INTERVIEW WITH: Will Tuttle
INTERVIEW BY: Linda Milks
DATE: May 29, 2007
*Interview conducted over the phone while I am in San Francisco and Will is in Virginia Beach.
Will is the author of THE WORLD PEACE DIET and ISLANDS OF LIGHT. He is also a musician / pianist and an educator. Since 1995 he and his wife Madeleine, an artist, have lived in an RV and travel all over North America giving concerts and lectures. Will is also a Zen Dharma Master and they lead meditation retreats, seminars & lectures on spirituality, vegetarian diet, Zen, awakening intuition, creativity… They travel through-out Europe as well.
I begin by thanking Will and asking if he has any questions. He replies that he knows about NSP from a mutual friend, Zach Shatz, and also from the summary I emailed to him the week prior.
I ask Will to tell me something about how and where he grew up and what started him on the path of seeking which eventually lead to his becoming a Zen Dharma Master.
Do you have any questions for me?
I’m very happy to be at your service because Zach said you were working on this project and I might be able to be of assistance. So I’m happy to just answer your questions.
Oh that’s great, and I certainly appreciate you doing this, very much. Zach has spoken very highly of you so…I’d like to get a little bit of information about where you grew up, just some of the specifics about that to put a context to this.
Sure, I grew up in Concord, Mass. I learned to swim in Walden Pond, I was born in Emerson hospital and went to Thoreau School and Alcott school, you know the whole transcendentalist movement of the 19th century was very alive for me growing up as a kid in Concord. And the revolutionary war that began in Concord in 1775 was a big influence as well—the idea that having a revolution can be a good thing, that we can make changes in our government and in our society that are positive and powerfully transformational. Later, I went away to Colby College in Maine. After that, I ended up going on a spiritual pilgrimage – basically walking from New England down to Alabama and that was a big change, right out of college.
Yes, and on the way I lived for a while at The Farm in Tennessee, a wonderful spiritual community of about 800 people, and then in a Zen center in Alabama and in Atlanta, and eventually I moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area and lived there for about 25 years. I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist center there and then got my masters degree at San Francisco State University and my Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley and then taught college for about 6 years. After that, I went on the road as a traveling musician and lecturer, putting on concerts of original piano music and workshops on developing spiritual intuition. I met my wife Madeleine in Switzerland during this time, and now we travel full-time in an RV. I’ve written a book, The World Peace Diet, and am doing many lectures on the book as well—on the importance of transitioning to a plant-based diet for compassion, spiritual health, and to save trees and ecosystems. Madeleine is a visionary artist, and paints wild animals, so we put on a series of events every week through progressive churches in cities throughout North America. We’ve been doing this and living on the road for 12 years now.
Ah, for 12 years. When Zach told me about that I thought, how great!
When do you think you began on your spiritual path? What called you to that path?
While I was in college I went through a crisis of meaning, I guess; I felt I had to discover myself and I didn’t want to get distracted by going into a job. So that’s when I started reading about spiritual practices and teachings. Zen books, books on Hinduism, Taoism, and some Christian writings. They all said that there is a spiritual component to us and I thought the most important thing to do was to focus on that. You know I just had a very strong calling from my spirit, and I wanted to wake up spiritually, and not be distracted by business or teaching or other things. I didn’t want to do any of that. I started talking to my younger brother Ed about these ideas and I was delighted that he agreed with me, so we decided to take the spiritual pilgrimage I mentioned earlier and head out to California. But we ended up in Alabama.
I see! ( we laugh) OK. When did you begin communicating with nature? When was your relationship strongly established with nature so that you could basically communicate and understand?
I think that started when we went on this journey. When we started doing a lot of meditation and living outside more, camping out, walking all day, and meditating many hours every day. My mind got more quiet, and I started to get more sensitive to my feelings and to the beauty of nature and the presence of animals and the natural world. And living in the meditation centers later I think also contributed to it. I had the opportunity to do many retreats, 3-day, 5-day, 7-day, 18, 30, even a 90-day retreat in Korea as a Zen monk. Doing these retreats provided wonderful opportunities to quiet my mind and tune into nature more deeply. Seeing the poignancy and beauty of trees and flowers and little birds and other animals was sometimes almost unbearably touching to me. And because I gave up eating any meat or animal foods at all, like dairy products and eggs, I found that animals weren’t afraid of me too much, and so I had some interesting experiences in nature with animals. I also one interesting experience with a tree. I should maybe tell you that one?
