It didn’t take long to see that I had no talent for making money. Sure, my mother was disappointed, but I figured she’d get over it. As the years rolled by, it became apparent that trees and eastern religions were my lot in life.
I always thought of myself as a student. A year of graduate school in western philosophy satisfied my morbid curiosity and gave my life direction, namely straight away from grad school and pronto. There were two problems. First, I couldn’t respond to the workload under external pressures, at least not when strong internal motivation was lacking. Second, I was unhappy because western academic philosophy (especially the modern varieties) is largely divorced from religion and spiritual values. I began to read and audit courses in Hinduism, and soon in Buddhism. I was glad to study and write papers by my own choice; the professors were glad to have an interested student. I took on studenthood as a career. This was fortunate because Buddhism is so vast. Hinduism remained primarily on the Indian sub-continent and yet has a history which certainly rivals Judaism and Christianity in breadth. Buddhism spread throughout Asia and each separate culture blended its own particular genius with the care of the Buddha’s teaching. I seek to become fairly well grounded in the developments which evolved in Indian Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and somewhat acquainted with the spirit of other Buddhist cultures and the phases of Hinduism as well.
Yes, this voluntary student life was just the thing. My investigations were very rewarding; no grades, no degrees, no jobs, no hindrances, just exciting assignments. Then one day came the rude awakening. My professor of Indian religions said in effect, you can either keep reading about what others say or you can learn the language and decide for yourself. She really burst the bubble. Languages were never my strong suit, and most classical Oriental languages make Latin seem like a picnic. They say discipline is a valuable thing, and I wanted to be a serious student so I gave it a try. First Sanskrit, then Tibetan. Tradition has it that twenty years are required for the ordinary mortal to master Sanskrit grammar, so I guess my career as a student is guaranteed. The languages are nearly as esoteric as the ideas themselves, and actually their study can be viewed as studying the religions themselves, and not merely a prerequisite. But for the first couple of years it was strictly a case of the end justifying the dreadful means.
Now that the worst of cases and conjugations is behind me, some of the old carefree joy has returned when juggling texts and translations. Another dimension has been added to the power of religious expression. Buddhism (and Hinduism) seems vaster than ever. The Buddhist canon, which differs from country to country, includes more than 100 volumes in Tibet, a single book being not much shorter than the Bible. If you add to this the voluminous traditional commentaries and the growing literature in European languages, it would seem logical that the would-be scholar is a lifetime student. It’s not just a question of numbers though. Buddhism has continually given life to the subtleties of enlightened experience by addressing itself to the needs and abilities of individual seekers and practitioners. Realization in meditation is always the most important thing in living Buddhism, but third-hand intellects like myself can always gain by reflecting on the words of those who have trodden the path.
Not being a Zen-man, or a tantric adept myself, the subtleties of doctrine sometimes appear too remote to me. When I need some concrete reassurance, trees have the answer. Let’s face facts; for tree-lovers our planet is a strong contender for best of all possible worlds. There are monocots and dicots, cycads, broadleaf evergreens, conifers and deciduous trees. There are Bonsai and dwarf conifers. I like almost everything about trees. Wood is by far my favorite material. I love posts, rails, beams, boards and the paper this is written on. Flowers, fruits and nuts are great; leaves, bark and even roots are nice. Trees have it all. My personal mission is the growing of temperate zone trees, since I don’t have a greenhouse and my house is too cold for tropical and subtropical trees. The Piedmont of North Carolina is a very favorable region for a great variety of trees. We have in residence a particularly rich assortment of native deciduous or ‘hardwood’ species. One could spend years in collecting examples of the greater majority of species in our neighborhood, and indeed I do. We should certainly pay tribute to the fine local talent including several trees like Hawthorns, Persimmon, hickories and others which are too seldom planted. As fate would have it, many of my favorite exotic (temperate zone) trees are from China, Japan and the Himalayas. (There are very few trees in most parts of Tibet; India is still rich in trees, far more so in earlier times.) I seem to get a special thrill out of growing lesser known conifers from the Orient and the West Coast. Instead of trying to decide between natives and foreigners, I figure just grow them all.
Trees are good companions for all seasons. I know they have had a stabilizing influence on my life. I have watched most of my good human friends come and go from Chapel Hill, but most of my favorite trees are still around. It’s just natural to enjoy watching friends grow, and it’s also wise for indigents like myself to keep in close touch with friends who have upward mobility. For me, trees are a great investment, because they are durable goods that I can most easily afford. Twenty-year pines for pulp are okay, but the dividends are so much higher for trees that can easily outlive us. I plan to retire early on trees.
Geoffrey Driscoll lives in Chatham County, North Carolina.