Alfred North Whitehead once pointed out that when we really understand the biological and physiological functioning of the human body and the behavior of the molecules which constitute it, it becomes impossible to entertain the notion of a discontinuity between the body and its external environment. Living on this mountain, I can’t help but realize that my body is completely integrated with the body of the mountain. Every time I drink the water that spills out of it into the mountain stream, the cells of my body assimilate it. My body is now largely composed of the water that comes from this mountain. We grow our food in the mountain’s soil. The plants start out as a single seed and, by taking water, light, and minerals from the mountain, eventually manifest themselves as fruits, vegetables, flowers. Thus, we take the mountain into our very being; we consume it. Our septic system even returns our waste to the mountain. How could we feel separate from it?

Sometime ago, a Farmer’s Almanac carried an interesting article written by someone who must have had a great deal of time on his hands. This person was able to show what percentage of each lungful of the air we breathe today contains the same molecules of oxygen breathed by the Buddha, Napoleon, Aristotle, and even the dinosaurs. His calculations demonstrated constant recycling. The oxygen we take in to combust our lives produces carbon dioxide, which goes back into the atmosphere and is assimilated by plants, which then utilize and release it back to us as oxygen to breathe. This cycle of assimilating and returning the same atoms and molecules to the planet continues and has continued from generation to generation. To see ourselves as separate from the earth and from this universe is, at the very least, scientifically erroneous.

Master Dogen wrote:

Although the body and mind are undefiled, there is the truth of cleansing the body and there is the truth of cleansing the mind. Not only does it purify the body and mind, but it purifies even the land and the trees. Lands have never been covered with dust and dirt, yet it is the desires of Buddhas to cleanse them. Attaining the fruit of Enlightenment they still do not retreat or abandon. Such a supreme principle is difficult to comprehend. Ritual conduct is the supreme principle. The realization of the Way is ritual conduct.

One of the important parts of training as laid down by Master Dogen is what he calls “purification.” This purification gets down to the nitty-gritty of life itself. His teaching is that the daily actions of our life are sacred—they are the stuff of real liturgy. The “dust and dirt” he refers to are used as synonyms for defilement and ignorance. It is in this sense that “purification” is used in many Zen Buddhist ceremonies—including the birthing ceremony, jukai (receiving the Buddhist precepts), and tokudo (monk’s ordination). It is not an attempt to be rid of pollutants, sins, or guilt, but rather the self-affirmation of original purity or emptiness, totally untouched by dualism. It involves neither the removal of impurity nor the seeking for purity. It is the simple act of using the bathroom, washing the face, brushing the teeth. Whether you are eating, working, or bowing, be present with the whole body and mind. Tune into yourself, into your body, into your life. Every act is not only a ritual in Zen—it is a sacrament.


photo by Ruxandra Papp


Oryoki, the ritual meal, in making eating a conscious act, becomes a sacrament. Dogen quotes from the Vimalakirti Sutra:

When a person is enlightened in their eating, all things are enlightened as well. If all dharmas are non-dual, humans are also non-dual in their eating. Indeed, dharma is identified with one’s eating and one’s eating is identified with dharma. For this reason, if dharma is the dharma nature, a meal is also the dharma nature. If dharma is thusness, food is likewise thusness. If dharma is one mind, a meal is also one mind. If dharma is enlightenment, food is enlightenment. Therefore, the act of eating constitutes the truth of all dharmas. This can be fully comprehended only among buddhas. At the very moment we eat, we are possessed of ultimate reality: essence, substance, energy, activity, causation. So dharma is eating, and eating is dharma. This dharma is enjoyed by buddhas of past and future. This eating is full of holy joy and ecstasy.

According to Dogen, there are three types of “pure food”: that which comes from trees and plants, that obtained from begging, and that donated by supporters. Anything that is given is purified by the act of giving, provided it is pure giving, done with an open heart, with no strings attached. And so it is with all things. The purity of the thing is determined by its origins, how we come by it. In complete dana (giving), there is no separation between the giver and the receiver. Similarly, because a kesa (monk’s robe) is traditionally made of discarded rags and vile cloth that has been chewed by rodents, it is said to be made of “pure cloth.” Golden, purple, or silken kesas should not be worn unless received as a gift.