This essay also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
There is nothing whatever to remove from this,
Nor the slightest thing thereon to add.
Truly beholding the true nature –
When truly seen – complete liberation.
—Uttaratantra (vs. 154), attributed to Maitreya1
This is how I heard it. One time in Ivy Field, near the place where the lake waters meet the streets of Wind City, where drowned buildings can be seen to the east and the south, tall and ruined, tenements where white laundry flaps like surrender flags and merchants sell their wares from skiffs through open windows, everywhere calling “Hey Cheecago!” and thus invoking the city’s proud old name to stir their business, ’Treya talked up the masses gathered there, speaking the truth to everyone.
In the Long Before, when Ivy Field was a place where ritual games were played with great pageantry, the people harnessed rain to make the grass there ever-green, and changed the night to day with a fury of stolen light, chanting and roaring and eating too much. Now Ivy Field is a sanctuary for all who seek to know Buddha-nature, the undying and never-born, the everlasting beyond all weather.
When ’Treya came with her first followers, many were already living there in misery and disrepute, having fled the floods and fractured seasons to build a stacked shanty town under the stadium’s eves. With infinite compassion, ’Treya taught those who would listen to tame all grasping vines, both outer and inner, and to open the wisdom eye. In time Ivy Field was transformed into a holy refuge, the beginning of the wheel’s new turning in our lawless land, where the Dharma had once taken root, but mostly been forgotten.
Beyond the great diamond, mandala of the Four Noble Truths, where the faithful meditate in daily circumambulation, ’Treya took her customary seat under a parasol atop an old flatbed truck left there in the Great Panic. Before her, shielded from the intense sun under a patchwork awning above the ivy wall, sat the assembly of the faithful. To either side, in the far fields, stretched the refuge’s gardens, the crops and fruit trees arrayed in mutual affinity, netted from parrots and watched over by mindful attendants. Below her, in the center field, sat the people of the neighborhood and others who had traveled far for the teachings, many bedraggled and encouraged also by the promise of a meal.
There were a thousand people or more gathered within the friendly confines. Among them was Mayor Brassman, merchant king of Wind City, who had converted to the Dharma under ’Treya’s guidance, and who had since spread the teachings all along the waterways. Hundreds more were also gathered on the nearby rooftops, where the clarity of ’Treya’s voice would be carried to them like birdsong on the favorable out-blowing wind. Above them all, strung with a tangle of prayer flags, towered the stadium’s old scoreboard, its many zeros painted over with a bright mural of bodhisattvas bearing a Dharma Wheel.
Raising her hand with great compassion, ’Treya prepared to teach, welcoming all who had come together and exhorting them to purify their minds with perfect wisdom. Indicating the monsoon clouds gathered like a furrowed brow overhead, Rosario, devoted leader of the assembly, then asked ’Treya how it was that the weather, so hostile to the world’s suffering inhabitants, could possess Buddha-nature, which pervades all things.
After herself looking skyward, Maitreya, the aged Buddha of our era, graciously spoke these words: “There was a time, in the Long Before, when I lived another life, and greedily chased after the power of the storms, until my heart was opened in inner wisdom, and I saw the true nature, genuine when genuinely seen, and equal within us all.” Having thus begun, ’Treya then told this tale, the tale of Stormtamer, to all who were gathered there.
In the last days of the Long Before, when the Great Panic was presaged everywhere but ignored by all but a wise and obstinate few, the cyclic patterns of weather, once stable and often predictable, began to shift with violence and increased warning. Floods and droughts, watery tempests and dust-blown twisters, all became more frequent and gathered strength in the ever-warming climate, bringing suffering to overpopulated places. In the winters too there were harrowing storms of snow and ice, growing ever longer, but for most people these disasters were merely a source of entertainment, the images of destruction broadcast across the planet, watched with awe and morbid fascination by the millions who remained, for the time being, comfortable elsewhere.
In that time there was a storm chaser named Victor Demara, who, along with others like him, made a living capturing these images, and who thrived on the thrill of nature’s manifest power. In the spring, the fair season of emerging life following winter, these chasers began to track storms all across the Great Plains, watching with a knowledgeable eye for the ominous, spiraling rotations that foretold tornadoes.
