Friday—as mornings go—got off to a funky start. Perhaps it was the music—disruption of my normal morning NPR diet. “Jungle Boogie” blaring as I pulled into the parking lot. Deltron filling my head as I climbed the stairs. So I popped on YouTube and found this gem, blasted for all my hall to hear.
This set the gait for the day, and by third period, I found myself in a common paradoxical place in my teaching: crushing it on the intellectual side—moving between explaining ineffable truths, Platonic Forms, and argumentative structure—while ignorning basic mundane tasks like putting an empty cup under the Keurig where I’ve just turned on the hot water. My brain does this, getting ahead of my body, out of sync with the simple tasks. Luckily, no physical mess was made, but my brain was chaotic. I was glad I had a hike on the horizon for tomorrow, an activity that always seems to align my balance
2:15 hits and I’m loading my backpack. On my desk—a small book of Zen koans, picked up in a dusty philosophy section of some book store in the UK last summer and lost in the stream of life until I found it in my truck that morning. Strange it should happen that way. It looked the perfect size to fit in my hiking pack, so I grabbed it and hit the weekend in a furious blaze.
Koans—funny little Buddhist stories that make very little sense. In many ways, it seems they are meant to prompt imbalance, to create tension in the mind, disrupting the normalcy and complacency one finds in endeavors sacred or profane, whether making teaching triumphantly or seeking “the gateless gate.”
A monk asked Ummon “What is Buddha?” Ummon answered “Dried Dung.”
In one blink of your eyes
You have missed seeing.
Not exactly a gripping read, but like I said, it fit in the top pocket of my trusty green backpack. By 8, I meet my homie in Mt. Holly for breakfast. Grub up and hit the road to walk many miles among the trees. Soothe my soul. I hold the door for an older gentleman, a life lived full, no doubt, but now hobbled with age. I keep swearing to myself that I want to be able to hike until the day I die; I’ve come to close in the past to never having this chance again. But try as I might, I watch him hobble and know it will still be out of my control in the end, that the frailty of the flesh may inevitably make this the path on which I am going. Still, I’ve sworn to my small tribe to keep this ritual—long hikes with friends—and forestall the inevitable as long as possible.
Perhaps it’s a treacherous hope, destined for disappointment, but not as treacherous as the trail this morning. The bands of Hurricane Irma swept through earlier in the week. Not only is the river a churning maelstrom, but the trail itself reveals itself in abundant fungus predicting slippery rock after slippery rock: at times each step is its own new challenge, a new threat to balance. Linville Gorge trails are by nature technical and windy as they descend into the belly of the beast, but the battering of the storm has added a new layer of danger to our trek. No land speed records to be set today. The trail meets the river again.
We find a tree that the swirling storm has uprooted, blowing out a ordinarily gnarly trail into a nearly impassible field of unstable boulders and terrain above our heads. In chaotic winds and furious water, the tree met it’s end, disrupting the path as it fell. The dogs whimper, but we prop them to higher ground before grabbing eye level roots to pull ourself back on the trail. Soon, we find the first break, a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall.
The climb to the bottom is more slick than ever, and we have to crab-crawl to the water to make sure we don’t fall. As I change and nudge toward the edge of today’s first baptism, I feel the chill of fall in the air. The water is always cold, but there comes a time when the air’s chill makes swimming in the river a much more dangerous proposition. The cold will always shock you, but if the air refuses to warm you up, the results can be devastating. I ponder this as I pick the best spot to jump in—which jump will be the last jump? I leap. The cold crushes me and I gulp water. The current is strong and begins to push me away from the falls, away from the cliffs on the other side where I want to climb. I regain may bearings and make my way to the ledge next to the falls. The water is in furious roar, and what was a simple jump earlier this summer now threatens to push me against rocks. I take more time than usual to consider my safety, but leap twice as hard off the dry rock and fight the current back to shore. You
Dry again, we make our way on the most demanding part of the trail—between the swimming hole and the Cabin Trail intersection. It is mostly all rock, and with the humidity in the air and the wetness of the soil, each step over and down seems a carefully measured one. “Good thing we went hiking today,” Doug says. “You know the rapture’s coming next weekend.” Ah yes, another day for the apocalypse. We chuckle. We wonder why people love these stories. We break into dialogue. Doug points out that prophecy is open-ended and can be applied to any time period. I retort that having prophecy gives meaning to a world constantly in chaos and flux, make it easier to experience. It seems like we’re getting somewhere. My mind is moving fast while my body moves on auto-pilot.
