October 07 Journal » Time and Environment
Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

Yunmen asked Caoshan, "Why don't we know that there is a place of great intimacy?" And Caoshan says, "Just because it is so intimate we don't know it's there." (Eihei Koroku 3.217)

You could say that about your feelings. You could say that about how we interact with one another. We don't know about our relationship with our loved ones, with our peers, with our Sangha members, with all our human relationships. We tend to think that we're this isolated being that goes around and interacts with these objects. We forget that intimacy.

And this is also true with our relations with this earth—this very earth that we live on.

Today I want to consider what it's like to really be intimate with the earth.

I don't know why this summer I've been quoting Albert Einstein so much but, you know, there're several new biographies out; I can't help myself. Here's what he said once:

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe. A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison, by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in all its beauty.

Marvelous. It reminds us who we are—not just a Zen thing!

When he was on pilgrimage in Japan, Basho was put up one night in a stable, and he wrote:

Lice, fleas, the horse pissing beside my pillow
—intimacy! When I read that haiku, I can smell the horse piss.

Yet even the term "intimacy" is tricky. You look at it, think of it—it's misleading in the sense that it's "one thing" that is close to "another". Both! Whereas what we're talking about is really letting down the barriers of the self; as Dogen says, "To be not anyone in particular but, like the deep blue color of the limitless sky, everyone everywhere in the world." And at the same time, of course, looking around this room, each one of us is very different; wonderfully different.

As distinct as those wild turkeys who are walking around, and the little Connecticut warbler I saw this morning. Little tiny—great big birds! And each of us is able to act with great difference and make difference in our world.

Dogen says it this way: "Know that there myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice." Not the end—the beginning! "When you are at this place there is just one grass, there is just one form: there is understanding of form and no understanding of form. There is understanding of grass and no understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment."

If I could remember that last line when I start to pull away from a situation, from a point of view, from a person, from a reality I don't like—"Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment." By including it all we're able to begin to heal—heal self, each other, the world.

The present moment.

Today I want to think about how the present moment also includes the Ice Age, the great glaciers, our genes mutated through time, our African and Asian forbearers who carried those genes to Europe and South America—and also included in this moment, just this time, is future time—the time I can't really imagine; but it's there.

In Dogen's great collection the Eihei Koroku there's a little koan called "The Self Returns to Mountains and Rivers":

A monk asked Changsha [Zhaoxian] "How can we turn the mountains, rivers and great earth and return them to the self?" And Changsha said, "How can we turn the self to return it to the mountains, rivers and great earth?"

The monk has got a wonderful question. It's a question we should be asking in this world that we live in—environmental and ecological crises that we see all around us—we should be asking the same question the monk is asking: How can we make the mountains and earth more intimate with us? How can we turn the mountains, rivers and great earth and return them to the self? How can we grasp the natural world and bring it into our hearts?

But Changsha says there's something just a little wrong with that question. He refines it. He says: How do you make yourself more intimate? How do you allow yourself to enter the mountains, rivers and great earth?

Without being able to return to our own home, to our own home of this earth, we very easily lose touch with who we are, with our human form, with our body. Our bodies are not separate from our habitat. Consider what you might say your habitat is. Is it something that was constructed by someone else of plastic and various kinds of compressed materials? Or is your habitat this great earth? Or is it both?

I think what Dogen is pointing to is: how can we change our hearts and minds so that we can enter the natural world? How do we serve the earth and its people?

You know, in Japanese literature there's the haiku and one of the rules of the haiku is that you must include in it the seasons of the year—you don't have to say "spring" but you have to say something that will tip off the person hearing the haiku that it's spring or fall or whatever season it is; images of blossoms, leaves. One thing I noticed in Japan is that all the news programs start with a big picture of a tree or grass or whatever season it is, snow, ginkgos—and there's always a kind of very cheerful little thing about the season of the year. In Kyoto last spring I was with Shinryu and Anraku in a Tricycle Magazine group and there was this big celebration because it's Cherry Blossom Time and crowds of people gathering around a tree because it's a magnificent tree, it has magnificent blossoms. Now, of course there's a kitschy aspect to it, the photographs and everything, but still—how marvelous that so many people came out to appreciate spring, the cherry blossoms and one particular tree.

