In Soto Zen temples, each time we install a statue on the altar for the first time we do a ceremony called ‘opening the eye’. The purpose of the ceremony is to symbolically awaken the statue so that when people enter the zendo they can really see the most enlightened qualities it expresses. At Sakuraji, for example, we have a statue of Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion on our altar. She doesn’t represent a god or a goddess; but reminds us of our own desire and ability to bring compassion into daily life so we can help all beings. 13th Century Zen master Dogen in his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” says that the same awakening happens to a mountain when a sage enters it. The mountain comes alive and the sacred spiritual nature of that mountain that is naturally present in all mountains awakens with the arrival of that sage.
Dogen says, “You may think that in mountains many wise people and great sages are assembled. But after entering the mountains, not a single person meets another. There is just the vital activity of the mountains.” He is saying that the sages have become the mountains, and for this reason there is “no trace of anyone having entered the mountains.”
We all know the experience of small self disappearing into a beautiful setting or into an engaging activity that can be as simple as tending a garden. It is a wonderful thing to disappear into a display of tulips while weeding a flower bed. Suddenly we are no longer separate from where we are or from what we are doing. When this disappearing happens we no longer carry the burden of self. We are free of thoughts about who we are and what we want.
It really is a great burden to be someone who has to drag all the stuff of the past around. It’s tiring to be defending ourselves or justifying our opinions and actions all the time. And so much of this justifying is commonplace in our world. We are always being asked to determine who we are and what we stand for. It can seem so important to have others see us and pay attention to us.
Dogen is telling us to “just say no to all that.” He’s inviting us to drop our thoughts and disappear into our circumstances, into family, into community. He is giving us permission to be the spirit of the mountains that surround us and of the valley where we live. If we can do that, we will know the most profound rest that we have ever known.
Suggested Practice: The next time you are doing something that you love, notice how easy it is to disappear into the details of that activity. If thoughts about the activity or about another aspect of your life intrudes, just notice that and come back to full attention to what you are doing. Accept Dogen’s invitation to let go of small self.