Thirteenth century Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote in his “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, “At this time, human beings deeply know that what is in the ocean and the river is water, but do not know what dragons and fish see and use as water. Do not foolishly suppose that what we see as water is used as water by all other beings. You who study the Buddha way should not be limited to human views when you see water.”
Here, Dogen isn’t just talking about water. He is talking about everything. He is pointing at the wonder of our human life. We are walking around on this tiny planet that circles a star in a galaxy that is just a tiny spot in an expanding universe that is so big we can’t measure it. Every schoolchild knows this, but somehow, it is meaningless because we don’t feel it from day to day. We don’t enter into the awesome realization that in this endless space there are only six or seven billion of us, and the least we have to do is get along with each other. Every one of us is made of the same elements as every human, animal, plant and rock. We know this, but we don’t know it. We forget how vast and mysterious our flash of lightening moment is on Earth. From our limited self-centred view we imagine that we have to fight and kill each other for power, resources or to enforce a particular political or religious view. And we do this even though all we have is each other.
We know that every human being, in the process of conception and gestation, goes through all the stages that every species goes through. So we are amoeba and polar bears. We are eagles and pine trees. But our self-centred way of living has devastated this Earth that provides food, air and water. We are probably the only species that knows this so we have a unique role both in creating this situation and in addressing it.
In this section Dogen tells us that when we get stuck in the view that we are the centre of the universe and that nature is here to serve us, we get caught up in our egoistic view and lose our unique capacity to realize, appreciate, live out and find joy in the reality of our oneness with all of existence. He is telling us that we need to study water from a point of view that is larger than how it serves us humans. To understand Dogen, we have to go deeper than his words. We have to take them into our minds and use them as a starting point to investigate the depth and power of our human lives.
Suggested practice: When a situation in the world grabs your attention or a conflict arises in your life, examine how the situation or personal conflict has arisen from a self-centred view.
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. Previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.