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."  "If you insist on
words," he went on, "Zen is an elephant copulating with a flea." 
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."  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
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
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."  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." 
Thus, by going out into Nature, Muir went into himself, and
eventually came back out again with greater awareness. This is
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."  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." 
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."  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
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
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."  He could not have understood
Zen more completely when he wrote to Mrs. Carr, "My own special
self is nothing." 
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
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
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
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."  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?" 
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. 
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."  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. 
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,
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."  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."  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
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.
Return to John Muir Newsletter