photo by Lech Naumovich


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To say that [this land and palace] rest on the wheel of space and the wheel of wind is not the truth of self nor the truth of other. It is just speculating on the basis of the small view, and is only said out of fear that without such a dwelling place things would not abide. 

In Buddhist cosmology it is said that beneath the earth there is a set of three disks or “wheels” that support it. Each wheel is composed of the elements of water, wind, and space. Dogen is negating this theory, saying that it’s only out of fear that we make such a statement. It is only out of fear that we insist on nailing things down. We want everything in its place. We don’t want things to be unfixed or constantly changing. In other words, we don’t want them to be the way they are.

From this follows the statement: An ancient sage has said, “All things are inherently liberated; they have no abiding place.” Things don’t rest on the wheel of space or the wheel of wind. They don’t rest anywhere. Why? Because they are empty. Yet, water is just water, mountains are just mountains. They have no fixed characteristics, yet they are in their own state.

Although water is inherently empty, it flows up and it flows down. It rises to the sky and rains down on earth. Water becomes dew, ice, and snow. It flows and it’s still. It breaks and it melts. Water becomes rivers and streams, lakes and oceans. Water is all of these things, yet it is not any of these things. It is inconceivable.

It is also inconceivable that you and I are the same thing, yet I’m not you and you’re not me. It’s inconceivable, because our minds are dualistic. We only understand something to be one thing and not another. But the dharma doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. We need to learn to use our minds differently. Or rather, we need to re-learn what we have forgotten after years and years of conditioning. That is the only way that we will be able to see the wonder that surrounds us.

The source of the Hudson River is a small pond, Lake Tear of the Clouds, 4,000 feet above sea level on the southwestern slope of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks. It’s a tiny puddle that a kid can jump over, but some 300 miles later it becomes a majestic river discharging 21,400 cubic feet of water per second at the Lower New York Bay in New York City.

The Hudson, originally known as the Tappan Zee—from the name of a local Native American tribe, the “Tappan,” and the Dutch “zee” for sea—reflects eastern white pines in the Adirondacks as well as skyscrapers in Manhattan. It is the same river that feeds the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn. All of its wetlands are dependent on the Hudson.

Because so many of us nowadays are city dwellers, it is easy to romanticize nature at a distance. Sitting in an apartment somewhere in Midtown as we plan a summer adventure to Yellowstone Park, it is important to remember that wild nature is also in our back yard. Despite all of the development going on in the city, Manhattan is still an island. The peregrine falcon and red-tail hawk do not discriminate between a granite cliff or a skyscraper.

Nature exists within and around the city. If we only look, we will see. If we haven’t taken off the blinders, we won’t see. But that’s true in all aspects of our lives. We can either sleepwalk through our days or we can be alive to each moment, each thing. What we choose to do is entirely up to us.

The first step is to notice. The second is to act. Artists like the Hudson River painters, or writers like Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, and Peter Matthiessen, have devoted their lives to expressing their love for nature. Their work helps us to appreciate the wild as it exhorts us to protect it.

Dogen’s own poetry often speaks of both the splendor and frailty of nature:

Outside my window, plum blossoms,
just on the verge of unfurling, contain the spring;
The clear moon is held in the cuplike petals
of the beautiful flower I pick, and twirl.

Even in the dead of winter, as it lies buried beneath three feet of snow, the plum blossom always contains the warmth and life of spring. Each one of us is like that plum blossom. Each one of us is already a buddha, waiting to be awakened.