Snake. Copper head. Medium-sized. Sunning himself on the one dry rock. For whatever reason, the dogs missed it, but it sees us, and shakes his tail in anticipation. It arrests our exploration into eschatology and re-orients us to the step-by-step of the trail. Doug flicks him off the trail with a trekking pole, and we keep picking our way over the slippery rocks.
Soon the trail evens out. Just past the intersection marker, we can see Babel Tower in the distance, and soon we here the incessant babble from beneath us at what is perhaps the most famous swimming hole on the West Rim. We slide to the bottom, and there are about twenty people and five dogs spread across the rocks below. We agree to be patient, tie up the dogs, spread a hammock. A good time for a snack and a book.
The waterfall pours into a wide pool below rounded cliffs. It’s not difficult to imagine that at one point—perhaps millions of years ago—the water whipped through this part of the Gorge and shaped these rocks in a torrential eddy. For this place in geological history, it is a place where people stop, picnic, swim, photograph, slide down the waterfall and jump at least forty feet off the cliffs into the pool below. We are content to watch this all. A good time for some peaceful Zen comfort, no?
The koans seem to follow some pattern, a conversation where a penitent asks the monk a question and receives an answer that—on the surface—has, at best, a contradictory relation to the question, if any relation at all.
Q: What is the nature of the Buddha?
A: This flax weighs 3 pounds.
It seems that so much of these conversations are wrapped up in either the futility of knowing or the futility of searching. People get so wrapped up in searching for the Buddha, looking for truth, or verifying that their life has had significance, has been successful, or that they have bested the anxiety of death and emptiness. Paradoxically, it seems the more you seek getting too wrapped up in looking for the Buddha, the more it detracts from a true path. Huxley argues similarly in The Perenial Philosophy that in many religions, words, stories, and ritual become the focus of the devotee—lost in questions and debate—and they become distracted from the path itself. And yet, how can one express this in words? In one koan, the Buddha simply remains silent and the penitent—a philosopher—feels he has received his answer.
Very confusing. But the motion of the sun and people stirs my thoughts from that particular rabbit hole. Some of the swimmers are leaving, the sun is getting low enough that if I don’t jump in the water soon, it will make no sense to do so today. I read one more quick one to carry with me to the water. A monk promises another monk on his death bed to show him the way of “no coming and no going.” Then I slip on my trunks, next to a dead stump that has flourished with fungus in the moisture of the storm.
I jump off the short ledge, and the current carries me. I’ve done this before—no big deal—and move toward an eddy on the far shore and climb up the cliff. I’ve never been up this far, but saw enough people jump today to pique my interest. I come out to the ledge. It doesn’t look that bad: lots of flat space.
“No. Go down further,” yells one of the remaining campers. I go back over the trees and find where he was pointing. I have to hold onto a tree to lower myself onto a small step, perhaps twice as wide as my shoulders, perhaps two feet out into the air, saturated with treacherous, mossy moisture.
I think of every rock I’ve slipped on today, every time I’ve lost my balance, feeding the unsteadiness of my legs. I’m worry I will slip one last, fatal time and consider the worst possible scenario from atop this ledge. This is the way the world ends. I stand to jump, but I don’t. I know I’m going to, but I lack the courage to do it at first. I look down. Bad choice. All the rocks I could hit. I know I will jump, but now all thought has left me. I’m empty. I feel the fear extend to my limbs. I sit down to calm myself before the jump. It doesn’t work. Soon the fear overwhelms me, out of conscious control. My senses began to bend. The rock in front, the cavernous bowl marked by thousands of years of rushing water, begins to bend and swirl with the sound of the water. Is this vertigo? Will I black out over the ledge? Will I be lost in the dark and swift current of time? Just typing this brings a tinge of that familiar to my fingertips. It is a jumpy anxiety—an unnamed twirl of excitement and dread.
Finally, I spring from my crouched position. Down, down, down forever into the dark womb of the water. The current carries me, and I swim for the near shore. I’ve caught my breath, but the lights that flickerd on atop the rock are still burning at all of my nerve endings.
Often, a jump in the mountain water invigorates me, but this has ignited a new and caustic fire that smolders whimperingly in every millimeter of my neural pathways, past the pont of getting dry, past re-packing my pack and rejoining the trail, up the ascent out of the belly of the Gorge. This babble, this running narrative, burns away. In the silence the answer is heard, and I walk away, step by trudging step.