Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on February 7, 2014

I want to say something about how natural dharma is, at least in my experience. To do this, I have to share a bit of my own history, a personal story of finding the dharma. It might be useful to some of you who love nature as I do.

I was born and raised in Lancaster Pennsylvania until the 6th grade, at which time my family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where I then grew up. Those early years in Pennsylvania were idyllic. In Lancaster we lived out in the country where my parents built a house. It was the first house built in that area, and it was wedged between two very large farms. There was no one else around for many years. I grew up surrounded by nature. At the end of our back yard was a vast field in which, when fresh plowed, I would find arrowheads. Otherwise that field had corn, tobacco, wheat, or alfalfa. And beyond that field was a small water-filled quarry where my younger brothers and I built a raft, and there were also islands of woods in that sea of farmland in which we roamed. Lancaster is known as the "Garden Spot of the World," and it is that.

Of that time, what I most remember is the natural world, with huge slow-flying moths around the porch lights in the warm late-spring nights, baby rabbit nests in our yard, raising litters of puppies, etc. Nature fascinated me. When I was six-years old my mother, who was an artist, took me along with her to a meeting of local artists at the farm of another artist. Her name was Peggy Dodge. Mrs. Dodge was a naturalist, and she found in me a kindred spirit, perhaps because one time I waded into a pond up to my neck and emerged with a large water snake in my hands. My time with her was empowering, and from that time onward until I was in my late teens I studied nature with a passion. And I tend to be intense about what I study.

I had rock collections, fossil collections, pressed leaf and flower collections, insect collections, and on and on. I raised skunks and squirrels, rabbits, doves, mice, hamsters, dogs, and scores and scores of snakes, frogs, toads, and turtles, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, etc. My room was like a tiny nature museum, and I am coming to the point in all this.

During those many years of nature study, intensely focusing on nature, I was learning something else at a deep level. I was learning the laws of nature, how nature actually works. I came to respect those laws as absolute, as how things actually are. I also gradually understood that civil law, while similar in many ways to nature, was relative and not absolute, meaning we can twist and bend civil law. That's what lawyers do. However, we don't break nature's laws; they break us. The law of gravity is absolute. What goes up must come down. And now I come to the dharma.

Perhaps because of my isolation and country upbringing, nature's laws deeply imprinted my consciousness. I was given a religious upbringing, raised Catholic. I went to mass each week, to Catholic school, learned church Latin, and was even an altar boy (imagine that!). But I did not take to the laws and mores of religion any more than I took to civil law. Neither held up to the natural law that was already operating internally within me.

Now let's fast-forward into my twenties. With the advent of girls into my life, not to mention difficulties being educated (I am hard to teach), my world seemed a whole lot more complex than it did back in the fields and woods of Lancaster where I grew up. And I am talking about the 1960s and then the 1970s, so there were all kinds of competing spiritual disciplines surfacing around me.

Among these many spiritual opportunities, there were also some brushes with the dharma, with the Buddhist teachings and Buddhist teachers. Anyway, through all the smoke and dust of those times I found myself picking up on the steady beat of the dharma. It reached my ears and mind. And here is the point:

I could hear the dharma through the din of those times because it resonated with the laws of nature that I already knew so well. In fact nature and the dharma played the exact same music. The dharma was a subset of natural law or vice versa. There was no conversion to Buddhism. I had been converted many, many years ago when I was about six-years old and became a naturalist. Finding the dharma was like coming home, finding myself. And one more point:

Many years later I had a kind of spiritual breakthrough. This was after years and years of Buddhist meditation and training. But oddly enough, it happened (you guessed it) while I was out in nature and not sitting on a cushion. The experience was very powerful and for a while I was kind of helpless in my attempt to figure out what exactly was going on with me. Then a good friend, a Buddhist monk, heard me out and explained to me that what I was experiencing had a name. It was what is called the "Lama of Appearances." I had never heard of it.

He explained that most dharma students know the Lineage Lamas, the particular school or approach to Buddhism to which they naturally belong, you know, a dharma teacher. But there is also what is called the "Lama of the Scriptures," which refers to the extant teachings of the Buddha and his enlightened followers, which also exist to point out the dharma. Then there is the "Lama of Dharmadhatu," which is concerned with the final goal or state of realization. I am not too clear about this particular type of lama.

And finally there is what is called the "Lama of Appearances," the lama of the natural world surrounding us. In other words, the world of appearances we find ourselves embedded in is also a perfect reflection of the dharma and can serve as a lama and guide to us in pointing out our dharma path. And the world of nature is a perfect reflection or appearance of the mind itself, and thus a perfect teacher.
My lama-friend went on to say that I had stumbled on this method of learning the dharma, and responded appropriately to it. Of course, my years and years of nature study must have primed the pump. And I am getting to the point here.

I am not the only nature lover out there. Some of you reading this may have studied nature as I did. In which case, you may have already learned a lot of what the dharma teaches. Since the Lama of Appearances, just as it is in nature, is a perfect teacher, no doubt some of you are already perhaps very good dharma students or well on your way to becoming so. So was I, only I didn't know it.

My problem was that while nature had taught me a lot, there were still holes and weak spots in my mind-training. Probably I had not always been the best nature student or had somehow missed part of the picture. If nothing else, the Buddhists are completists. It was with great relief that what I had missed in my own training, the dharma has filled in seamlessly – the perfect hologram – apparent but empty.

So if any of this rings true to you, you might benefit from actually becoming more familiar with dharma teachings. They just might be your cup of tea.

[This is a photo of a young snapping turtle. I found him dried out and exhausted trying to cross a country road on the way to a pond that to my knowledge was not even there. He was in deep trouble. I took him home, put him is a shallow aquarium and rehydrated him for a few days. Here he is just before I released him in a pond just the right size for him.]