Oh yes, please, I would like to hear all the stories that you would like to share with me about that, about your experiences with trees.
Well the one that leaps to mind most immediately is an experience I had with a plum tree in my back yard when I was living in Oakland, California. My old Zen teacher told me that when he was young, he took a 72-hour walk. It was a very difficult practice to walk continuously without stopping for 72 hours – 3 days and 3 nights. So I decided to do that practice and began looking for good places where I might do it. Finally I decided to do it right in the back yard of the house where I lived in Oakland and there happened to be a pretty good size plum tree there, so I started walking around this plum tree. I just walked in a large circle doing a meditation walk, and realized after I got into it that I’d bitten off something really big. You can imagine walking for about 12 hours without stopping and realizing you still have about 60 hours more to go.
I know, I can’t even imagine staying awake for that long!
But anyway, I kept going and what I discovered was, at night things got very surreal as time went on. By the second night, I began to have different experiences that were very interesting with the tree. And the main thing was that the tree became alive like a living being, and not just alive as a biological entity, but really alive as living being. I think that the programming and conditioning of my culture began to fall away. I started to see the tree as a conscious being, very awe inspiring, tremendously alive and with an enormous presence. Everything got much more vibrant, especially the colors of the flowers. By the third night there was a very pronounced experience. There was a sense that this plum tree was not just a living being that was very powerful, not really frightening, but demanding respect. That was the feeling I had, and the sense that the tree was dancing. There was a feeling that the tree had an enormous presence and that it was dancing and moving but not physically.
It was something I could just sense in my consciousness. To our physical eyes they are just standing there like they’re not moving but it was as if another eye opened and I could see this tree was really moving and dancing and had an activity about it that we don’t usually see.
That was the main thing, an experience of the tree having a consciousness that was very different from mine but was something to respect. It had a knowing and a consciousness that was awe-inspiring. I was walking around that tree with my jaw dropped and thinking, Wow, look at this tree!
I have to say that after that experience I’ve never looked at trees the same way. I’ve had this feeling of them ever since as Beings. The experience with that plum tree still lingers, and when I look at trees I still have the sense that there is much more to them than we normally see. I have this feeling that we get programmed by our culture to look without seeing and to just walk through and discount the reality of Nature. When we do something like I did with walking for 72 hours without sleep, the programmed, conscious ego mind just kind of gave up and fell away and I was suddenly seeing directly, more clearly in some ways, what is really there.
So that was that experience and I thought it would be somewhat helpful to share it.
Oh that’s a wonderful, beautiful experience. It reminds me of why certain cultures go on vision quests for 4 days and nights without food or sleep. Because you said it beautifully, your regular programmed consciousness falls away and you’re allowed to see the greater dimensions of life.
Right. It’s hard – it’s not the kind of thing I would want to do very often. (we laugh) But it’s very rewarding, it’s just one of those things I will never forget.
You completed the 72 hours?
Yeah – that was not easy, that’s for sure. I also had another experience with a redwood tree later in Mill Valley, California, and wrote a poem called Ancient Tree Dream Song out of that experience. There was the sense of the redwood trees trying to help us humans remember the ancient song of wisdom that sings always in our bones and that we have forgotten. That they come to us in dreams to remind us of the truth that we forget with our busy, outer-oriented lives in our culture. It’s also about how we are destroying the forests and how they are in a sense pleading with us not to.
There is also a piece of music that I wrote called Redwood Light and the melody was given to me by some redwood trees on the land up in Sonoma county where we lived for a while. I play this every week for audiences and I tell the story of how I was taking a walk one night among the redwood trees below where we used to live in Healdsburg, California. These redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, they’re old and tall, and this one evening it was raining and I heard a melody come to me. And when I got back up to the house I could remember it and write it down and it seemed to be a melody that was given to me by the redwood trees there and I say, when I play the piece, how I feel that these ancient trees come into our dreams to remind us of an ancient song that we still remember in the marrow of our bones. It seems we’ve forgotten it but we still remember it deep within us. And then I play the song that came to me which is Redwood Light.
