Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Zen master wrote, “When dragons and fish see water as a palace, it may be like human beings seeing a palace. They may not think it flows. If an outsider tells them, ‘What you see as a palace is running water,’ the dragons and fish may be astonished, just as we are when we hear the words, ‘Mountains flow.’ Nevertheless, there may be some dragons and fish who understand that the railings and pillars of palaces and pavilions are flowing water.”
In Canada we don’t have many palaces. When I lived in Japan, I often visited Hikone Castle, which was built on a 20-foot dry stone wall foundation and had been standing since 1642. Dogen is saying that when fish and dragons are in the water, to them it might seem like being in one of these medieval Japanese castles. Because all they have known is water, it would make sense to them to think that the castle was just another form of flowing water. If someone told them, “This isn’t water, this is a castle,” they might be as amazed as we are when Dogen tells us that mountains walk on water.
Dogen goes on, “If you do not penetrate your superficial views, you will not be free from the body and mind of an ordinary person. You will not thoroughly experience the land of the Buddha ancestors, or even the land or the palace of ordinary people.” At first reading, these words sound harsh. But he means that the only way we get to go beyond the suffering of body and mind, which so many people experience from confusion, aggression, hatred, anger and a feeling of not having enough, is to go beyond our self-centred views. The Buddha taught that to be free of suffering we have to go beyond the conceptual frameworks and fixed beliefs that we have learned from our conditioning. It is these limited views that bring us to suffering.
There’s a paradox here. Dogen is saying that being a Buddha is nothing more or less than being a normal human being who has transcended ego-centered views. Unless we go beyond those views, we can’t fully live the life of an ordinary human being. Unless we transcend our self-centred perspective, look out from our little worlds and let go of our small views about our lives, we won’t know what it means to fully be in this world, living and dying, loving and hating, laughing and crying. The paradox here is that practicing the Buddha way and living an ordinary human life are one and the same.
Suggested practice: Notice when your world has shrunk into consideration of how you can get what you want when you want it; and when you do notice, raise your head and see the Creston Valley and mountains beyond. This looking outward may broaden your view enough to help you transcend the constricting feeling of not having what you want.
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.