In the Buddha’s world, nature and the wilderness were frightening threats. The early Buddhist texts show how he forged a new relationship with nature, opening the way for the beautiful nature poetry of his followers

As the Discourses of the Pali Canon (our main source for the life of Gautama Buddha) recount Gautama’s conversations and teachings, they rarely describe the time he spent alone in the jungle. But sometimes we catch a glimpse. Once, some boys were collecting firewood when they saw Gautama and ran to fetch their Brahmin teacher. He found a figure rapt in unearthly concentration, and when Gautama emerged from his absorption the Brahmin addressed him:

Deep in the bowels of the terror-filled forest,
Immersed in the empty and desolate woods,
Without flinching at all, steadfast, compelling
You meditate, monk, in an exquisite way.
(Samyutta Nikaya 7:18 (I 180-181), trans. Andrew Olendzki

This image tells us as much about the Brahmin as about Gautama. He has heard of forest-dwelling masters, but they amaze him. For Gautama’s contemporaries, the Indian jungle was a place of fear rather than pastoral tranquillity, representing everything that was unpredictable and foreign to settled existence. Ancient sources speak of four great forests in northern India that dominated the region, and settlements were islands of safety. The jungle’s dangers included venomous snakes, savage tigers and boar, bandits who preyed on travelers and hostile indigenous tribesmen. There were mosquitoes, gadflies that bit deep into the flesh and the rigours of extreme heat, cold, rain and humidity. Travelers also reported chilling encounters with ghosts, spirits and demons.

Far from living in harmony with nature, Gautama’s contemporaries felt they were intruders in a domain that more truly belonged to the animals and spirits. Brahmins (whose cultural homelands were west of the Ganges Valley) performed sacrifices to free the wild tracts between villages of ‘ogres, man-tigers, thieves, murderers, and robbers’. In the Ganges Valley itself, popular religion focused on the shrines of local gods and spirits, most of whom were capricious and dangerous and had to be propitiated by offerings at sacred trees in groves outside the villages.

In his youth as a Shakyan nobleman Gautama probably worked in the fields, but he may never have travelled far from home or passed through the forest. That changed when he became a wandering shramana, but even then he would have stayed near towns and villages rather than living in the wilderness. In a Discourse called Fear and Dread Gautama offers an insight into his state of mind as went in search of Awakening: he tells us that he agreed with the consensus that ‘remote jungle-thicket resting places are hard to endure, seclusion is hard to practise and it is hard to enjoy solitude. The jungle must rob a monk of his mind if he has no concentration.’ Bhayabherava Sutta: Majjhima Nikaya (I 17), trans Nyanamoli & Bodhi.

After time as a member of established shramana groups and practising self-mortification with five companions, Gautama became a solitary practitioner devoted to intensive meditation. He followed a unique approach. He had rejected the belief that the body was an enemy and pain was inherently beneficial and probably also abandoned the beliefs about God and the soul that shaped his contemporaries’ view of meditation. This freed him to look at his experience directly and draw strength from increasingly refined and pleasurable states that developed in meditation. He was ready to explore his mind in its fullest depths, and thereby confront the darkest shadows of the world.

The Gaya region in which Gautama was living has always been associated in popular belief with ghosts, spirits and the dead. In Fear and Dread Gautama relates that certain spots in the midst of dark woodland or around sacred trees possessed an unnerving atmosphere. Beneath the trees were shrines scattered with the bones of sacrificed animals and dedicated to the ferocious spirits that lived in them. People visited the shrines to appease the spirits with rituals and sacrifices; otherwise they shunned them. Despite hearing of the overwhelming terror these places prompted, Gautama visited them at the very times they were most to be avoided: the nights that marked the phases of the moon when the earth’s energy was roused and the spirits walked abroad. Gautama recalled: ‘There in the darkness or the moon-cast shadows I would hear an animal approaching, or a peacock would break off a twig, or the wind would rustle the fallen leaves, and I thought, “Is this it coming now, the fear and dread?”’ (MN I 21, trans PD Ryan).

