This is my fourth and last piece on nature. My reference for this piece is the last section of Mountains and Waters Sutra by Dogen. Here’s my first excerpt.
Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall.
In my new book Zen in the Age of Anxiety, I touch on surfing with my high school buddy, Jerry, but I only tell a fraction of the story.
From the time I first went to the ocean with Jerry, I noticed how comfortable he was in it regardless of the wave configuration or the weather. For him as for the dragons in Dogen’s quote, the ocean was a palace, (whereas for me it was a wall or a forest). When he was looking out on the ocean or surfing on his long balsam board he could see when certain patterns were emerging and where the undercurrent was whereas all I saw was a mass of chaotic water.
It was thrilling to watch him ride waves, how he seemed to anticipate their speed and arcs, and released his body to go with them over and over. I couldn’t tell if he was riding the waves or they were carrying him. Sometimes he would disappear into a trough, but he always emerged (with or without his board) and waited pursued the next wave with great abandon. When I think of Jerry’s surfing I am reminded of what the Zen teacher John Daido Loori said about Michelangelo’s approach to sculpting:
“Michelangelo said that he didn’t actually create images; he just released them from the stone. He would patiently chip away until the perfect figure that had always been within the stone was revealed.”
I think that’s what Zen practice is all about, seeing below the waves of our chattering mind, so we can return to and live from our uncarved or oceanic nature.
Dogen tells us that the only way we can do this is to fully enter the mountains and fully enter the water. When we do this we realize that the mountains and waters are not something out there, but are our own body and mind and that our own body and mind are the mountains and waters themselves.
As Dogen says in another piece:
“To hear sounds with the whole body and mind, to see forms with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.”
When we do this we fall into our original uncarved nature. And when we act out of this uncarved nature, our camaraderie with both people and the world around us knows no bounds. We realize that the only limits that exist are the ones we have set for ourselves.
Quoting Dogen again:
“Learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.”
When you’ve taken that step backward then you can take a step forward, let it go, and take another step. Zen practice is that simple. This is what I call turtle practice. I am trying to bring my teacher’s way alive, just as he brought his teacher’s way and his teacher brought his teacher’s way alive, just as in the expression “turtles all the way down.” One turtle resting on the back of another turtle, resting on the back of another turtle all the way down to the bottom of the bottomless ocean. It’s what one famous teacher called “the ocean of great repose.”
One more story about the ocean from my childhood:
My grandmother lived on a cliff above the ocean in San Francisco. When I was a boy, my parents left me with her when they went on vacation. Her house was very, very quiet except for the waves, which twisted and thrashed, loud, uncaring, unbounded—wild. I could hear them from any room in her house, but especially her bedroom. I was intrigued by them, but also a little scared. My grandmother knew I was scared and let me sleep with her in her big double bed. I had not yet learned that they seemed wild an out of control because there only laws are those of wind and gravity, the pull of other planets. She had a large picture window in her dining room facing the ocean. In the daytime, when the ocean seemed less scary, I would stand and look out at it until I got dizzy—It wanted to take the path down to the ocean, go through her yard, but she wouldn’t let me. When I first went to ocean a few years later to accompany my surfing friend, Jerry, I got over my dizziness little by little as I immersed myself in it.
In a way meditation practice is like this. There is something huge just beyond our sight, which makes us dizzy. We can’t measure it and thinking can’t reach it, but if we gently go into it, it can become quite wonderful and we come to experience as our true home.
And we realize that there is no distinction between the turbulent surface of the ocean and its quiet depth. I learned this little by little, first in a very small private pool then in a much larger public one and then in the ocean, itself. When people ask me to discuss stages in meditation, I sometimes use this metaphor.
We have the ability to “just be with” regardless of what’s flowing around and within us, regardless of whether it’s a pool or the ocean. It’s a gradual process. We begin in a relatively safe space and only gradually learn to bask in the entire ocean.
Finally, Dogen tells us that water is the true dragon’s palace. The Dragon had been an important symbol in China for centuries before Buddhism entered the country in the first and second centuries of the contemporary era. With its horns of a stag, forehead of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a sea-monster, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, pads of a tiger, and ears of an ox, it became a wonderful symbol for the shape shifting which happens when we let go of our fixed identities and rigid thinking. This appropriation of an indigenous symbol helped Buddhism catch on in China just as the appropriation of the Hindu naga, half human and half cobra, helped Buddhism become legitimized in India. Dogen is suggesting that with the steadiness of your mountain sitting you can be a shape shifting dragon/serpent in water, on land, in the sky. When we do this, we are acting from our uncarved nature just as the Taoist Chuang Tzu suggested 2,500 years ago:
The sages of old were fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley. Turbid as muddied water.
Who can be still until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Only those who are not full are able to be used.
This brings the feeling of completeness.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher