Lately one of my favorite peices is Zen Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Water Sutra.” I’ve found it to be very profound in that it reverberates with me during my daily life. There’s one stanza that is really interesting, it goes:
Now when dragons and fish see water as a palace, it is just like human beings seeing a palace. They do not think it flows. If an outsider tells them, “What you see as a palace is running water,” the dragons and fish will be astonished, just as we are when we hear the words, “Mountains flow.” Nevertheless, there maybe some dragons and fish who understand that the columns and pillars of palaces and pavilions are flowing water. You should reflect and consider the meaning of this. If you do not learn to be free from your superficial views, you will not be free from the body and mind of an ordinary person. Then you will not understand the land of Buddha ancestors, or even the land or the palace of ordinary people. Now human beings well know as water what is in the ocean and what is in the river, but they do not know what dragons and fish see as water and use as water. Do not foolishly suppose that what we see as water is used as water by all other beings. Do not foolishly suppose that what we see as water is used as water by all other beings. You who study with Buddhas should not be limited to human views when you are studying water. You should study how you view the water used by Buddha ancestors. You should study whether there is water or no water in the house of Buddha ancestors.
I took this stanza to be a wonderful reflection of subtle impermanence. Fish wouldn’t think a palace made of water is flowing because they live in water, and water to them seems static. However, a palace made of water is flowing. In the same way, most of us can’t imagine a mountain or our house is flowing, however, it is. Science would say all these things at a molecular level are constantly moving, but our mistaken appearances see these things as solid and static.
Billions of things around us are arising, abiding, and disintegrating every second, but to many of us, it all appears as static and permanent. But I think the poetry of describing everything as “flowing” has an interesting impact on the mind. Of letting go of pre-conceived ideas of staticness and deciding to stop moving “up-stream.” It also removes a lot of ideas of separateness and duality because we’re part of and dependent on this flowing stream.
Trusting Karmic Appearances?
He makes an interesting comment that how fish see water is not how everyone see’s water. What a being, animal, or person see’s is based on their karmic appearance.
Tai Situ Rinpoche once said that when a dog see’s a bone, it’s like a treasure. We see a bone and see it as rubbish, and want to throw it away. The dog might think we’re crazy because to the dog, that bone is as valuable as a rare diamond. So who is right, us or the dog? The point I believe Situ Rinpoche is making is that everything comes from the mind. If it doesn’t, what else would explain the differences in views?
I think the question is, is it wise to trust all our karmic appearances?
Zen traditions always says that as soon as you think you know, you don’t know. I really like what Dogen has to say, but there’s no way I would be able to explain anyway what he really meant, even though I’d like to try. I explained it more from the view of a pseudo-intellect using logic, rather than a poet using his heart or a yogi singing his realizations after receiving transmission from his guru.