I dream I’m in a temple built on top of the root of a mountain. The mountain itself is magnificent far beyond human scope, but the temple is ugly, both physically and in the way it lays claim to something it cannot own. The temple is concrete angles and artificial pools, boundaries that don’t really exist, and hierarchies that cause people to forget that we are all equally of the mountain. I live in the temple for its proximity to the mountain, and at the same time, love tells me the mountain and the temple aren’t the same thing. The temple-keepers sense I don’t believe their claims, and in the end, I have to leave. This is absolutely not the first time. It happens over and over again. In every temple from beginningless time until now, there are those who know the underlying landscape, and love it, and have to leave.
Now I am in an orchard from which I can see the whole mountain and its many roots, some of which have temples squatting on top of them, and some not. A dancer comes to me in simple, beautiful undyed linen clothes. A martial arts suit, a worker’s suit, rippling with hand-written poetry, truth, and praise. She has rainbow-fans behind her ears, and she wears tai chi pilgrim’s shoes, with miles and miles inside them.
She sits down beside me and shows me how to shuck, crack open, and sort the walnuts that fall from the trees. The empty and rotten ones go there, and the good ones go here. Deft, steady, ongoing, she can do this without me, but teaching me is essential and effortless to her nature. We work side-by-side, sorting quietly, enjoying one another.
I wake from the dream knowing SHE LOVES ME. This SHE LOVES ME propels me as ecstatic joy. From SHE LOVES ME I can do anything. Under the cloud-hidden moon I sweep snow and ice from a whole parking lot’s worth of sleeping people’s cars. From SHE LOVES ME I reenter the world. I live. I dance alone and with temple-keepers and with those who would never dream of entering a temple.
This dream was maybe five years ago. Since then, I’ve lived so many lives. I’ve become a therapist, which I understand to be an orchard-dancer’s job. I’ve taught retreats in orchards and in other places that flicker and waver. Are we an orchard? Are we a Temple of the One True Way? In any kind of role, this flickering will be familiar. If we show up very much wanting to have found a faith expert to lead us, we will not be delighted to be handed a smooth stone, a flat stone, and a basket of messy-hulled nuts to sort. If we think love and beauty are irrelevant to the arduous spiritual work of owning the truth, we won’t think much of the orchard-goddess. Fetch me some tea, woman. I am waiting for Roshi to notice me. For His Holiness’s blessing. For the transmission of the Mountain Root Teachings.
A friend says, “I could open my own school,” and I hear her. She could. She absolutely could, and that would answer some need or call to connect, to be useful, to be recognized, to channel the mountain into one of its roots, and contain it. I feel this call keenly myself sometimes. It’s how you show you’re serious, in this culture. I am so bursting with mountain-teachings that you simply must come to me to get them. You must read my book. You must take my online course. You must go on my retreat. You must enter this temple I have built. Anything else means you don’t know enough to lead. You don’t have anything to say.
The dancer in the orchard doesn’t have anything to say. Her whole being is speaking forth in movement, in discernment, in generosity of teaching, in beauty embodied without needing self-reflexive affirmation. She’s there and she shows the way to sort. I listen, I learn, and find I am sorting, too. She never says, You must read my book, and because of this, I know SHE LOVES ME.
Rivers run red with the blood of mass-slaughtered, maybe-deathly pigs. The blood runs towards the capital. Is it ill? Is it not-ill? The pigs’ bodies are piled into trucks that dump them deep in the mountains. Each pig is a mountain, an orchard, a transmission, but we don’t have time for that now, because the temple and the capital need to be assured of their safety. The temple’s safety, and the capital’s, depend on being distanced from rivers of blood. Who comes to teach the pigs to sort the empty from the rotten from the good? The pigs have always already known this.
I want to be paid to speak. I want to teach in ways that always point to the mountain as source, and not to my special method® or reverend lineage. I want at the same time not to disappear. Here I am. You are right: I am a born teacher, but not of the ways to disappear yourself into my regard. I want to embody sorting and beauty, knowing and dancing, so that people remember their own mountain-roots, shared with the bodies of pigs in trucks. I want space for the pigs to graze in the mountains, remembering the wisdom of sharp hooves and hairy snouts rooting into rich soil. I want to live in a suit made of undyed linen (which might mean thrift-store sequins), to dance the texts of my belief, to breathe YES, NO, EMPTY, the one bright pearl, the bright moon shining inside and through and onto everything.
Protesters take apart and burn the campus where I taught a quarter of a century ago. Police block them. The buses that took us up and down the mountain are used as barricades. Does anyone in that landscape know She loves them? The empty, the rotten, the good. It’s clear to me these seeds were planted long ago: strifeweed, lossweed, greedweed. Temples of power and violence built from the smooth leaving of those could go somewhere else, like me. These protesters and police officers could easily be the children of my students, whose own parents couldn’t buy exile into larger, safer places. They are looking for ways to build new structures on the roots of What Is. They are looking for the orchards still growing at the edges of the burning barricades.
Years ago I had a dream that reshuffled the ambiguities of my childhood – Am I good? Am I bad? Am I empty? – and gave me permission to embody beauty, love, precision, patience, and strength. These are still the qualities I need. On a ten-degree morning when pigs’ blood flows towards the capital and school-buses burn, I remember that my pen is a tool for sorting, and after many months of silence, I write.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now