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When I asked for suggestions for a topic for this month’s Dharma Byte, the publisher of our newsletter replied, “One topic that comes to mind is the present day twisting of Zen teachings. Two instances: I remember the saying, ‘No worky, no eaty,’ which—besides being somewhat racist against Chinese people learning English—was twisting Hyakujo's saying (“A day without work is a day without food.”) from one of self-discipline to one of threat (e.g. if we kids balked at doing our chores).

“More insidious is the twisting of the concept that every individual has a different perspective on things (and hence one should actually listen to others rather than wantonly dismissing their view), to the bizarre political view that, “Truth is whatever I say it is.” Politicians may be doing us all an unintended favor by so blatantly manifesting what most of the rest of us also do, only more subtly.”

This first point is central to Zen: Any meaningful discipline is necessarily self-imposed. When we attempt to foist an attitude or opinion on others, to “teach them a lesson” (or as Albert the Alligator once explained to Pogo the Possum, “I don’t want to teach him—I want to learn him!”), they will learn a lesson, all right. But it is not likely to be the lesson we intend to learn them. Indeed, they will probably form an opinion about us, most likely an unflattering one. Teaching in Zen is largely by example. E.g. observing silence oneself is the best way to model it for others.

Many meditation and retreat centers endorse imposing silence on their attendees, as a rather innocuous example of this approach. And for good reason - Americans in particular are known to be a rowdy bunch, usually oblivious of the impact their loquaciousness and general loudness have on the people around them. But to have silence imposed from without as a discipline is to miss the opportunity to have imposed silence upon oneself as a choice.

When an individual suddenly or gradually becomes self-aware that they are the only one jabbering away on the third or fourth day of the retreat, it can leave an indelible mark that is not soon forgotten. Peer pressure, up to and including shunning, does not have its robust history in society for no reason. Beyond kindergarten, middle and high school levels, one would think adults would gladly observe silence on their own, for a change.

As an historical aside, the origin of no work, no food is attributed to a biblical aphorism, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” from the New Testament by Paul the Apostle, later cited by John Smith in the early 1600s colony of Jamestown, and by Lenin during the 1900s Russian Revolution (if Wikileaks is to be believed). Several such familiar tropes (e.g. “the blind leading the blind” - Buddha) appear to have had earlier provenance in the East, which prompts me to wonder if somehow Western sources got ahold of these bits of wisdom back in the day, but did not properly attribute them. Or perhaps great minds run in the same channels, no matter when or were they appear in the world.

The second, emerging meme—that all opinions are equal, and therefore somehow differences in worldviews rationalize the refusal to agree on anything—is truly lamentable. There is a kernel of truth in it on the personal level, to which we will return. But on the social level, it becomes an excuse for lazy acquiescence to whichever version of truth least challenges our status quo, and serves our self-absorbed, selective memory. Dismissal of the views of others is not so much wanton, as it is cavalier—though it certainly betrays a disturbing lack of modesty, in regard to one’s own opinion. But an arrogant lack of concern for the opinion of others is, I think, the more grievous fault. 

In Zen, however, all opinions are definitely not equal. Experience counts more than expression. Whereas in many enclaves of modern society, our elders are likely to be elbowed aside as out-of-touch, out-of-date relics, in Zen they are still accorded a modicum of respect—based on the quaint notion that wisdom is, indeed, more likely to accumulate with age, than to appear spontaneously in hormonal youth. Notable exceptions to the contrary allowed for, but merely proving the rule.

However, all worldviews are distinctly different on the personal level, a revelation that should temper the tendency to presume that one’s personal view is, or should be, the dominant social view. According to Zen, you are the only one that has your world. It is born with you, and it will die with you.

This does not lobby for the idea that the objective world has no independent reality, of course. It is the beginning of humility to recognize that we waves are not the ocean. The basis of both the ebullience of life, and the poignancy of death, is waking up to the fact that, at one and the same time, we are each a small, but unique, part of a greater reality.    

It is a healthy thing to look at what passes for politics these days, as providing a kind of insight into the very nature of politics; and of human nature itself. Which the last statement in the quote points out: blatantly manifesting what most of us do on a more subtle level. We hear the argument for “transparency” bandied about in demands on government, from neighborhood to city, county, state and federal levels. But it would be difficult to imagine a more transparent administration than the present one in Washington. It is as fully transparent as the Emperor’s New Clothes. And what it reveals is just as appalling.