Late in the month of May, Victor, together with his trusted companion Marcus, left their city and ventured out into the grid of long, straight roads that ran through a green ocean of crops, stretching in orderly rows for miles to the even horizon. It was edging toward evening when the first warnings came, the roads between the city and its outlying towns jammed with the vehicles of people returning home from a day of work. Against all reason, fearless in their excitement, Victor and Marcus rushed in the opposite direction, their own vehicle a special truck outfitted with tracking equipment and capable of great speed.
The two friends were seasoned storm chasers—Victor the driver, Marcus the navigator—and their intimate, terrifying images of tornadoes touching down and whipping across the Plains were popular around the globe. On this day, obstinate in his self-assurance, Victor had left the city despite his anxious wife and young children pleading for him to stay. He concealed this inner turmoil from Marcus as they leaned into the road, gulping coffee and talking only of weather, Victor’s churning emotions directed outward and driving them on.
Traveling southwest, wind and rain already lashing the truck’s windows, the two watched as the storm fronts heaped and collided above them, blotting out the evening’s diffuse and golden light. Where it had been calm moments before, the sky boiled with a mass of knotted thunderclouds before their eyes, and they hurried onward, racing not only against the weather but against other chasers, eager in their reckless pursuit.
To the west, against the horizon’s now eerie grey-green light, the chasers captured images as the storm distended and vortices began to form, snaking tendrils of bloated, angry cloud reaching for the earth and spiraling together in rapid expansion. Rotation brought low, the tornado swelled and darkened as it ate up the fertile soil, backlit with lightning that flashed in jagged fissures of terrible brightness. The chasers now sensed that this was no ordinary funnel, roping with ghostly elegance from on high, but a wedging monster of unprecedented magnitude. His heart thundering, Victor directed Marcus to call and share what information they had, an intention already turning in him to help those who might be caught unawares by the storm’s furious movement.
Victor was known across the Plains for his intuition with storms and his skill behind the wheel, and attuned in their long teamwork, Marcus trusted him completely. Wrapped in blinding rain and a battery of hail, the chasers maintained their course, tracking south of the tornado’s predicted hook and drawing closer to a small crossroads town where the roofs of houses were trembling visibly, shingles and debris strafing through the air.
Ever-growing, the storm swallowed the horizon, trees along the road bowing and crumpling as Victor and Marcus sped past, their vehicle rattling in the tornado’s pitched roar. And then they were weightless, floating for a single crystalline moment as the truck was lifted and thrown from the road before crashing into the adjacent field and rolling in a blizzard of jangling glass. The truck spun a hundred times or more, compacting around them like a shrinking metal coffin, the breath smashed from their lungs as they toppled.
Victor’s mind edged back from smudging blankness as Marcus pulled him from the crushed truck, his friend’s face gashed and bleeding, the two of them muted by shock. Without thought of their own survival, however, Victor’s attention was seized by a sudden high cry of terror cutting through the storm’s whine somewhere nearby. Selfless in spontaneous action, Victor lifted himself to run as soon as he was free of the vehicle, Marcus following close behind, limping in pain. Beyond the field, Victor approached a set of stairs leading nowhere, the house already obliterated as the full violence of the tornado closed in, buildings seemingly exploding before they were even touched by the storm.
Victor found a woman crouched behind the stairs in the house’s shallow foundation, screaming even as he approached, her hair a muddy tangle. Sensing Victor’s noble aspiration, Marcus stooped to join her and held the woman close. Throwing his body over theirs, Victor gripped rebar and concrete, his clothes hanging like a tatter of robes, his mind empty, holding on with his whole heart as the woman curled in Marcus’ arms below him and wept silently, a tumult of fear and relief swirling in her eyes.
Together the three were engulfed as the tornado’s full violence bore down upon them, raging winds gnashing indiscriminately, belching fireballs of exploding gas and showering everything with a spittle of lacerating debris, shucking the town of its skin in the breathless moment of its concentrated motion. His legs unmoored, Victor was lifted in weightlessness again before being entirely inhaled, taken while the two were spared, his life released to the whim of the rapacious funnel and flashing terribly before his eyes as he began to spin around within the storm’s full circumference, losing all sense of direction.
