It is a chilly 34 degrees out and I am up among the branches with a roll of paper towels, a sponge, and a bucket of soapy water. I am standing on a branch about thirty feet above the ground, balancing precariously, the paper towels tucked under the arm that holds the bucket, sponging off a branch with the other hand.
Last night: Halloween. I climb at 9:40 pm, in the dark, just after Kim leaves to pick up Emme from a post-trick-or-treating bonfire, and before leaving myself for “the pig corner” to collect Claire from a Revels-rehearsal carpool. It is cold but invigorating, and it is a pleasure to be up at my perch for a few moments, looking across at the silhouette of the hills against the night sky.
I turn and start my descent. A few branches down my hand comes away suspiciously tacky. And again a few branches below that. I don’t need to sniff my boots to confirm why. Had I tracked something up from the trick-or-treating circuit in the village, or collected it walking across our lawn? I would guess the former, as I have never seen our dogs go on this side of the house. I groan, probably audibly.
And so here I am, the next day, irritatedly soaping branches thirty feet off the ground. At least it is clear which branches got hit; it required a certain angle of one foot to scrape it from the arch of the sole onto the bark. As I scrub, soapy water splashes from the branch and scatters as it falls, hitting other branches on the way down. My jeans have gotten wet and quickly begin to feel cold against my skin in the near-freezing temperatures. For a moment I wedge the bucket between my legs so I can hang on to a branch with one hand and lean out to reach a second branch with the sponge in my other hand. The roll of paper towels drops out from under my arm and goes tumbling down among the branches to the ground. I swear under my breath. This is far from what I imagined when I first conceived of climbing the tree every day. I wedge the bucket between trunk and branch and climb down after the paper towels, experimenting with other expletives as I go.
As I am climbing back up, I start to laugh. Spiritual practice indeed! This is how I think of climbing, and how I experience it, sometimes more overtly, sometimes less so. And here I am up in the air, wet and cold, scrubbing shit from branches! So much for moonlight and fireflies and warm rain and morning sun and sheltering foliage and prayer flags in the snow! So much for rhapsody and exaltation!
And then, of course, I think of the Zen master Ummon–because who wouldn’t? When a disciple asked him, “What is the Buddha?” Ummon answered, “Shit on a stick.” Or “shit stick,” depending on the translation. I like “shit on a stick.” It’s got a good rhythm to it. It refers in either case to the results of a method of cleaning oneself prior to the invention of toilet paper. And here I was, dealing with literal shit on a stick. On a number of them, actually, all up and down the tree.
I don’t know what Ummon meant by this, and I am not a Buddhist, but several possibilities come to mind. Most of them have to do with deconstructing the categories with which we sort and organize the world. We tend to look for the spiritual in what is beautiful. We want to learn from what is lofty. If the Buddha were a thing, it would be a lotus flower–not shit on a stick. Ummon shakes us from our complacency, tells us to think differently.
But it goes deeper than this. It is not just that we want the spiritual to be beautiful, and shit is not. It is that we want there to be a Buddha, of some kind, somewhere. An answer, an objective, a solution. (Our Buddha may be romantic love, financial power, adrenaline, social or environmental activism.) The Zen master Linji said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Any Buddha you may encounter, or can imagine, is not the real Buddha; kill it and move on. Keep practicing; keep searching.
Shit on a stick.
Kill the Buddha.
What we love, we idealize. When I think of the tree, I think of my most beautiful and intense experiences up here: ice storms, high winds, violet sunsets, backlit leaves glowing green against the shadows of the wood behind, morning sun coming through prayer flags, the depthless blue skies of January. The drab days of March, all gray branches, gray skies, gray lichens crusted with ice? Not so much. The climb devoid of interest, beauty, inspiration? A quick run up and down before heading off to work? Not so much.
This is a good reminder that the Buddha is here too. That the Buddha that is nowhere is also everywhere. That this tree, with shit on the branches, is also my tree. That balancing with bucket and sponge and paper towels in the pale sunlight is its own strange kind of spiritual practice. And it’s also pretty damned funny, which counts for a lot. In fact, I now find myself in an absurdly good mood as soapy water splashes down the tree. I catch myself laughing out loud.
This is a good reminder to think carefully about why I climb the tree. What am I seeking up here?
I am looking for a little bit of wisdom. I am looking for beauty, and for a closer relation to the natural world. I am looking for a miniature transubstantiation, each day. But in a way, climbing the tree is also asking a question. A question like, What is the Buddha? Or, What should I do if I meet him?
I lay myself open to whatever answer might come each time I start up among the branches.
In short: I climb the tree to find out why I am climbing the tree.
And maybe this is why I am now in a spectacularly good mood. I am very nearly whistling as I scrub away; in fact I find myself humming “I Am Near the Gate,” a new piece from the community chorus Claire and I belong to.
When I have washed off all the branches I douse them with rubbing alcohol, returning the tree to an antiseptic state of cleanliness unnecessary to it, and to the insects, birds, and other critters that inhabit and pass through it.
What is the Buddha? Shit on a stick. And what did I do when I met this Buddha? I killed him with rubbing alcohol. But not before receiving from him the gift of one of my most memorable days among the branches.
And now I sit for a minute, the tree awash with pale sunlight around me.