In the 1970’s, a group of Colombians founded a new community called Gaviotas on the llanos (grassland plains) of their country, with the intention of being ecologically sensitive and sustainable. One of their first projects was to plant trees, and they decided to import a Central American pine because it would do well in the thin soil. The decision was controversial, because some objected to introducing a non-native species. But they went ahead, and something completely unexpected happened: After the new forest had grown to a certain size, under its protection seeds lying dormant in the soil for hundreds of year began to sprout. The primordial forest, originally an extension of the great Amazon rainforest, was reappearing. Over time, as the new trees grew, the transplanted trees died out and the indigenous forest took over.
I always think of this story when the subject of Buddhism’s arrival in the West comes up. As we debate the skillful translations and painful collisions of this process, it’s important to remember that any great movement in the Tao like this is happening at a lot of different levels, including the mythic—and the mythic is one aspect of the story we can’t possibly know the end of. We are in the midst of something mysterious, with a life of its own, and it looks nothing like backing a moving van up to the dock and unloading the Dharma from it.
Part of our task in these pilgrim generations—we who cross back and forth over the geographical and cultural borders of our traditions—is to be as alert as we can to the longer arcs on which we’re traveling. The Dharma—and all the different expressions of the Dharma—have their own fate; maybe we could say that they’ve decided to hitch a ride with us.
I think of my own koan tradition as a vast dragon at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Mostly it’s pretty quiet, content to wander in its long and stately dragon dream, but every once in awhile it stirs. In the last couple of decades it’s lifted a shoulder, interested to see what might happen in North America with a little nudge. Some of us are happy to oblige, leading us to discover that we and the dragon are in some way dreaming each other on now.
Dreaming something on, not reproducing it as exactly as possible (which is impossible anyway because causes and conditions are always different) or replacing it with something else and calling it the same thing. This is the more challenging, delicate work of co-creation, which requires equal measures of courage and humility, and the willingness to spend a long time walking in the dark.
I’m quite content to think of us as pilgrims become sheltering trees, beginning to contribute to the shade under which the primordial forests of places all over the world might return. I can’t wait to see what comes up out of our native soils.