going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.
— Dogen, “On Nondependence of Mind”
For a week I’ve had a thought every so often to write a blog post entitled “Leave No Trace.” Then the thought would disappear and I wouldn’t do it. When I sat down just now to write, I realized that I had not visited this site for twenty-eight days or written anything new for thirty-nine days. In the meantime, my site meter had stopped working. The traffic stats for this website thus appear as a vast empty stretch of tracelessness, as if a flock of birds could fly right through it. Something probably happened over the interval — a few visits here, a few there, two thousand spam comments — but nothing was recorded so I don’t know or even care. While I was so nobly intending to hold forth on the Dharma wisdom of “Leave No Trace,” the Dharma was expounding itself without me.
Isn’t that wonderful?
Your site meter can stop and it doesn’t mean you are dead. You can do nothing and everything still happens. You can leave no trace and you won’t fall into a void of extinction. But you might notice that you are a little less self-obsessed, a little less devoted to fame and popularity, less dependent on recognition and praise, less inclined to argue and blame. This is the subtle and profound wisdom of Zen instruction. You don’t lose anything when you leave no trace but the notion of your own ever-loving importance.
The Dharma is always expounded in the absence of self.
When I first began to attend Zen retreats, or sesshins, I’d see the short admonition posted throughout the retreat grounds. Leave No Trace was taped to the corner of the bathroom mirror, propped by the coffee pot, and hanging above the kitchen sink. It secretly pleased me because I thought it validated my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Wipe your feet! Clean up after yourself! Rinse your own cup! It does quite literally mean those things, but it also means much more. Leaving no trace is a practice that goes on well after you clean your shoes, brush your teeth, and wash a lifetime of coffee cups. No trace is aimed at getting rid of all the petty offenses, inconveniences, and problems in your life: namely, you. Or should I say, me.
Do I have a problem with you? That’s me.
Am I irritated? That’s me.
Do I feel unappreciated? That’s me.
Distracted? That’s me.
Disrespected or misunderstood? That’s me.
Do I feel the need to explain my personal history and point of view so that you can validate my experience? That’s me.
Am I angry at you? That’s me.
Am I struggling with things around me? That’s me.
Do I feel vulnerable, ashamed, defensive, unworthy, or victimized? That’s me.
Uninspired, resistant, and unsure? That’s me.
Do I feel like I leave a big blot of ugly trouble wherever I go? Every day.
Water birds are not dependent on a particular place. When they are on the ground, they function on the ground. On the water, they function on the water. In the sky, they function in the sky. They function perfectly and intuitively wherever they are, moving from one place to another by spontaneous instinct, never lost and never leaving a trace of where they’ve been. So can we live like that?
But wait, one time a bird pooped on my head. (True, it really happened to me.) Isn’t that a trace of the bird?
No, it’s a trace of me needing to have the last word.
Please everyone: clean up the crap you leave behind, stand clear of the crap I leave behind, and just keep going. This is the fundamental truth and beauty of the traceless path.
Photo Credit: “Birds in Flight on Water” by Joe Myeress