I would love to get that. I also have a special relationship with redwood trees so that would be near and dear to my heart.
OK – good.
Is the song you wrote about the redwood trees on a specific CD of yours?
Yeah, it’s on THE CALL album. The piece is called Redwood Light.
THE CALL , ok – I’ll have to get that.
Going back to the plum tree, how you would describe your understanding of your experience? Was it a kinesthetic sense, pictorial, did you get any telepathic communication in words? How could you witness this more subtle dimension?
Yeah, right. It was more kinesthetic and not verbal. I could see something that I was not normally able to see about this tree and sense into the life of the tree. Does that make sense?
Yes it does. Was this your first experience?
Yeah it’s really my first experience, at least I think so vividly. I’m trying to think if I’ve had anymore experiences before that. I’ve had things more with animals.
Let me think – as far as with trees, that’s the first time I had the sense of them having this powerful life and of being an awesome Being!
I had done some practices after that and maybe even before that where I took some classes in Tai Chi and Chi Gong and different classes in chi energy and I did some things where I would get close to a tree or hug a tree or just put my hands on the energy field of a tree and feel the energy field of the tree and do some work with the energy fields of trees. I’ve done some things like that but they had not connected me to this really powerful sense of presence that this experience gave me.
MMhmm. Often times we have experiences in childhood that leak through the cultural conditioning – if that jogs your memory at all for an experience.
Yeah – I’ll think about that – that’s a good question. Nothing leaps to mind when you say it right off hand but if I think of something I’ll let you know.
Great. Did you grow up in a place that had a yard with trees in it?
Yeah, in fact I grew up in kind of a neat place. I had two different places, one was in Concord, Mass and that was at the top of a hill, it was a little circle with little houses around it, it was very idyllic. And at the end of the circle you could walk into the woods and it basically went on as far as I knew, forever! There was a golf course on one side and then woods and corn fields and more woods. And then when I was 8 years old we moved to a town that was right next door called Acton. And it was basically the same situation. In the neighborhood at the end of this little street we were on, and across the road, was a forest. And I was there until I went off to college.
This forest was really big, I would go in there and walk around and explore and I never got to the end of that forest. It just went on and on as far as I could tell! I know it did end but it was kind of neat living in this house in both places in a town but that was on the edge of this wilderness that as far as I knew just went on forever.
And especially as a kid it’s easy to think that too.
Right, as a kid, just at the end of the road there was just this big wilderness that went on forever. Oh I used to love going in there and just being with the trees, walking around and so forth.
I grew up in a family where I was the oldest child. We did a lot of hiking in the mountains, a lot of camping and a lot of skiing and cross country skiing. And I remember in college I went through this big change. Before that I used to do a lot of downhill skiing, we had season tickets to these ski areas in New Hampshire and suddenly I didn’t want to do that anymore, I just wanted to go cross-country skiing which is a whole different thing than downhill. You know you’re zooming down the hill with a bunch of crowds and lifts and all that. And with cross country you just wander off into the forest and go on little trails and it’s totally quiet and you’re by yourself. I found that that was much more of what I wanted to do was to go off like that. So that was when I stated to do cross country skiing instead of downhill skiing.
That brought about much more of an appreciation for trees and forests and animals and wildlife. And then when we were on our walk I think that just increased. ( Will and his brother, Ed) We were walking everyday for 20 miles a day going down through upstate NY and PA, WV, KY, TN. And when we got to TN we became vegetarians. I stopped eating any meat, we lived in a community, and I became a vegan after that.
And went to Korea and lived as a Zen monk in Korea.
Yeah. And came back really being a deeply committed vegan after that. Really at a deep level, I had the sense of inter-connectedness of all life and not wanting to harm anything; the sacredness of all living beings. I think that sense allowed me to have interesting experiences with animals. Maybe with trees too at some level but with animals I could see and come up close to deer and elk and birds and other animals and just this sense of being part of a benevolent creation, you know. Since then. That still goes on really.
