Sylvia was beautiful. She has the most wonderful hair, black and glossy, her springy curls giving her a constant impression of energy. She was petite and well rounded, smiling, with sharp eyes and a wonderful way of articulating herself with words and gestures. She appeared fully engaged with the people and the world around her. She was a good Catholic girl from Los Angeles who had travelled with her church group in Europe and looked far too young to be a high school English teacher. I met her at Karme Choling, where she was attending the Mukpo Institute for Buddhist Studies before moving to Manhattan to study art.
We sat in the dining hall speaking about the places we had travelled to. She advised me that San Francisco was the only city in California worth visiting and that Wyoming was beautiful. We had both been to Colorado. She had a friend there, a woman who was a backpacking guide, who liked to go by herself to the wild places, the places without a footprint. She would search for days for those untouched spots. Sylvia was mystified, but I nodded my head. I could understand her friend. I thought of the Sand Hills and I tried to explain it as best I could in halting and clumsy language. I told her about the mountains and the grass and the ocean, struggling for a metaphor.
“You see, the wild places don’t care,” I said, knowing that wasn’t the half of it.
“But isn’t that scary?” she asked.
I struggled to explain. “But you see, because they don’t care, they don’t want anything from you. They don’t demand anything. They don’t tell you how to be. Like in the Sand Hills, it’s just oceans and oceans of grass and all you can hear is the wind. In some places you can walk across the hills and you can’t see anything human within that landscape, not a road or house or windmill, not even a barbed wire fence. Because everything people make contains a message, beyond its mere function, it has a reason, a ‘do this, not that.’ So even something as simple as a fence is a message from someone demanding something from you, don’t cross, walk beside, or telling you something, this is where your land stops and mine begins. Because we are social creatures, we are always looking for these messages, consciously and unconsciously. But the hills themselves don’t care and because they don’t care you’re…free.”
I think finding that kind for freedom is one of the things that helps us realize the constructed nature of our reality. Without the uncaring hills, the stoic mountains, or the indifferent sea to show us that something else is possible, we might never realize it. I wonder if that is why the Buddha sat under a tree, even if he might not have realized it at the time. After all, the tree didn’t care, did it? While the companions he had been studying with had all had expectations and they gave him guff for failing to meet those expectations. But the tree didn’t care. It was content to let him be and to go on doing as it had always done.
It is true that the fencepost really doesn’t care any more than the hills or the grass or the wind. It is the meaning our mind gives it that makes us believe the fencepost wants something from us, but it is also the interconnectedness of it all. We know someone made that fencepost, sometime in the past, someone felt the need to tell other people (or cows) that this was a boundary not to be crossed. We instinctively see a connection with that person. Our world is made up of fenceposts and the meanings we give them and the connections we seek through them.
These words are fenceposts. Fundamentally, they don’t care. They have no meaning. They make not connections. We care. We decide meaning. We make connections. Fundamentally, we are not fenceposts. We seek not to create boundaries but remove them. We seek to renounce all those barriers between ourselves and others, to connect, heart to heart.
“I think I understand,” Sylvia told me. She had such a thoughtful expression.
I smiled and leaned forward on the table, making a connection.