Thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen writes in his essay, “Mountain and Rivers Sutra”, “Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor enlightened.” He is saying that water is beyond all opposition, description and explanation. Even modern-day science has been unable to completely explain water. Water, after all the talk and thinking about it, is just water. It’s mysterious, really, because water is one of the essential elements of life. It is in virtually everything — even rocks. And yet, what is it? We can’t even say. We can’t even settle on what shape or form it is.
Dogen goes on. “When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it?” When I first read this, I thought, ‘Give me an ice cube. I’ll crack it.’ But maybe he means a glacier. It takes global warming to crack a glacier. So in some ways, what he is saying is true. Ice is so hard it can’t be cracked. “But when it melts,” Dogen says, “It is softer than milk. Who can destroy it?” Drop by drop, water can wear away a rock face.
Dogen asks us to consider the awesome presence of water and realize that it is not to be taken lightly. Water is the essence of all of life. It is not just another product to bottle and sell. When human beings really see water, they are thoroughly studying the moment; they are seeing the whole interconnectedness of life. Water couldn’t exist without a place to exist in.
Likewise, each one of us has a place in the lives of all other beings. Each one of us is life itself. Dogen is reminding us that we all express aspects of each other. My understanding of another person is not who the other person actually is, and it is helpful in my relationships with others if I remember that. It’s when I forget it that I make a mess of my relationships. If I let my partner and my friends just be my partner and my friends, I can know them for the unique people that they are. And if I am truly curious about them and how they experience the world, I can learn how they see themselves. I can be sure it is different from the way I see them. Not only that, I can be sure that they see water differently from how I see water. To understand that others are truly different from me broadens my view of life. My world grows bigger; my life expands.
Suggested practice: The next time you drink a glass of water, take some time to reflect on the omnipresence of water and consider how precious it is. In that moment, realize deeply that this water, in all its forms, sustains you own life and the lives of all that you love. Notice how gratitude for water can lighten the day.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.