Walking this way
There is a path that leads down from the assembly hall at Green Gulch, a mile or so, to Muir Beach. It begins where a great gate in a tall fence opens to a series of cultivated fields, set apart by formal fencerows of pine and cypress. Greenhouses and potting sheds are located here and there along the path; they serve the organic gardens of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center – Soryu-ji, the Green Dragon Temple.
Nearly half a century ago the San Francisco Zen Center purchased Green Gulch from pioneer rancher George Wheelwright, with the commitment that it would always remain open to the public, and provide agricultural awareness – and so a public easement was established to keep open the pathway through their gardens to the sea.
Maria and I wouldn’t have followed that path that way, that day, if it hadn’t been for our good friends Jan and Kristyan, who had been married there some 30 years before. Although we couldn’t attend their wedding, they wanted us to join their other friends to celebrate their anniversary, listen to a dharma talk, and sit.
There’s a wonderful experience in sitting for a while with a roomful of quiet people, also sitting. We sit in total acceptance and undistracted awareness. The anxiety about what there is to do is replaced with the comfort of simply being here. Nothing more is required, because everything is already here and sufficient; and nothing is regretted, because everything is neither good nor bad, but simply true.
Spiritual paths are often known as the Way. In Hinduism, Devayana is known as the Way of the Gods, and Mahayana is known in Buddhism as the Great Way. In Judaism, Halakha is usually translated as “Jewish Law,” but a more literal translation would be “the path that one walks.” Even the name of Islamic law, Sharia, is an archaic Arabic word meaning “pathway to be followed.”
When Thomas asked Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” He famously replied, cryptically, that “I am the way… if you really knew me, you would know.” The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching tell us that a path that can be simply walked upon thoughtlessly will take us nowhere – nor can it help us understand the Way to travel upon the Way.
As confusing as these different spiritual disciplines have become in our current worldwide conflict of cultures, they all agree on the essential principle of following a path, and walking a certain way. The various religions are like spokes of a wheel, leading from an esoteric hub – upon which they all agree – to an exoteric rim, where the energy of travel is distributed wherever it goes. The hub provides the meaning, and the rim supplies the manner.
The word esoteric means an “inner,” contemplative awareness, while exoteric means an “outer,” literal perspective. Integrity requires that they depend upon one another for civilization to move forward. It hardly matters which path you follow or what way you walk, if you recognize it as a Way that leads from the purpose of life to its best expression in the world.
Still it is true that the way I travel upon is not the way that I arrive, for I am changed by the journey, and arrive more seasoned than when I first set out. I used to be young, and viewed the years that lay ahead as an indeterminable stretch of the unknown, an empty abyss of time. Now, I know better.
Episodes of life that had once been scattered are brought together when they are remembered, like the shards of ancient pottery archeologists collect to understand a bygone time. This is the retrospective narrative that comes together when we’ve learned to forgive ourselves for our youthful follies, and to be grateful that somehow they got us to where we ended up today.
As we travel along we meet companions, old friends like Jan and Kristyan, and new friends – people like Mike and Victoria, the couple we caught up with on the trail leading from Green Gulch to Muir Beach. We exchanged a few comments about the day, the gardens, and the path. I introduced myself – and as Maria and Victoria moved ahead, Mike and I fell behind to talk.
It turned out Mike had grown up on Triniti Road, as it was then spelled, above Stuart Canyon. We talked about the land and its history, happily discovering delightful coincidences and agreements as we enjoyed an ambling review of the past in an easy conversation. The braiding of our two paths reminded me how early settlers of Sonoma Valley had walked the boundaries of their lands together, finding a place for themselves in the worlds of one another.
Just as there is a pleasure in hosting visitors around the Valley, there’s a pleasure in telling new friends old stories about myself. I remember who I am as I respond to someone’s interest in who I could be. I also enjoy a certain courage in this generosity – heartfelt courage to unveil some private detail of myself to others, and to myself.
This is how friendships grow, among us and within us as we walk along, just as we did that afternoon – on to the lunchtime buffet at the Pelican, where we joined Jan and Kristyan and the others for a long and hearty lunch to celebrate the journey of their marriage – and of all our friendships along the way.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and the executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.