The sequoia sempervirens at Big Basin Redwoods State Park are among the tallest and oldest trees on earth. At 1800 years old, the oldest trees in the park were alive at the same time as Saicho (the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan), even at the same time as Chih-i (the founder of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism in China). For many years a cross section of a 1400+ year old redwood tree stood at the entrance to the park, offering perspective in both time and space. The rings of the 5 foot diameter tree had been tagged with events from history correlating with the tree’s growth rings that year, reminding visitors of the scale of human existence.
Our tendency in western culture is to experience our current moment in history as singular and special rather than as a chain of events across lifetimes. For me the practice of standing at the foot of a redwood tree has been an antidote to that way of experiencing the world. When I first walked Big Basin’s Redwood Loop Trail, I recognized my individual smallness in the universe as I was dwarfed by those ancient giants. I compared my size to 293 foot tall, 70 feet in circumference Mother of the Forest and to the slightly older and smaller Father of the Forest nearby.. I investigated the shape and pattern of the burls on the Animal Tree. I stood inside the Chimney Tree, hollowed out by fire sometime before I was born and yet still living, gazing up at the sky.
Three weeks ago Big Basin caught fire. The CZU Lightning Complex fire raged through the 18,000 acres of park, leveling the human-made structures, blackening underbrush and even penetrating the thick protective bark of those ancient redwoods themselves. I found myself grieving over this fire, this particular loss, in a way I haven’t grieved for many other recent climate events of this scale. This loss was personal. Memories of time spent in that park with family and friends are a part of my identity. This destruction to the park has felt like it’s destroyed a piece of myself. Natural areas like Big Basin, which seem so much more solid and permanent than a human life, have long offered me a sense of stability as I’ve navigated turbulence through the years. Witnessing the destruction of Big Basin feels like an anchor I thought was holding me steady has been cut loose. I’ve been set adrift.
For me the fire in Big Basin also taps into a sense of fear. It serves as a reminder of the climate crisis we are facing as a planet. One event forecasting more to come. The forms we have known, dissolving into new forms, our reality and our local ecosystems reshaping themselves as we watch. Yet if we consider the wisdom in the Heart Sutra, these forms have always had a quality of emptiness about them, so it seems that we shouldn’t be surprised by this change.
The Heart Sutra tells us that “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva…clearly saw emptiness (shunyata) of all five conditions thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.” These words remind us that what has appeared to be solidly in front of us has always actually been shifting. When we understand a redwood from the perspective of emptiness or boundlessness we see that it is made up of air, sunlight, water, soil, and other plants in the ecosystem. At a cellular level it’s in constant change. It’s not a static permanent entity that can exist by itself. When we can move beyond our ordinary way of experiencing the world (beyond our deluded thoughts) and get to the root of emptiness, we can find liberation.
It’s important though, as we embrace this idea of emptiness to not start grasping at the idea of emptiness itself. When we experience discomfort anchored to our conventional reality, to the way the world appears before us, it might be tempting to push away this conventional experience, believing that there is something separate from and better than the moment in front of us. Grasping at the idea of emptiness, can cause us as much misfortune and pain as grasping at form does. We should really strive to experience the middle: the realization of emptiness and provisional simultaneously. Yet, the word “striving” might give the wrong idea. If we are striving we run the risk of making this an exercise of logic, an attempt to convince ourselves to see the world in a different way. Instead we should aim to recognize and eventually experience that the relative, emptiness, and the middle are all part of one integrated reality.
To me this idea of integration is captured in this image of a burning redwood photographed by Marcio Jose Sanchez of the Associated Press. It’s a tree on fire. It’s embodied transformation. The tree is existing while at the same time it is being destroyed. As I gaze at this image I can see a sense of beauty in its current form. I also see boundlessness–something larger than the tree and part of the tree at the same time. When I can observe what actually exists in this moment, my grief at the loss of this forest begins to float away.
This is what it looks like to find equanimity when the world is on fire.