In his 13th-century essay, Zen master Eihei Dogen uses water as a metaphor for wisdom and truth, and compares the places where water gathers (rivers, lakes and oceans) to Zen centres. He writes, “Ordinary people nowadays think that water is always in rivers and oceans, but this is not so. There are rivers and oceans within water. Thus, even where there is not a river there is water. It is just that when water falls to the ground, it manifests the characteristics of rivers and oceans. So don’t think that only dharma centres and sages have water; it is everywhere.” He continues, “Also don’t think that where waters do not form rivers and oceans there is no dharma.”
Here he is saying that the teachings of wisdom are everywhere — not only in dharma and at Zen centres. Wisdom is not concerned with past, present or future. It is not in any one specific place. Truth appears spontaneously and springs up from moments that are grounded in deep integrity of thinking, speaking and acting. That’s what truth is, says Dogen, and it is the only truth we need. This means that total and flexible wisdom is available everywhere and all the time. It doesn’t get stuck on anything: not on philosophy, religious writings, or on inspired religious leaders and teachers.
Dogen then points out that even though we think water only runs downward, it actually runs in all directions. It runs east, west, north and south and into all the points in between. It even runs up when it evaporates and rises to form clouds. This movement in all directions is constantly changing as we move through space. If we go to Japan, west becomes east and if we are on the French coast, the eastern coast of Canada becomes west. Somehow all these fixed points on Earth are not really fixed at all. They are constantly shifting and changing — like reality.
Heaven is not up there and hell is not down there. Depending on the lives we live, hell or heaven is everywhere and can exist any time. They can also transform into each other at any time depending on our state of mind. We don’t need to get stuck with one way of seeing reality or with one set of beliefs. Zen is about letting go of self-limiting beliefs and self-definitions. It’s about realizing that everything is always changing, always in motion, and because of that, a truth that we can live by arises, like water, out of every person, place, thing and event that we encounter. The whole truth is with us right now. All we have to do is drop our conditioned way of seeing reality and pay attention.
Suggested practice: Take some time to identify your core beliefs and then reflect on how your life would be different if you dropped that belief and allowed more flexibility into the way you view and live your life. Be like water.
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.