“You haven’t begun to think until you don’t know what to think.”
It seems to me that genuine thinking for oneself isn’t possible until every last bit of knowledge, every last thing we think we know, is gone. We cannot have emptiness without first emptying, making room for the new. To accept something as the Absolute just will not do, if one is committed to freedom. This freedom can be preceded by accepting nothing at all as the absolute truth or ultimate answer. I’ve come to this: I know absolutely nothing.
This past week, I spent three days up north, camping for my birthday in the mountains of the Sequoia National Forest. This trip was the most peaceful, awe inspiring birthday I have ever experienced in my 27 years of this life.
I went with, who are at this time in my life, my two roommates and closest friends. For the past few months, I have been in a fairly positive, contemplative state. Yet I’ve been unable to create in writing or art, and have felt slightly stuck on questions of purpose and future. I’ve craved finding that balance between what it is I plan to do and being at peace with right now. I seek to welcome any parts of my life that end (because they will) and embrace any plans that unexpectedly change (because they do).
I’ve been pretty successful with this. The question of purpose and plans and being content doesn’t necessarily feel defeating, but it does feel quite nagging at times and pulls me away from simple stillness.
That fork. What do I do and how do I do it? Is this a better choice or is that a better choice? What is the best path for me and why do I only go so far and then stop?
We arrive in the campground, with well over 7 hours of travel time behind us. We curve round the bumpy, single lane road, revealing landscapes of dramatic snow-topped mountains covered in tall pine. Not just tall; gigantic. The oldest living things on our planet start popping up around the corner as we turn along side deadly cliffs. The truck bounces high up and down, and the two of us who aren’t driving stare in awe out the window. Gigantic red colored trunks loom up into the sky, one, then another, and another. Many in this area are now shed-sized stumps, logged years ago.
The air that fills my nose is rich with pine scent. Small creeks and waterfalls appear every few miles. We get to a group of two campgrounds, a 20-minute drive away from each other. After much careful deliberation, we pick a campsite tucked into the trees, centered by a massive stump. We set up camp, store away our food in metal, bear-proof boxes, put an over-sized tarp diaper around our truck (to protect from the coolant-seeking marmots, obviously), and are quickly ready for exploration.
This first trail is steep right off the bat, and doesn’t let up until the very top. The crisp, mountain air felt amazing to climb in yet contributed to taking our breath away. Sublime awe and physical exertion made my heart pound fiercely. We round corners, circling up the mountain to reveal larger and larger Sequoias. Some have been hollowed out at the base of the trunks nearly completely by fire. Yet they remain strong and alive, soaring into the sun.
All of my nagging questions disappear. The events of my life fade into some distant memory as I stand in utter awe of these beautiful giants. Their bark is not solid to the touch, and can be pressed in with a finger. These trees remind me of our own strength and power to overcome. They also remind me of our smallness, my life a tiny water drop in a giant ocean. My thoughts dwindle to include nothing but the intake of my surroundings.
Two hours of hard work, jaws agape, goofy wide-eyed smiles, much laughter, and close-ups with deer, we make it to the top of this mountain. We peer through some trees and find we are staring directly across at clouds. I lie on my back on the ground, palms face up. I breathe the air in deeply. The mountaintop holds me and I feel complete with relaxation and peace. All is right.
This feeling lasts for the duration of the trip. We cook meals over a fire, explore the area around our campground, and go on many more hikes to discover unbelievable groves of giant sequoias and fairy-like meadows. The last hike of our trip was suggested to us casually by the park ranger who collected our payment. She told us of an easy, downhill hike that led to a bridge over a pretty waterfall. As we began to descend at a casual pace, the trail led us down into beautiful deep canyons centered by flowing water. The wet environment allowed for a rich biodiversity of wildflowers and long, green grasses. About 15 minutes into the trip we happened upon the largest giant Sequoia we would see. We stared at it in silence from the trail for a few minutes before I stated “I want to go in there”, referring to the cave in the bottom of the truck formed by a wildfire. By the time I reached the tree, I was confronted by a dark abyss, a charcoal colored wonder. 20 people could have easily fit within this trunk-cave. I stood inside of it, and looked up into the body of the tree. There was no end–only darkness. But outside, the tree flourished by two remaining sides of it’s trunk, drinking nutrients from the earth through these two sides while reaching unknown heights into the sky. We were silenced in respect and amazement, and eventually pulled ourselves away to continue exploring.
The park ranger’s casual nonchalant description of this trail did not prepare us for the kind of wonder that slapped us in the face when the waterfall appeared around a corner. The sun begun hiding behind the mountaintops, creating dramatic shadows contrasting with a bright glow from the rushing water. Hundreds of thousands of small dragonfly like insects floated contently above the topmost part of the waterfall, contrasting starkly with the rapids flowing into the deep sided valley below the wooden bridge we stood on. The power of the water flowing over the rocks, the serenity of the flying insects over the water, the warmth of the setting sun lighting everything aglow, the cool crisp air breathing refreshment into our skin, all overtook my being and I felt the entire universe inside me.
We turned back quickly after, as the waterfall felt much like an accumulation of our whole trip. It was time to make dinner, and prepare to say goodbye to the mountains first thing the next morning.
The return back to San Diego felt harsh and loud. I feel the depression of the surrounding hustle and bustle, especially the day after going back to work, but made it a point to get back into the swing of things quickly. And now I am beginning to remember the many lessons of the mountains.
Go with life and not against it. The mountains scream stillness, and I feel renewed by their quiet strength. I will not succumb to fire, and will instead use it to grow high toward the sun. My options, tools and knowledge will continually change. Like the trees, I will not let supposed truth of ideas lead me through life. That is not freedom, it is another attachment. Acceptance of Buddha nature is to reject the idea of the Buddha. To accept the Buddha is to accept that even the Buddha will change. All truths and beliefs will evolve and change. This is our essence.
There are endless possibilities, many ways the forest could have been shaped. None contain different levels of rightness or wrongness. The changes are shaped by one another, forming complex patterns that underlie all life. Answers to our own questions will change and rearrange. These threes flow with the force of life. They remind me that defining and categorizing takes something away. A tree is not just a collection of branches, roots, and a trunk. It is growth itself. It is an accumulation of energy affected by it’s surroundings. It does not define or judge or decide. It is the sun, water, earth, and fire. It is shaped by and one with life. In this nature I see the freedom of pure growth and the imprisonment of knowing.
I know not a damn thing. I am empty. I am ready.