In the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” Dogen says:

Thus, what different types of beings see is different, and we should reflect on this fact. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object? We should concentrate every effort on understanding this question, and then concentrate still more. Given this multitude of perspectives, it follows that the training on the way of practice and verification must also not be merely of one or two kinds, and the ultimate realm must have a thousand types and ten thousand kinds.

We should reflect on our one-sided way of seeing and investigate ways of expanding our vision and experience of the world around us. The commentary says, “We generally regard a picture or work of art as a representation of something else”—as an abstraction of some other reality other than the picture. Art always has been a medium through which human beings have sought to express this invisible reality, often through the expression of religious belief. A good portion of western art produced over the last thousand years is overtly religious in content. It expresses the artist’s sense of the divine. It is, in fact, possible to say that all serious art is, in some sense, an attempt to articulate the ineffable. Taking this further, we can say that everything we do is part of that artistic expression. Liturgy is artistic expression. Oryoki is artistic expression.

We must keep in mind that we are always trying to express that which transcends everyday reality. This very fact, we could argue, makes that expression religious. Man Ray once said, “To reproduce is human, but to create is divine.” But is our creation the original or real thing? Is this the real Buddha?

The commentary says, “We generally regard a picture or a work of art as a representation of something else, a symbol of that which is symbolized. But we should understand that the symbol and the symbolized are nondual. The symbol is the symbolized.” Non-dual means not two. They are exactly the same. Exactly. Not similar, not like, not equivalent, not related to; exactly, precisely. Not two.

“Haven’t you heard Master Dogen’s teaching? In the dharma, even metaphors are ultimate realities.” Statements like, “Mind is buddha; no mind, no buddha; the three worlds are nothing but mind; mountains and rivers are the word of ancient buddhas,” are all ultimate reality, the real thing. They’re not just metaphors. They are the voice of the Buddha, as if the Buddha was actually standing there proclaiming the dharma. They are ultimate reality. The real thing. “Thus,” the commentary goes on, “a picture is reality. Reality is a picture.”

What does this mean to you? What does it mean to your practice, your understanding of yourself and the universe? How do you understand your own creative expression? “The transcendental reality that we point to in sutras, liturgy, and images, is in fact the sutras, liturgy, and images themselves.” Transcendent reality is this reality. Transcendent means existing outside the material universe. I’m saying that it is just this. It is alive, it is hopping, it is informing our lives, transforming, healing, creating hell or creating peace, depending upon how we understand and practice it, how we combust our lives in accord with it.

“The mythical and the real are one reality.” This is where mythology gets its power. As Joseph Campbell said:

Religion and myth are stepsisters of truth; one probes with questions, the other spins out tales on gossamer threads, but both serve a common mystery.... The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.


Photo by Rianne von Mourik