Whirling interminably, Victor came to know the twister in his very bones as it stripped the clothes from his body and marked him in miniature with the logic of its destruction. More than three miles wide and still moving, it would be, Victor sensed, the largest tornado yet recorded, and he saw that his entire life—his yearnings and his confusion, his family safe somewhere distant, his dreams, his fantasies of the future—was but an infinitesimal scribble in the great script of the planet, which in turn marked only the merest circuit in a long arm of the cosmos, itself a great ever-wheeling storm, undying and never-born.
He saw as he spun that the tornado had no precise beginning or end, but bled freely between the heavens and the earth. Though propelled by the incalculable causes and conditions of global weather patterns, he understood that the storm was fed also by vehicle exhaust and the fuming of factories, the noxious exhale of humanity’s grasping, anxious chase to calm the inner storms of ignorance and acquisition, ever turning and unsatisfied.
As time dilated in the storm’s vortex, Victor glimpsed not only his present life, but a whole sequence of existences, a net of lives in interconnection, each progressing in an arc of unfolding wisdom. Together these existences charted a slow awakening from the delusory sense of isolated selves, an understanding exemplified in compassionate deeds that catalyzed the mind’s wisdom eye, blinking through the eons and slowly opening to see things as they are, interdependent and ever-changing, yet comprising but a single, radiant instant, the sum of all things immediate in self-evident completeness.
His mind opened, freed of the seeming deficiencies that had colluded in its sleep, Victor sensed in wisdom that he too had no precise beginning or end, but was himself tornado, was planet, was cosmos and beyond, before and ever-after—empty of discrete being yet full of luminosity, inseparable and eternally whole in ineffable suchness, from which it is impossible to add or subtract anything, the true nature, genuine when genuinely seen, and equal within us all. Vanished into the void, Victor-gone, victorious, there was no storm, no rage or violence, no creation or destruction. And blinking back into embodied presence, mind luminous and equal now in understanding, Victor then extended a hand, reaching into the current of the tornado, and in stilling his heart brought the storm itself to stillness, clouds parting in the relief of settling dust and opening to the tranquil evening sky, visible again to the two who had survived through his noble and selfless sacrifice.
So it was, in the last days of the Long Before, that the Storm Chaser Victor Demara gave his life to save others, witnessed the one taste of Buddha-nature, and became Stormtamer, liberated in an instant and long remembered for his deeds.
When ’Treya, the Buddha of our age, concluded this tale in illustration of her words, offering this splendid vision of Buddha-nature, she made the connection for all present in the jewel box of Ivy Field, and summed up the jātaka, saying: “He who was then Marcus, faithful companion, was Rosario in that former life. The woman saved from the storm was Mayor Brassman, the merchant king of Wind City. And Victor Demara, the Storm Chaser who became Stormtamer, was I myself.” Having heard this tale, all who were present gave thanks for the skill of the great teacher, who so compassionately turned the wheel of Dharma. And thus instructed, many in the assembly were then able to see Buddha-nature in the most intense weather, whether outer or inner, and so opened the wisdom eye.
AUSTIN R. PICK was born in North Carolina and has traveled widely while pursuing an interest in contemplative practice and a love of the world’s wild places. He is a longtime dharma practitioner and holds an MA in Religious Studies from Naropa University, where he is now on staff. He served as contributing editor of a travel guide for Nepal and India entitled Along the Path: The Meditator’s Companion to the Buddha’s Land (Pariyatti Press, 2009). Austin’s fiction has appeared in The Stockholm Review, Epiphany, Tahoma Literary Review, Pleiades, Adbusters Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in Colorado, and is currently at work on a novel. His website is www.FudoMouth.net.
Illustration by Alicia Brown.
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- Arya Maitreya & Acarya Asanga, The Changeless Nature: Mahayana Uttara Tantra Sastra, trans. Kenneth Holmes & Katia Holmes (Scotland: Karma Drubgyud Darjay Ling, 1985), 68. ↩