No matter what your life is like, if you look at one day in detail you would see many riches. So much happens in one day. Even in a half-hour of meditation, we encounter endless thoughts, memories and visions of the future. James Joyce knew this. In his novel, Ulysses, he devotes 700 big tiny-print pages to one day in the life of his protagonist, Leopold Bloom. In his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, 13th century Zen monk Eihei Dogen advises us against limiting ourselves to a single way of seeing spiritual life. Spirituality, he tells us, is more than a specific religion. It is like “a stone woman giving birth to a child at night.”
If we take this phrase as a metaphor for spiritual awakening, it helps to notice that it happens in darkness, in the unconscious. It happens without our noticing it, in a way that we could not have anticipated. It happens in ordinary human experiences, such as giving birth to a child. He asks, “At the moment of giving birth to a child, is the mother separate from the child?”
No, because at the moment of giving birth, two beings exist as one being. The mother’s mind is overwhelmed and affected by the child’s mind, and the child’s mind is overwhelmed and affected by the mother’s mind. As human beings, we are a family. It may seem that we are different, but if you looked at the Earth from light years away you’d think that all humans are the same. They do the same things. They eat. They sleep. They walk upright. It’s exactly the same. So isn’t it weird that they fight like that.
Dogen is suggesting that becoming a mother is a model for spiritual transformation. When a woman gives birth, she becomes a different person with different motivation. Mothers no longer think of themselves as being only themselves. Their identities now include the identity of their children. This is a psychological, physiological, spiritual fact that comes from the deep heart of our species. Without this, our species would not go on. In other species, mothers give birth and then move on. It works for them, but in humans it doesn’t work. Unless mothers feel like mothers, we don’t go on.
Dogen’s proposal of motherhood as a model for spiritual development is radical. Usually, spiritual quest involves a hero who leaves his family, rejects all help, and goes forth. But spiritual transformation isn’t about having a fantastic experience that makes us smarter than others. It’s about the common events of human life, such as giving birth. My heart is open now. I identify with others. I have kindness and concern for all beings. Dogen is saying that every time our practice goes deeper it is because we are going deeper into feeling a motherly care for others.
Suggested practice: Imagine a world in which everyone saw all beings as their children or grandchildren. What then?
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.