Friday, August 10, 2012

Barefoot Trips

     I remember when I was a boy my father told me that the natives in places like Africa go around barefoot so much that the soles of their feet are as tough as shoe leather. So, when I started going mostly barefoot more than twenty years ago I figured that would happen to me too, but it didn't. My feet are still relatively tender. I suppose from the scientific point of view it's a genetic thing---my ancestors wore shoes for so long that the potential for shoe-leather feet isn't there anymore. On the other hand, I am able to walk around barefoot much more easily now, just about anywhere. This is because I've learned how to walk barefoot carefully. I would guess that just about everyone has latent barefoot instincts that gradually become activated when one goes without shoes long enough. One of the great advantages of going barefoot is that it requires one to walk more mindfully. Walking itself becomes more of a meditation.
     One of the main reasons why I go barefoot is that there is a rule of monastic discipline which says a monk is not allowed to wear shoes in public (sandals actually---other kinds of shoes are always forbidden), unless he has a health problem which requires it, like an injury on the sole of the foot, or perhaps a path strewn with thorns or broken glass before him. Even so, most monks disregard the rule and wear sandals in public anyway. Often I would hear people in Burma saying things like, "The foreign monk isn't wearing shoes!" as though it were something really remarkable, like a special ascetic practice. I remember once the chief medical officer of Amarapura Township near Mandalay asked me why I didn't wear shoes. I told him that there were rules of discipline with regard to wearing shoes in public. Then he pointed out that the abbot of my monastery (a large school monastery where I lived for a year) wore sandals in public. I didn't want to explain to the doctor that the abbot didn't follow the rules very strictly, so I took a different tack---I said that the Buddha himself didn't wear shoes, the implication being that if going barefoot was good enough for the Buddha it was good enough for me. But then the chief medical officer of Amarapura Township, an intelligent man, remarked, "Yes, but the Buddha didn't need to wear shoes because when he walked his feet didn't touch the ground." That is in fact the traditional view, and at that I was stumped and remained silent.
     I did some hiking in Burma, and have done lots of it since returning to America, but two days ago was one of my crowning achievements thus far: A friend and I hiked Cascade Pass in the North Cascades mountain range, and I did it barefoot. It wasn't just being shoeless that made the trip a good one; there were glaciers, waterfalls, lots of wildflowers in bloom (I especially like the wild columbine), and marmots, plus we were approached by a group of mountain goats. The goats in particular were rather auspicious for me, as they are more or less my "totem animal." I collected tufts of their fur from bushes they had rubbed against as a way of collecting "relics." Considering that the top of the Pass has a trail consisting largely of broken rock, and that there were two patches of snow to be crossed, walking it barefoot was hardly uncomfortable at all. Moving from rock to rock carefully and smoothly was a really nice meditation, and of course feeling the bare ground against my feet causes more of a feeling of connection with the earth, and more of a sense of the sacredness of nature. One has no choice but to be more awake when one walks in a forest barefoot. Ironically, probably the most uncomfortable part of the walk at Cascade Pass was going through the gravel parking lot at the bottom.
     There may be something symbolic in that, as rough concrete and artificially strewn gravel are usually harder on my feet than the ground in a wilderness. My feet start getting sore after about two miles of concrete; and yesterday morning, the day after hiking Cascade Pass with unscathed feet, on my way to receive my daily meal I scuffed my foot against a perfectly flat sidewalk here in Bellingham and bloodied one toe (the little piggy that stayed home, on the right side). Wildernesses are often kinder to monks than cities are.
     Cities can be kind to barefoot monks too though; on my way back from receiving the meal I passed by a grocery store; and before reaching it I noticed two Asian women waiting at the corner of the parking lot looking a little flustered and excited. When I reached them they animatedly told me in English that was hard to understand that they were Thai and Buddhist, and that they live on Orcas Island, a longish drive from here. One of the ladies said that when she left Thailand she thought she would never see a monk again, and the two of them very enthusiastically gave me a bag of groceries they had bought for me at the store. I blessed them sincerely and continued on my way. Westerners are often generous and friendly too of course, but it's generally Asians who are really overjoyed at the opportunity to make an offering to a monk and to receive his blessings. It makes me feel good when someone appreciates what I am doing with my life.
     After that foray I made one more barefoot trip out onto the concrete yesterday; I went to the local Dharma Hall for the group meditation, and to announce my upcoming Dharma talk there (entitled "Breakthroughs," describing how insight and enlightenment often come in spontaneous, unexpected bursts, especially if one happens to be at wit's end) and the second annual Forest Fast scheduled for later this month (we'll go into a forest, meditate, and live on a diet of creek water, with a Dharma talk around a campfire every night, for at least four days, five if people are really into it). Shortly before I left for the Hall it started raining, and by the time I was out in it for ten minutes it started thundering and lightninging and raining in earnest---during August, the only reliably dry month in the Pacific Northwest. I didn't have an umbrella and was wet in the rain, much like I'd been wet in the rain many times before in Burma during the monsoon season. (Monks aren't supposed to use umbrellas in public either.) Despite my extensive experience with being rained on, and the fact that it wasn't very cold, when it started raining harder I would occasionally find myself saying things like, "This sucks." I also got some kind of splinter in my foot. Finally I made it to the Dharma Hall in a rather moist state, picked out the splinter, and sat among Westerners who don't consider me to be much of a teacher, or a monk, or a holy man, but just another person. One of them generously gave me a ride home afterwards. My toe is still a little sore.
     Maybe my next blog post will be more profound than this one. I don't want to be too top-heavy.

Before Buddha statues were invented 
the Buddha was usually represented in sculpture by 
a footprint, a bodhi leaf, or an empty seat to signify that 
he was no longer in this world

1 comment:

  1. Some people believe the gateway to all organs are in the feet. I believe this has to do with proprioception. There are lots and lots of little sensory nerves in the feet to tell the skeletal system (and the nervous system) how much of one muscle to contract and another muscle to relax while walking over tough terrain as to not fall down and get eaten by a saber tooth tiger. There is a great deal of information in the feet at the very least. Thanks for your thoughts.