Speaking for myself, I know it's very easy to get caught up in the made world. I particularly like moving through the Internet, googling this thing and that, learning new things, reading things—I'm very excited by all that's available there. And yet it really has no smell, no taste and no touch. It's very important to me to also smell and taste and touch the world, and to wake up and to look at the effect of so many people in the world, so much development in the cities. It's exciting that there are so many people who are now aware of the unintended effects of all the changes that we've made in the environment, the real cost of plastic; the real cost of disposing rather than using. Perhaps we've even looked at our behavior and seen a little greed, a little impatience, a little insensitivity to the world. The value in our culture is to have something new and shiny—not something old that has patina, like a piece of wood we've had for a long time. Do any of us remember what our old cell phones looked like? I was thinking when I jotted that note down, "It'd be really great if they could just rehabilitate each of the cell phones and you could just kind of put a new intelligence into your cell phone and your cell phone could be made of some nice wood." But I think that all the plastic, all the throwing away, all the lack of awareness really distances us from our lives as humans on this planet.

I just read that there's a little island between Staten Island and Brooklyn called Swinburne Island; I think at one time they put people there who had some diseases that they didn't want—to isolate them. And now cormorants have come back and there's a huge colony of cormorants there. Cormorants were almost extinct—they were just like the bald eagles—and they tracked—just as the bald eagles have come back so have the cormorants. People are kind of afraid of these birds because they have vulture-like qualities and they fish and fishermen compete with them, and there are various issues with the cormorants. But the cormorants have come back because some people began to pay attention twenty years ago to what was going on with birds.

Also good news: after 200 years, we have a beaver colony in the Bronx River. You know, the beaver is on the New York City flag because there was a time when they were everywhere in the rivers, all the rivers we have in our city. At one time in the 19th Century one year 80,000 beavers were caught because people wanted their pelts—and then they became extinct. And now we have a beaver in the Bronx River, and they're coming back. If you go up to Inwood, you'll find a natural timber forest; you'll find chokeberries and chokecherries, wild roses, dogwood, witchhazel; further down you'll see walnuts and willows and maples. During spring and fall, so many birds come through New York City; they visit the greenbelt; Jamaica Bay; Central Park—and they visit the locals: the local owls, the local egrets, the local herons. How long has it been since you've smelled our marshes; since you've walked in Inwood forest and looked at the native trees? We live in what are called ecotones in the New York Area. Ecotones are margins between, say, a salt marsh and a river; or any place where two different ecologies come together. The New York City area is replete with them: many different kinds of ecotones. We're held by that great Hudson River with its miraculous exchange of fresh water and salt water; and because there's a warm current from the Atlantic there are sea turtles that come up on the piers, and tropical fish. People can now swim in the Hudson. Every year there's a swim from Newburgh across to Peekskill. When I first came here no one would dare put a toe in the Hudson—they'd be afraid it would fall off!

John Muir said, "When we try to take anything out by itself, we find it's hitched to everything else in the universe." Am I talking about New York City? Am I talking about the Hudson River, Jamaica Bay? Or am I talking about your life, and your life, and your life?

Last night someone asked me, "How do we save all sentient beings?" Every once in a while you get one of those questions. A hard question: how do we save all sentient beings? Start with yourself. The Sixth Ancestor said, "Begin by saving the sentient beings of one's own greedy mind, one's own angry mind, one's own delusive mind."

How do you save the Hudson River? Waking up! Being intimate. Knowing who you are.

Trungpa Rinoche used to talk about "idiot compassion"—a kind of knee-jerk impulse to be heroic, to assert your way that harms more than it helps. To really save is to listen, is to witness and to act from that place. I remember years ago I was in a retreat in Philadelphia with a man who was very ill—he was dying of hepatitis—and he always came to the sits at the Philadelphia Buddhist Association—and he came and I had dinner with him afterwards and he said, "I really didn't feel like sitting today, I was really sick to my stomach all day, but I was sitting next to this young kid and he was so restless, shifting around, and I thought, 'Well, you know what I can do? I can just sit really strong for this kid.'" And so Ed sat there all day long. He didn't offer advice. He didn't correct the kid's posture. He just sat next to him all day. Bearing witness, showing the way.

When we learn how to be quiet with the natural world so that we can listen to what it needs, being intimate with the earth, we become more intimate with ourselves, and our sensitivity grows and we become able to save ourselves and the person next to us, naturally, without idiocy, without imposing something that we really don't know. When you're at the supermarket and they say, "Paper or plastic?" who's listening? Have you got a canvas bag with you and you remember that? Buy the toxic cleaner or the non-toxic cleaner? Simple natural acts make the difference.

Gary Snyder wrote:

the silence
of nature

the power within
the power


the path is whatever passes-no
end in itself.

the end is,

not saving.

the proof

the proof of the power within.

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