The Message of Water



Tesshin continued this week with the Mountains and Waters passage from Dogen.  He commented that Kensho is the state when we suddenly see the deeper meanings of things – like deeply understanding the walking of mountains.  It can be dramatic, but it is but a “slice” of the deeper meaning of existence.   We must keep building on this and not rest on past achievements.  In this spirit, Tesshin moved on from mountains and started discussing the second part of Dogen’s passage – namely the meaning of water.  This passage is short, but it packs three major messages…


Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving no still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor non-existent, neither deluded nor enlightened. 


Tesshin paused and asked us if this sounded familiar?  Of course, it does!  The Heart Sutra talks in a similar way.  Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.  This is the first major lesson we are presented with in this section.  So much of what we assume to be real is due to our karmic background and our ingrained patterns of thought.  What water is for us depends so much on what our preconceptions of water happen to be. 


When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it? Do not doubt that these are the characteristics water manifests. You should reflect on the moment when you see the water of the ten directions as the water of the ten directions. 


Here is the second lesson.  The nature of water is constantly changing.  It is said that you never step into the same river twice as the river changes moment to moment.  Think about it for a minute – even the very water molecules are different each time you step into the flowing river.  In December a river in New York is frozen and, as Dogen says, is as hard as a diamond.  At the same moment, in the Bahamas the water is gentler than milk.  Is the water different there?  Isn’t the water in both places the same thing?


This is not just studying the moment when human and heavenly beings see water; this is studying the moment when water sees water. This is a complete understanding. You should go forward and backward and leap beyond the vital path where other fathoms other.


What does it mean when water sees water?  This is the “turning point” of the entire passage, and the third lesson.  We know that the way of seeing mountains and water differs depending on who sees it.  How would water understand water in this exact moment?  Dogen implies that this insight is critical to understanding!  Here Tesshin was clear – water seeing water verifies “wateriness!”  It is the same with us!    Simply doing our life verifies our life.  The best expression of our human life is to live it in the moment.  Water does what water does.  Humans do what humans do.  The advice is not to over study life – experience is much more valuable.  


All beings do not see mountains and waters in the same way.  Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, but they do not regard jeweled ornaments as water. What in the human realm corresponds to their water? We only see their jeweled ornaments as water. Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the Dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions. Thus the views of all beings are not the same. You should question this matter now. 


Here Dogen asks that if different types of being see different natures of water – who has the “real truth about water?”  Is there an absolute truth or do we all have mistaken images?  Can we all be right and wrong at the same moment?  For dragons, the water is a palace, but “hungry ghosts” it is a fire.  For humans it is “water” but we are not sure what this word even means!  (solid, liquid, gas??)  


It is the same with our life.  How we see our lives is what it exactly is.  You are creating your life every minute.  If you switch your perspective – your life changes.  This is the message of water.  Everything around you changes depending on your perception.  Some of this perception is due to your karma and history, but a lot of it is under your direct control.  Tesshin noted that taking control of our perceptions is a large part of what our practice is about.  


Tesshin wrapped up by again stating the main lessons of water according to Dogen.

•Experience is relative

•Our perception of life is our reality

•The act of being water is water.  The act of living is life is life