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Zen, Autumn, & the Wisdom of Trees

Autumn in Portland, and the city is as beautiful as it always is at this time of year. But, as much as we enjoy the beauty of brown, gold and red leaves falling, we’re less inclined to appreciate the same thing in ourselves…

I turned 50 this year. At a Zen sangha service last year, I was making the incense offering, which includes three full prostrations to the altar, something I’ve been doing for many years. But this time I noticed that something was different. After each prostration, I’ve always been able to spring, frog-like, back to a standing position. Not any more! Now, I have to get on one knee, and clamber upright from that position, so now what used to be a very short ritual takes about three times longer. When I realized this, it was hard not to burst out laughing.

But, when I was talking with a friend a few days later and I told him about how my body won’t do what it used to, he nodded grimly. When I said, “It’s really cool how rebirth happens right here, in our lives,” he answered that he found it both annoying and depressing.

Most of us don’t think the leaves should stay green. If we did, we’d miss the loveliness of the season. The leaves don’t cling to the trees, but, if we don’t have a strong practice, we cling to everything, even the things we don’t need and the things we’re better off without. When we don’t cling, everything is fine — growth and decay are equally beautiful when we pay attention to them just as they are. Our opinions about how things should be, how things shouldn’t change, have less substance than a crumbling leaf on a sidewalk.

Philip Larkin wrote:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

In our practice this season, let’s take a lesson from the trees.

Photo by Daishin Stephenson Sensei