The whole point of Zen practice is to teach us that we are not separate from anything. Thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen expressed this in his “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”. He said, “If you doubt mountains walking, you don’t know your own walking. It’s not that you are not walking; it’s just that you don’t know or understand your own walking. If you want to know your own walking, you should fully know the green mountains walking.” Until you appreciate and fully embrace the mystery of mountains walking, you haven’t really seen your own life, and you don’t appreciate the enormous measure of who and what you are.
Often as we get older, we do appreciate this amazing opportunity of human life. I’ve heard many seniors lament the stupid things they did, the time they wasted. But of course, at the time, they had no idea what they were doing, and in some way, what happened in their lives is exactly what had to happen. Dogen is saying that we don’t know our own life until we know constancy, impermanence and letting go of self-centeredness. The big pattern, which includes constant walking and complete rest, characterizes all existence, and until we have contemplated our own constant walking and complete rest through spiritual practice, we won’t fully appreciate our own life.
Dogen goes on to say, “Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient; and you are neither sentient nor insentient.” This statement is kind of surprising because we think that we are sentient and mountains are not. Dogen’s words may express the essential difference between western and Islamic religions and Far East Asian Buddhism. In western thought, there is a hierarchy of beings. The highest beings are invisible and of the visible beings, humans are highest. Creatures that we think have less capacity are lower beings, and objects without life are lower still. You can’t kill people; but you can kill animals. And it doesn’t matter if you trash stuff that isn’t alive, because it is a lower order of being.
Throughout history, we have imposed this hierarchy on humans, as well. During colonization, Africans and North American Indians could be bought and sold or killed. The Nazis considered Jews to be a disposable race, and today, in the radicalized Middle East, infidels are so low on the hierarchy that it’s a spiritual act to kill them. The examples are endless. At the same time, there are human beings who are so precious that if you insult them you must be killed, or if you deny them as the highest beings, you burn in a lake of fire for eternity.
For Dogen, all beings are equally important. He often says that even roof tiles, walls and pebbles are sentient beings and they all express the teaching of compassion.
Suggested practice: Try treating every person, animal and object in your world as though they are equally precious and see how this affects the way you feel about your life.
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 Fishcher. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.