Worshippers believed that in propitiating a spirit they were also appeasing the wild and destructive forces of nature; so in facing the spirit shrines Gautama was also engaging with these threatening powers and confronting the currents in his own mind that led him to fear them. As he sat, he asked himself: ‘What am I doing here, wanting this to happen? And if it does happen, why should I not drive it out?’ When the fear and terror came pulsing through him he refused to be deflected. If he was sitting, he continued to sit; if he was walking, he continued to walk. In that way, he says, ‘I faced that fear and dread, just as it found me, and I drove it out.’

According to the discourse, Gautama then entered the meditative absorptions and directly gained awakening. So let me make a suggestion. Perhaps this account of Gautama’s confrontation with the Gaya spirits is another version of the story that is more famously told in the legend of his encounter with Mara on the night of Awakening. It may be that Mara was the presiding spirit of the Uruvela grove and an important deity in the region’s religion who represented the very forces Gautama wished to overcome. Drawing on such hints, scholars like Reginald Ray and Geoffrey Samuel suggest that Gautama’s Awakening in certain respects resembles a shaman’s encounter with the spirit world.

Gautama differs from a shaman in his focus on his state of mind. Mindful awareness was the key faculty in the development he describes, and he focused on his fearful response to the spirit shrines rather than the spirits themselves. In facing the demons and conquering his mind Gautama escaped not just craving and suffering but also the fear of nature that pervaded his culture. He formed a new relationship with nature that is beautifully evoked in images that show the serpent-god Mucalinda protecting the newly-awakened Gautama with his coils and his hood.

A second glimpse of Gautama in the wilderness offers another image for this new relationship with nature. This time the speaker is a god:

In places where frightening serpents abide,
Lightning clashes and the rain-god thunders,
In the blinding darkness of the deepest night,
There he sits – the monk who’s vanquished his dread.
Samyutta Nikaya 6:13 (I 333-4), trans. Andrew Olendzki.

Now that Gautama has absorbed the fearful power of nature he seems as wild as the wilderness itself and sits happily in its midst. Observers said that Gautama possessed the untamed power of a lion, and his ability to subdue demons was an important part of the role he played in society. According to the Discourses, when Gautama’s self-mastery made him invulnerable to the influence of spirit such as yakshas . Typically, they feel Gautama’s power or glimpse his wisdom, and agree to act ethically. Leaving the wilderness, they take up residence on the edge of the village or in a monastery, and to this day visitors to a Buddhist temple may notice a shrine near the entrance dedicated to local gods.

Gautama’s monastic followers, who trained themselves in this new way of seeing nature, discovered a beauty in their surroundings that coexisted with its terrors. In The Theragatha, the remarkable collection of verses left behind by Gautama’s awakened male disciples, the monks wonderfully evoke their environment, entwining their observations with the experience of meditation. Cittaka recalls how ‘The call of the crested, blue-necked peacocks in the Kauraviya forest, urged on by the cool breeze, awakens the sleeper to meditation.’ Culaka reflects that it is easy to renounce worldly pleasures when one is surrounded by ’peacocks with lovely feathers, lovely wings, lovely blue necks and lovely faces calling out a lovely song with a lovely sound.’ Nature’s fertility reflected the fruition of their practice. ‘When the sky-deva has rained, when the grass is four-fingers high, when the grove is in full flower, I shall lie in the forest like a tree. It will be soft for me, like cotton. But I shall act as master,’ says Talupata. Sympathy with nature blended with the ‘boundless heart towards all beings’ cultivated though loving-kindness meditation, and Revata declares: ‘I am a friend to all, comrade to all and sympathetic to all beings, and develop a mind full of love.’

The monks of The Theragatha contradict the view commonly found among Theravadin Buddhists that natural beauty should be rejected along with other sensual pleasures. The express a deep intimacy with the natural world that is born of long years spent outdoors, living beneath the stars and amid the animals and spirits. They don’t sentimentalise nature and are all to aware of its perils, discomforts and snares, but neither do they reject it.

This intimacy is also the key to Gautama’s changing relationship with the non-human world. He saw through his culture’s terror of the wilderness by becoming intimate with his mind and finding within it the roots of that terror. Then he was able to become intimate with nature itself.

His lesson to us is this: to heal our relationship with the natural world, we must heal ourselves.

This article was first published in Urthona Magazine