Peter Seishin Wohl: The Meaning of Life and Chao Chou’s Tree

Excellence Reporter: Peter, what is the meaning of life?

Peter Wohl: I believe that the current interest in this question about the meaning of life reflects the deepening state of alienation that we humans are living in. I presume that our indigenous ancestors would have found this inquiry to be both irrelevant and unnecessary. Living in a seamless matrix of religion, culture, and community, all enfolded intimately with the natural world that surrounded them, people implicitly knew their place within the order of things.

Over the millennia however, we have moved further and further from that intimacy, from that place of innate knowing, that profound involvement in the complex web of existence that is the functioning of what Zen refers to as “One Body”, this profoundly interconnected universe. Now, informed by our scientific paradigm, we post-modern humans stand naked before the cold, indifferent, atomistic cosmos. Stripped in this fashion, we tiny frightened creatures are trying to find a basis for grounding and guiding our lives. Being accustomed to using our intellect as the primary tool to navigate the no longer familiar landscape of our world, we therefore ponder the meaning of our lives. However, the fact is that we cannot “think” our way out of the existential conundrum we have created for ourselves.

However, there is a resolution. The wonderful Tang Dynasty Chan teacher Chao Chou pointed out the way to do that with great simplicity and clarity. A monk asked Chao Chou why Bodhidharma came from the west? Chao Chou replied, “The oak tree in the garden.” The monk’s question about the great Indian teacher’s journey to China is generally taken to mean “what is the meaning of Chan Buddhism”, which is essentially the same question “as what is the meaning of life”. Chou Chou’s response can seem enigmatic, but it’s quite direct. At the first blush, he asks us to desist from all our futile intellectual endeavors, our “why” inquiries and look, right here, right now, being aware of just This, this Great Reality unfolding before our eyes.

But Chao Chou’s tree has much more to teach us. The tree does not have any existential dilemmas; it fully expresses its being in every moment of its life. In spring the new buds burst forth, in summer it spreads its green canopy, in autumn the leaves change color and fall, and in winter its bare branches stand dormant against the darkened sky. The tree is fully engaged in life, responding appropriately to the conditions it experiences in each moment. What does that suggest to us humans? It tells us that we too must engage fully with our lives, regardless of what we may encounter. Life presents us with a panoply of conditions. Our tendency is to discriminate, to pick and choose between those we like and those we want to avoid. When we are living in that manner, we are only half alive, wasting our precious time resisting the inevitability of impermanence. When we immerse ourselves fully, the meaning of our life is inherent in the sincerity of our actions.

Furthermore, Chao Chou’s amazing tree is deeply connected to all being that surrounds it. Beneath the soil it has symbiotic relationships with mycelium, nematodes, bacteria and invertebrates. Its branches are home to squirrels and birds. Its shade provides protection for the young plants emerging from the forest floor, as well as giving many beings shelter from summer’s heat. When its acorns fall to the ground they feed squirrels, deer and other creatures. It removes CO2 from the air, releasing life-giving O2. In a sense, by simply expressing its nature as a tree, it manifests great compassion. Please understand that I am not trying to ascribe an anthropomorphic attribute to the tree. I am suggesting that living fully in relationship with all of Creation, we are fulfilling our true nature as humans. Expressed in another way, when we are living in this way we are manifesting our enlightened nature, through this simple, natural expression of true compassion.


~Peter Wohl is a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at the Treetop Zen Centers in Oakland and Portland Maine. He has worked in the field of addictions treatment for over 20 years. Peter also combines his life-long love of the outdoors with principles derived from Zen practice to create workshops and retreats that are designed to help people make a deep, restorative connection with the natural world. He offers these at Turtle Marsh in Unity, ME, where he now resides.

Copyright © 2016 Excellence Reporter

Categories: Nature, Zen

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