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it --
The small waters seeping upward..."
Except for me, the grafting wasn't between two plants, but between a plant and me. I guess this is what Dogen meant when he said "to be intimate with all things." As a Mahayana Buddhist, I've read a lot about the inter-penetration of everything in the universe. But for the briefest of moments (and even still now, in a vague, purely instinctive way), I felt it. That tree and I were one.
Sure on a relative level it was still a tree and I was still a human--I have to go to work on Monday and it doesn't--but I was sensing a deeper connection: a bond that transcended logic or space. In the same way as the tree relies upon the soil and sun and water, it relied upon me. And I felt that vulnerability. I can feel it right now while I write this.
It's not some Awakening experience where a beam of light shot our of my forehead (wouldn't that be cool?), rather it feels like the boundaries of my identity have temporarily relaxed or expanded to encompass that tree. It's like the opposite of grasping, I suppose.
It makes me wonder, why a tree? Why not with my son or daughter or some suffering soul? Maybe because the tree is so simple, so selfless (in every respect). But it really doesn't make much of a difference whether it was a tree or a dog or a monkey, because the tree somehow is everything. It's the whole damn universe meeting at one point.
And so am I. And so are you.