Our Life is a Noun

Life as a Noun


This week Tesshin concluded his four part series on the Mountains and Waters Sutra from Dogen.   (You can find the text HERE)


Tesshin started by reading the following passage …


“… from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water, they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way.… Furthermore, there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way.”


Tesshin explained this passage in two ways.  First, what does one do by the water?  At the simplest level, one would catch fish to survive.  However, what else can a master do?  Well, they can catch humans as well.  In other words, they follow their obligation to teach the way.  However, even this is not really enough!  They also catch catching.  In true practice there is not a student or teacher or anything to learn.  So, what is being caught?  Understanding this is catching “catching!”


Tesshin next commented on the term “catching the self.” Dogen uses the metaphor of fishing.  When we normally go fishing, we may talk about the joy of being on the water and in the “great outdoors.”  Others may talk about the technique of casting or the intricacies of the equipment.  The core question is what is the essence of “fishing?”  Is it the experience of being on a boat on the water or the hooking of the fish?  It is the “hooking” of course – when we hook the fish – everything about fishing makes sense.  If we go out on a boat and play with a rod but catch no fish, are we really fishing?  This is what Dogen was getting at when he talked about hooking the self.  When we achieve this, the self is totally exposed and we realize that there is nothing outside the realm of the self.


Tesshin continued … 


“Priest Decheng abruptly left Mt. Yao and lived on the river.  There he produced a successor, the wise sage of the Huating. Is this not catching a fish, catching a person, catching water, or catching the self? The disciple seeing Decheng is Decheng. Decheng guiding his disciple is his disciple.”


Decheng was a zen master in the 8th century.  During this time Zen was repressed by the government, so Decheng became a ferryman on a river.  One day a disciple named Huating came to seek wisdom.  Decheng agreed to teach and invited Huating onto the ferry.  They get out to the middle of the river and Decheng throws the student into the river!  He then threw himself into the river as well.  Dogen is teaching in this parable that the path, seeker, teacher all disappear into the single “perfection” of suchness.  Dogen asks, “Is this not hooking a fish, person, water, self?”  


Tesshin mentioned that the non separation of teacher, student, Dharma, and reality is a common theme in Zen.  There is nothing outside of the realm of reality and truth.  When in practice, there is nothing outside of it.  What does this really mean and how can we apply it?  Tesshin stated that when we engage with people, places, and things, we are never really totally engaged – this is why we perceive things are outside.  Our practice is one of total engagement – only then do we truly understand that there is nothing outside of reality of this moment.


Tesshin continued …


“It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is also a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the phenomenal world. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of Buddha ancestors. You should thoroughly examine the meaning of this. 

Therefore, water is the true dragon’s palace. It is not flowing downward. To consider water as only flowing is to slander water with the word “flowing.” This would be the same as insisting that water does not flow. Water is only the true thusness of water. Water is water’s complete virtue; it is not flowing. When you investigate the flowing of a handful of water and the not-flowing of it, full mastery of all things is immediately present.”


Here Tesshin cracked a smile via Zoom and stated that in many things in life there is “more sizzle than steak” but not in Dogen!  Here we have all steak and no sizzle!  The above passage is explaining that in normal thinking we attempt to “divvy” everything up and make judgements.  Dogen is saying that the “divine” is in everything – or stated differently, everything is in everything.  Stop splitting it all up!  Everything is complete and perfect.  Do not create distance between practice and everyday life.


So what does Dogen mean when he says that “Water is the palace of the true dragon (aka understanding or enlightenment)” There is not duality in flowing and not flowing – that is a misunderstanding.  Tesshin noted that when we think of our lives, we think in adjectives and adverbs.  For instance, we say that the economy is good or bad or that the weather is hot or cold, etc.  Dogen is telling us to stop getting lost in adjectives and focus on the noun.  Water is water and does what water does!    So, what is a mountain or a river?  No, do not describe it as high or wet.  A mountain is a mountain complete in itself.  A river is a river perfect in all respects.  You are you – also perfect in all respects.  Tesshin was clear here – you are not a collection of attributes – you are you and you must live you!  This way of thinking is a way of grounding yourself in existence, life, the breath, and this moment.  It teaches us to get out of our head and favor direct experience instead of elaborate mental illusions.