I have all kinds of neat experiences with animals…
Now that we are traveling (he & his wife Madeleine) in the RV, we spend at least 2 -3 days in a state park somewhere – at least we try to most weeks so that we’re back in nature and take walks in woods and get a feeling for the rhythms and for the forests.
Oh gosh the forests, they are the life support system for so many creatures, so many beings and they’re getting destroyed so I really have so much of a strong feeling to do whatever I can to protect them.
Mmm, yes, I certainly understand that… I’d like to clarify something you mentioned earlier. You said you had lived in a Tibetan Buddhist center in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was wondering where it was?
I lived for almost 2 years in a Tibetan Buddhist Center that is in San Francisco. It was called Kagyu Droden Kunchab, or KDK for short. The resident teacher was Lama Lodu from Tibet; it’s a Kalu Rinpche center. We spent a lot of time doing Chenrezig practices, generating compassion for all beings We did that morning and evening. And I did a lot of retreats up in the forests of Oregon. I did 111,000 prostrations as part of the practice.
I met HH Dalai Lama there and I took the Bodhisattva vow from him personally when he came there in 1979.
Earlier, after we left TN we went down to Huntsville, AL and we discovered a Korean Zen Center started by a Korean Zen Master, Dr. Seo Kyung Bo.
He had an American disciple who was kind of an old man named Donald Gilbert who lived in Oakland, CA. And so after living in KDK for a year and a half I moved to Oakland and got a house right across the street from him.
And we basically had our own little Zen center, a Zen group that would meet in our house every Wednesday night for about 10 years. We had people come over and we also used to put on retreats down in Carmel Valley. There’s a beautiful Korean Zen center in Carmel Valley called Sambosa. We would go down there almost every weekend and do week-long meditation retreats and regular weekend teaching events. And then out of that I went to Korea, shaved my head and lived as a Zen monk in one of the large training monasteries there called SonggwangSa. I was the only American there. There were a few other Europeans there. That was in 1984. And for me the meditation practice was really helpful to quiet my mind and re-sensitize my consciousness more to nature and to the beauty around and within us.
Right. I agree that is helpful in many areas.
I'm conscious of the time here and I know you have things to do. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and your time Will, and very good luck to you!
Ancient Tree Dream Song
Machines! Screeching and grinding, buzzing and whining,
You assault us, you assault each other,
You assault the earth.
We armor ourselves and do your bidding—
We are your soldiers in your war against this living earth.
Where are the flowing wolves, condors, whales?
Where are the flowing people?
Where are the enchanted forests with ancient eyes alive and dark?
Where are ears that hear deeper silent songs?
Our ears numbed by you machines,
We slave to feed your massive appetites,
We lay waste our homes
And break the spirit of our land.
You machines, who are our offspring and our gods!
We lay down our lives for you,
And progress with vacant vigor into your gleaming jaws.
In the quiet depths of an old-growth forest,
An ancient grandfather tree,
With enormous roots reaching deep into the earth, and limbs towering into the light
Breathes in from his brothers and sisters around the globe
The alarming messages of slaughter and destruction,
The reports of an ever-spreading cancer of machines,
And deep within his heart, the ancient grandfather knows that it is time,
And turns and rises,
And like a cloud slips out of his majestic green-brown body:
A mist rising from roots, trunk, and branches,
Covering the entire valley and moving, at night,
Into the world of the machine people.
With a vast prayer for the healing of all flowing creatures,
The tree spirit bears seeds of an ancient song,
And slips silently into the dreams of the soldiers of destruction:
Into our fitful nighttime visions,
Into the fretful dreams of our elders and the nightmares of our children,
And in all these dreams, planting the seeds of a prehistoric song—
A song sung only by the marrow of bones,
And heard only by ears alive to the wild celebration.
The grandfather tree spirit comes tonight planting his seeds,
Tonight and every night now he seeds our dreams with earth’s primordial song,
Sung by the blood in our veins.
Will we hear it and wake and lay down our weapons?
Will we turn our worship from the machines of destruction?
Will we rejoice once more in the dance?
Will we become flowing people again?
Will Tuttle, October 1989
Found on his CD: THE CALL