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Zen Buddhism in John Muir

by Michelle L. Dwyer

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter Vol. 5, no. 2, Spring, 1995)

(Editor's note: Michelle Dwyer is an English and Philosophy double major at the University of the Pacific. This paper was prepared in the fall of 1994 for an undergraduate course, "John Muir and the American Environment.")

Many question whether John Muir followed traditional Christianity, mystic pantheism, or a combination of the two. After reading many of Muir's writings, it seems to me that he follows the religious beliefs of Zen Buddhism closely enough to say that Muir understood Zen without knowing much about eastern philosophy. Those familiar Zen will not find this surprising; paradoxically to know what Zen is, is to know nothing about it. The more one understands Zen, the more one understands this notion. Roshi Kapleau, an American Zen Master, said "If I speak of Zen, it won't be Zen I'm speaking of." [1] "If you insist on words," he went on, "Zen is an elephant copulating with a flea." [2] Thus words are useless to convey the essense of Zen.

John Muir was also aware of the limitations of words to convey a sense of the mystical power and majesty of Nature. "Most of the words of the English language are made of mud, for muddy purposes," he exclaimed, "while those invented to contain spiritual matter are doubtful and unfixed in capacity and form, as wind-ridden mist-rags." [3] Muir understood that one had to feel the power of Yosemite and not just read about it. To him, "It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur." [4]

Acknowledging the ineffectiveness of words led both Muir and Zen followers to emphasize experience as a path to truth. In Zen, one learns by finding one's True-Nature through years of discipline, primarily by studying Zazen, which teaches that one cannot really come to discover True-Nature unless one concentrates through sitting. Zazen can transform all aspects of one's life, but usually only after many years of understanding and enlightenment.

Muir probably knew nothing of Zazen, but he knew much about the value of experience. He went to the mountains to learn all he could from nature, not as an idle watcher, but as an active participant. His exploration of the Sierra became his Zazen, his concentrated effort to discern True-Nature. In exploring the physical nature surrounding him, in effect he was engaged in a Zen-like exploration of himself. By discovering Nature, he was discovering himself, and by discovering himself, he was discovering the universe. This is the meaning of his famous conundrum, "I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." [5] As Michael Cohen observed, Muir was "appealing to a higher power than self, and attempting to accommodate himself to a still unknown world-view which was deeper, larger, and more powerful than one based on self-interest....He was beginning to think of human life, his own included, from an eternal perspective." [6] Thus, by going out into Nature, Muir went into himself, and eventually came back out again with greater awareness. This is Zen.

Zen underscores the importance of first reaching the True- Nature of the essential Self, which is described as the "Unborn Mind, the immortal, original Self." [7] The essential Self is reached through the conscious Self, but only when the mind is pure, serene, and calm. Although his frenetic treks through the wilderness were far from serene, Muir was similarly engaged in self-discovery, discovering his essential Self by observing the whole universe. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki remarked, "Doing something is expressing our own True-Nature. We do not exist for the sake of something else; we exist for the sake of ourselves." [8]

Living in union with one's True-Nature also brings about harmony in life. In a letter to his brother, Muir wrote about this realization: "I have no fixed practical aim, but I am living in constant communion with Nature and follow my instincts and am most intensely happy." [9] By seeking harmony and True-Nature, Muir developed a philosophy remarkably close to the teachings of Zen.

Discovery and understanding of True-Nature leads Zen practitioners to a perception of oneness between nature and humanity. Even though man and nature are two entities, there is only one essense. Our existences are both plural and singular, dependent and independent, living and dying. Everything in the universe is part of the essential self and is a part of one's life. Life, the universe, and the self are not divisible, but are one; the many are one and the one is many. As Suzuki expressed it:

When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship. [10]

What comes out of this realization is a release of the conscious self, or ego. By rejecting egocentric thinking, Zen followers believe the individual loses individual fears and self- interest and becomes one with all creation. By connecting with all that exists, we do not just act for ourselves, but for everyone and everything. This is true enlightment.