When it comes to what we are doing in propagating Zen, the argument may be made that other religions and philosophies are, basically, promoting the same thing. That is, “know thy self.” The difference is that in Zen, knowing the self is seeing through the self—to the underlying emptiness, the ultimate transparency.

Master Dogen points to the uncertainty of what we can know in several instances. In the current Tuesday CloudDharma book, “The Mountains and Waters Sutra” translated by Shohaku Okumura. Roshi reinforces this point in regards to how we see the colors and shapes of the mountains, and how we hear the sounds of the waters running through them. No two of us see and hear the same thing. Further, no one can be sure that they are seeing the “true color” or hearing the true sound. This is an uncertainty principle applied to perception itself. That mountains are “always walking” is another assertion of this indeterminacy, and an instance of mokurai, the interpenetration of motion and stillness, and stillness in motion.

I think it advisable to apply what scientific knowledge we have of the surrounding causes and conditions to understand the great Master’s statements, to demystify them somewhat. Dogen himself insists that the sayings of the Masters should not be considered incomprehensible. This is a kind of cop-out. It is our charge to see what they mean in our own meditation. But that kind of insight can also be informed by what we know of reality that may not be readily apparent.

We seem to be doing the walking as we hike through the mountains, the ground being relatively still. But we know that the earth’s mantle is always in motion, owing to plate tectonics. And that without the fluidity of the waters flowing through nature, from the atmosphere to the ground and back, there would be no life, no human beings, no ancestors and no buddhas.

Depending on causes and conditions, what ordinarily manifests as one state of matter can also change state. That which is solid can become liquid, given enough heat or large-scale disruption, such as an earthquake. People who survive such a disaster are often bereft of their prior sense of stability and dependability of the very ground itself. Like landlubbers on the sea, they cannot get their bearings. That which is liquid can become solid, with freezing temperatures, or crystallization as in a super-saturated salt solution. Gases become super-fluid when near absolute zero, and solid when under immense pressure.

The reference to Master Dokai’s address on the “constant walking” of mountains is similarly accessible to reason, if we step back and see mountains as manifestations of the surface of the earth. Dogen reminds us that:

Although the walking of the blue mountains is faster than “swift as the wind,” those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this. To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not know, has not made clear, this walking. Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains.

All things are like this. What is actually happening at any moment around us, and directly beneath our feet, is largely unknown, unknowable. Like the tip of the iceberg, what we can know is not only a small piece of reality, but also obscures the rest of the story. It is also a matter of relative perspective, and positioning. As master Dogen makes clear elsewhere, seen from one angle, a mountain looks like an individual peak; from 90 degrees to that axis, it is seen to be part of a ridgeline.

That the mountains are “blue” is likewise a matter of perspective, as well as one of mutual agreement. Green and blue are analogous colors, sharing the primary blue. One man’s green is another man’s blue, without splitting hairs. None of us sees precisely the same color, the proof of which is the extreme of being color blind.

At a distance, the surface of the mountain, including the forested slopes, will appear blue, green, or other colors depending on the season of the year, of course, but also on the angle of the sunlight, and the amount of humidity in the atmosphere. Before the reflected light strikes the retina, it is filtered through all these contributing causes and conditions. If we zoom in close up on the mountain, the color changes dramatically, as we enter into the shaded density of the canopy and the underlying brush.      

Everything is in some degree of motion at all times. The great Earth is rotating at roughly 24 hours per cycle. With the equatorial circumference at about 24,901 miles, that puts the velocity of the surface of the earth at the equator—relative to its center, or a static marker—at about 1,000 miles per hour. The atmosphere is also rotating, of course, with some lag between the three states of matter—solid, liquid, and gaseous—which contributes to tidal cycles and weather conditions. There is not a particle of matter on Earth or in the cosmos that is not in motion.

The startling thing about this is that Zen posits the same causes and conditions for the mind. Even sitting as still as possible in zazen, the various functions of the body and mind do not come to a stop. In spite of the “false stillness” Buddha asserted the discriminating mind imposes upon perception, we cannot but begin to experience this more dynamic reality. The stiller we sit the more it moves. But as Master Dogen mentions, most people do not know their own walking, let alone the constant walking of the mountains. There is no separation between the two.

Not only are the mountains always walking; everything else is as well. It is, indeed, a dizzying dance. Along with Master Dogen, I think I will sit this one out.