Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the buddhas and ancestors – Dogen, Mountains and Rivers Sutra By Jiho
Seven years ago I retired after working for 41 years, first as a court reporter and then as a teacher. It was a tumultuous 41 years, which included a divorce and the passing of my only brother. My family did not have the gift of years and passed rather young. So, at the age of 62 I decided I had better retire and do some of the things on my “bucket list” while I was still around and able to do them. And subsequently I did some of the things I wanted to do, and did travel for awhile - although Dogen says that everything arises simultaneously, including all time, which means you don’t need to go anywhere because every moment is complete right here, and you can participate with everything! And in this age of coronavirus, I guess that means all of us should really get tested right away - if we haven’t already been - because according to Dogen we’ve come into contact with everyone and everything!
So as to my retirement: as an analogy, it was like a plane coming in for a landing at high speed without any landing gear - swerving all over the runway! It took everything for the pilot (me) to slow the plane down. After all, I had worked most of my life and hadn’t had time for much else. So this time in my life was rough; it wasn’t a pretty sight, and was not handled well by me! I felt lost with what seemed many failed attempts at various things in my life. Socrates said: “an unexamined life isn’t worth living.” I believe he was saying if we’re going to live life, we should explore it, learn about it, so we can live it well! So finally, being somewhat settled, I began to reflect on what had happened in my life - and the questions started to arise: how did I get to where I was? I had been a court reporter and then a teacher; why? Where did the urges or abilities come from to do those things? I had no idea. I didn’t know or recall! I did those things - I remember that! But in retrospect, I would have liked to have been a scientist and to have worked at someplace like NASA, to help explore the different planets! However, in school I wasn’t that good at science; math was always a struggle. Why? Why didn’t I have those abilities like some others did, or even an urge to do that years ago? Then I thought back to my time as a teacher. In my English class, I would teach a lesson, for example, on how to write a paragraph or an essay. Some students caught on right away and could have taught the lessons themselves, while others were lost and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Why?
So I thought that maybe it had to do with conditioning
from your parents, your upbringing - creating a conducive environment for learning and doing things. Maybe that had something to do with it - but why? That was also part of what seemed to me unexplainable! Was it just the luck of the draw? I always wanted to learn to ballroom dance. And I took lessons - a number of times. It turns out I have two left feet, and the only thing I got out of those lessons was two pairs of scuffed shoes! I also wanted to learn to play an instrument. My parents bought me a piano and gave me lessons for two years. The teacher said I was most likely tone deaf - I was terrible! Later in life I tried again and took guitar and flute lessons - I was equally as bad! Why? I certainly tried hard - again! I also wanted to learn to draw, and the same thing happened with that! I couldn’t draw a straight line and had no sense of perspective - which I finally gleaned after numerous art classes and a few hundred dollars worth of John Nagy “learn to draw” books. Other people I knew had the ability to learn or do those things - some effortlessly, some even without lessons. Why? as things later turned out, I just happened to pick up some books that Doshin (my Zen teacher) had talked about years ago by Nisargadatta Maharaj, specifically “ I am that,” which I had never gotten around to reading. And something hit me like a brick wall - and also something Doshin told me years ago, but I guess I wasn’t sensitive enough at the time to appreciate - namely, that we are being lived!
Just sit on your cushion or chair when you meditate and try not to breathe or try to stop your heart from beating - or your mind from having any thoughts! I dare say you would have a very difficult time! What hit me is that if you consider your actual experience of life, you won’t find anything to indicate that you are directing the movement of your life! It became obvious that there wasn’t any actual experience that I could recall of me making anything happen or causing anything to happen! It became clear that I wasn’t creating myself in any way at all! Nisargadatta said that “everything happens by itself, quite spontaneously ... when effort is needed, effort will appear. When effortlessness becomes essential, it will assert itself.” All of my thoughts and behavior are simply a spontaneous arising. I don’t create my urge to act in any particular way. And I don’t create my abilities to follow through on that urge. All of it is the happening of something that can’t be explained! I wasn’t influencing anything. It was all simply happening on its own - and that included everything that I seemed to be and do. However, this is not a nihilistic proposition: Dogen says that cause and effect arise together, as do good and bad, and right and wrong. So there is potential or choice within this arising. We can choose to do good, the right thing! To improve things is part of what is - within whatever we find ourselves compelled to do!
Dogen also says: “no creature ever comes short of its own completeness. Wherever it stands it does not fail to cover the ground!” So I realized that I didn’t have to worry about doing anything! All of it was just the movement of the universe or nature, existence - whatever you want to call it - and it had happened and was going to happen the only way it could happen! I was an expression of existence - of nature, like the trees growing and how the weather changes. It just happens. Impermanence! It’s easy really to see and feel - especially when I look at myself in the mirror. It’s a slightly different reflection than when I was 25! I was simply happening: thoughts coming and going; pulsating, vibrations, waves of energy; clarity, confusion. Everything is the natural and complete expression of nature. I was not separate from this existence! The poet John Masefield wrote: “everything is perpetual in perpetual change, the unknown passing through the strange.” So, even though this is all one unexplainable and inexplicable movement, no two trees are the same, no two birds are the same, and no two snowflakes are the same; nor do trees choose to be trees, nor birds choose to be birds, nor do snowflakes choose to be snowflakes. Each of us is unique with different urges, abilities and needs - inexplicably! So with all of this ... some people are born to be periodontists, some people are born to explore the stars, some have an ear for music, some are artists, some are teachers, and some people dance.