Muir understood what it meant to lose himself and his ego in the oneness of nature: "No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God's beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be." [11] He could not have understood Zen more completely when he wrote to Mrs. Carr, "My own special self is nothing." [12]

From the understanding of everything being one, all dualities are abolished, life and death become the same thing, everything changes constantly, and all is eternal. Zen teaches that oneness is obtained through practice and not thought, for thought leads to thinking in dualistic terms. When we understand the essential self we see that it is "immortal and eternal, containing the past, the present, and the future with itself, and at the same time, from the viewpoint of space, it is infinite, including all the universe and reflecting everything like a mirror." [13]

Change is also essential in Zen. In Suzuki's words:

That everything changes is the basic truth... because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self...the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. [14]

Muir had similar ideas. He understood Zen notions of timelessness, non-dualities, creation and change, and the eternal interaction between life and death. In My First Summer in the Sierra he expressed Zen thinking in these words: "From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love's enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation." [15] Elsewhere he wrote: "We read our Bibles and remain fearful and uncomfortable amid Nature's loving destructions, her beautiful deaths. Talk of immortality! After a whole day in the woods, we are already immortal. When is the end of such a day?" [16]

Whether or not Muir can be said to be a Zen Buddhist is really to question whether or not he reached Enlightenment, since that is the ultimate goal of Zen. Although one may still be a Zen Buddhist and not reach Enlightenment, is it possible that Muir reached Enlightenment without Zen? Michael Cohen, at least, seems to think so. He describes Muir's experience on top of Mount Ritter as Satori, which is the Zen understanding of Enlightenment, when the "self is absolutely identical with the universe itself" and there is complete liberty of the mind. [17] To understand Muir's experience in light of Zen thinking requires an examination of Muir's writings--keeping in mind that both Muir and Zen agree that experiences like Satori can never truly be understood in words. Muir was climbing Mount Ritter but soon worked himself into a position from which he was unable to move. "My doom appeared fixed," he wrote. "I must fall." [18] He seemed to panic for a moment and then:

Life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, instinct, or Guardian Angel--call it what you will--came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as though a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete. [19]

How should we understand this event? First there is obvious loss of self, then something higher and more powerful took charge. Ultimately he experienced a feeling of clarity and vision, suggesting Satori.

Shoei Ando's explanation of Satori is similar to what Muir experienced: "Man is forced to stand on the verge of death several times during his life. If he takes good advantage of such chances, he may attain spiritual enlightenment." [20] Philip Kapleau also claims that some people, although very few, can obtain enlightenment without study or Zazen. The problem, he says, is that enlightenment usually does not last without proper discipline, and becomes only a memory. This may have been what happened with Muir, since he never had any formal training in Zen. Kapleau agrees that there are "holy mountains" which are "centers of cosmic energies, forces with the power to evoke awe and reverence...these mountains turned one inward and activates the subtlest vibrations within oneself." [21] If one comes to such a place pure and open-minded, then a profound experience is possible. Mount Ritter was a holy mountain to Muir, and what he experienced on its summit was indeed profound. Perhaps it was Satori.

Although Muir may not be classified as a Zen Buddhist, it is difficult to deny the many similarities. I found the more I read of both Muir and Zen, the more it becomes evident how the two are philosophically intertwined. Muir never had any systematic knowledge of Zen, but somehow he experienced the truths of the religion. The argument may still go on about the nature of Muir's religious beliefs, but what cannot be denied is that Muir discovered the essence of Zen, and this we now know can never be expressed in words alone.


1. Philip Kapleau, Zen: Dawn in the West (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979), 8.

2. Kapleau, 9.

3. William Frederic Bade, The Life and The Letters of John Muir, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), 7.

4. John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (New York: Penquin Books, 1987), 132.

5. Muir, 73.

6. Peter Browning John Muir in His Own Words: A Book of Quotations (Lafayette, Ca: Great West Books, 1988), 18.

7. Michael P Cohen, The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 19.

8. The terms are from Kapleau.

9. Shoei Ando, Zen and the American Transcendentalism (Tokyo, Japan: Hokuseido Press, 1970), 14.

10. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 27.

11. Cohen, 29.

12. Suzuki, 44.

13. Muir, 131.

14. Bade, 29.

15. Ando, 28.

16. Suzuki, 44.

17. Suzuki, 92.

18. Muir, 128.

19. Browning, 33.

20. Browning, 27.

21. Ando, 192.

22. Cohen, 68.

23. Cohen, 68.

24. Ando, 183.

25. Ando, 43.

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