In the late 60s a Buddhist community in San Francisco bought a rustic, hundred year old hot springs resort deep in the mountains inland from Big Sur, intending to turn it into a monastery. Strung along a creek in a narrow canyon full of live oak and sycamore, yucca and sage on the sun facing slopes, the resort came complete with many cabins, a small barn, a shop, kitchen, swimming pool, bath house, and a steam room. The community spruced the place up, created terraces with gorgeous stone walls, turned a building on the creek bank into a meditation hall, and built a temple gate where the fourteen mile dirt road met the mountain valley. The monastery complete, the community’s founder and teacher, a Japanese priest named Shunryu Suzuki, satisfied that the monastery’s physical plant met the community’s needs, and so was finished, said, “Now we can just sit!”
I entered the monastery a decade later, Suzuki-roshi having since died. The three month practice periods, in the fall and winter-spring, were indeed “just sitting,” with light work in the mornings and afternoons. Summer was “guest season,” when paying visitors came to enjoy the hot springs, mountains, creek, and luxurious vegetarian meals. Somehow, after Suzuki-roshi’s death, when his American students took charge, there arose never-ending need: a new bridge to the bath house, more cabins, stone stair cases, yurts on plywood platforms, new bathrooms, fences, a beautiful new kitchen, a new bath house, more stone walls. During the busy time getting ready for the summer guest season I was tasked with painting several of the cabins. I worked with a couple helpers, mindfully painting. This is how our meditation practice bled into work, by concentrating deeply on each little thing. The painting progressed, slowly, carefully. The woman in charge of guest season preparations -- a gifted administrator -- came by after a couple days and said, “This is taking too long! Stop practicing and get these cabins painted!” “Just sitting” had taken a back seat.
Before the frog group I’d never been involved in the creation of an organization. I trusted that its needs would be met as we went along, and they were, and then some. It began six years ago with calls to biologists about this phenomenon of waves of frogs hopping into four lanes of rush hour traffic. A simple plan was initiated, helped by bright faced volunteers so eager they seemed to fall out of the sky. Ideas to improve the mechanics and function of our effort abounded. My favorite was the guy with the rocks: we use plastic buckets with a hole cut in the lid to transport the frogs. A frog jumping out through the hole was a rarity, but this new volunteer didn’t like the holes and placed rocks over the opening in each bucket. Many of the rocks barely covered the holes. I pointed out to him they could fall on the frogs inside and took the rocks off the buckets. I left for a short while. When I returned the rocks were back on the lids. Refinements of our effort are endless, come from every direction, and are each -- to their creator -- not only crucial, but may save a frog; which makes them a moral imperative. The complexity of catching frogs grows with the passing weeks, years. We progress toward frog catching flawlessness. This stubborn insistence on imminent perfection is Western Man’s way of throttling the joy that‘s all around us.
The lakes, sloughs and marsh that lined the river between here and downtown Portland -- where these terrestrial frogs bred -- have been filled for a hundred years. The road and train tracks that separate the forest from the last remaining wetlands have been here even longer, but the intensity of traffic has grown exponentially in the past two decades, putting the remaining frogs in an impossible situation. Growth races ahead of the perfection we’re sure is just around the corner, also propelling our rather desperate frog effort. Even within our small volunteer group the intensity of this momentum toward perfection is impressive, the inevitable bureaucracy driven. Impeding this push is perilous, dominance imprinted behind our eyes. It reminds me of the mid-nineteenth century white settlement of this region, a colonization that has never ended, crushing whatever gets in its way, Indians first, now frogs.
How did we come up with a God in our image who’s perfect? The Multnomah people who lived here before us -- for thousands of years -- emphasized harmony; with the spirit world, the planet, each other. They revered Coyote, a wandering buffoon who was forever getting into trouble. With each conundrum Coyote’s misadventures met, he sought guidance from his turd sisters, who lived in his stomach. Coyote’s little shits always helped him, even though he annoyed them by pretending their wisdom was his own. Their advice created much of the cultural taboo the Multnomah lived by so faithfully, rules they knew preserved harmony, even if the many taboo were laborious, and from the mouths of little shits. When the white settlers came, these wise people were baffled: why did the new comers pay so little attention to what their perfect God taught? Why were these white people so driven, in such a hurry?
Meditation is difficult, and so is living in harmony with the planet. Rather than plunging into the difficulty, with the possibility we might rub up against wisdom, we distract ourselves with never ending building projects, shiny gadgets, our little rocket ships. Frog humility has given them success for hundreds of millions of years, patient within their meek place in the food chain. In contrast, human evolution threatens to peak, after a very short run, with Donald Trump. We liberals, basking in purity and righteousness, like novice monastics, bridle at such a thought, sure we are nothing like the Cheeto Mussolini. To prove this ignominious fate wrong, and to help frogs in the long run, perhaps we need be more like our small, fellow citizens.