Like Water, Like Air (by Aoyama Roshi)

I just remembered that I have this translated essay sitting around on my computer. A Japanese nun at Nisodo translated this and I helped edit and make it sound more like English. Aoyama Roshi wrote many short essays like this, for general readers. It sounds almost like poetry.

Like Water, Like AirPracticing with “No Self”
By Aoyama Shundo Roshi

Part 1: Respect Other People’s “Ice” as Buddha

All through the rocks, through the roots of trees
Water comes pouring down
Smoothly, without complaining
-Kai Kazuko

I wish I were like water, or like air, and I often say this to my disciples. However, I know I’m still far away from realizing this wish.
The most important thing in Zen practice is to practice “no self.” Dogen Zenji has told us, “Even if you sit zazen until the floor breaks, if your zazen is from the ego then all your effort will be in vain.”
I’d like to use the following metaphor of water and ice. Water and ice are the same material, but ice is solid, and if water freezes in a cup you cannot put it into another container. If you try by force, both the cup and the ice will break. But water can be poured into any cup; it can flow through any tiny space. Water does no damage to its container. If you are using water to wash the floor, water becomes dirty in order to make the floor clean.
If you are like ice, then you can make other people turn to ice. Flowers and fish will freeze, too. But if you are like water, fish can live, people can swim, and boats can sail by.
Please understand that being illuminated by Dharma and warmed by Buddha’s compassion so that the “ice” of selfishness melts is the most important point in our practice. In Sodo, you have to live 24 hours a day with others, whether or not you like, dislike or even hate them. Sometimes you might feel the position or the arrangement you are given is not suitable. In our training, if the self is in the center of your mind, you will often bump against others, the work will be stressful and things will not be done smoothly.
Since we are all imperfect people, we often collide with others. On such occasions, we usually blame the opposite side. But think about it: if one side is like water, there is no conflict at all. If any trouble happens, it’s clear both sides are being like ice. So we can say that if seeing another person’s “ice” makes you realize you are also like ice, you can bow to that other person’s ice as Buddha.
          If you do not realize that your selfish “ice” is harder and bigger than someone else’s, I think you cannot learn, or follow the Buddha’s wisdom, and your ice cannot be melted.
            So, when you come across a person or task you dislike, it is a good chance to look at your own self-centeredness. At these times, you are in a good position to melt your “ice” and become like water.

Part 2: Walk Along the Winding Path, Going Straight

About half a century ago while I was University, I often visited Watanabe Genshu Zenji, the master of Sojiji, who was in his nineties. Once, he called upon a young nun who was his new disciple, and asked, “How can one go straight on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?” The nun could not answer, so Zenji-sama said, “Walk along the winding path, going straight.”
            When we’re told to go straight ahead, we often take this to mean forcing or shoving our way straight up a mountain or cliff. The words of Watanabe Zenji seem more flexible. Just like driving a car, sometimes there is an unexpected red signal and we have to stop. Sometimes we have to turn around and go back; we think we made a mistake and we are now too lost to keep going. Or, there is a “no turn on right” sign, road repair, or traffic accident, and we have to take a roundabout way. In all these unexpected circumstances, we often forget to come back to the main road.
            But when there’s blockage in a stream, water gains power, and if it takes a roundabout way the soil around the bank becomes more fertile. Like this, we must not forget to step up when coming across a given situation, organizing things and responding fluidly. We must view being obstructed or forced to go around as a good chance to grow up, to live more deeply and fruitfully.

Part 3: The Meaning of Being Transparent

The sixteenth-century samurai lord Kuroda had a special name, Josui, which means “like water.” He laid siege to the castle of Takamachi by cutting off its water supply, but he was an eager follower of Christianity. Consequently, he wrote these “Five Disciplines of Water.”

1.     Water; acting spontaneously and letting others follow
2.     Water; always seeking for the way to go
3.     Water; coming across difficulty and increasing one hundred times in strength
4.     Water can be both clean and dirty, voluntarily washing others’ dirt and stain
5.     Water is ocean, clouds, rain, snow or fog, and when frozen it can be a mirror. But at any stage, water is still water, its essence doesn’t change

I’m reminded of a woman who used to come to our zazenkai. Now she has opened a restaurant near Mt. Fuji. One day I visited her place. It was a very nice, cozy restaurant, and all the dishes, ornaments and windows were made of transparent glass. She told me, “This is because I want to be as clear and transparent as glass.”
            I was deeply moved and said, “Being transparent means having no specific color, shape, or smell. It means that everything in you has disappeared, making other colors, shapes and smells clear.
            Sen no Rikyu said, ‘Flowers without mist are nothing worth looking at’ The beauty of gardens and stones deepens when they are sprinkled with water, but when appreciating this beauty we do not notice the existence of water. Tea or coffee is delicious when made with good water, but of course, if there is some color or smell in the water, the drink will not have a good taste, and might even be harmful. Because of having no taste, no color, no smell, no texture, and no shape, water can go into anything, and allows everything to exist as it is. This, in turn, lets us realize the merit of the material much more.”
            The word “transparent” has such a deep meaning.

Part 4: Not Being Recognized

The same way I admire water, I would also like to be like air.
            We cannot do without air. Everybody knows this but we almost forget about it. It’s so important that we cannot live without it even momentarily, and yet nobody respects or appreciates air.
            Still, if we recognized and paid attention to the fact that air makes us alive every moment of inhalation and exhalation—if we said “thank you” to air ever second—we would make ourselves go crazy. How wonderful it is that the most important thing is not recognized, and exists completely without being noticed.
            I would like to say that we human beings should be something like that.
            In the Zen world we say things like “not knowing is most intimate.” This is the case when learning to drive a car, or learning tea. When you can drive, or serve a cup of tea without paying any specific attention, then it can be said you are mature in that skill.
            In the case of your health, if you can feel your stomach is here or your heart is there it is clear that your stomach or your heart is not in good condition. Similarly, in some languages you can say “I feel my tooth,” not “my tooth is painful.”
            The most important thing for our existence is not to say “I’m here!” We should learn from this.

Part 5: Like the Ocean, Letting Any Stream Come In

The ocean accepts water without limit, creating greater oceans.
-- Shobogenzo Bodaisatva Shishobo

Your sorrow is my sorrow
Your joy is my joy.
Bing completely the same
And walking along together,
That is the way of the Bodhisatva.

Here is the story of the painter Ryozan. I was touched to hear that when he was young he saw at the beach a small child with his father. The child was walking very slowly with a small crab on a leash, and the father was walking along step by step with the child. They were hardly moving.
            Ryozan was impressed so much by this heartwarming image that he decided to become a painter to show people this kind of warmth.
            We can learn from ocean water and river water the teaching of “Doji” (identification with all beings). The ocean does not discriminate “Kiso River” from “Ooi River.” It does not say “I will let in this river and not this river.” Likewise, the river will not say “I want to go into the Pacific Ocean, not the Japan Sea,” even if one place is cleaner and one is polluted.
            Though we are born to be very self-centered, I hope we can look at all things with the light and warmth of Dharma. Little by little, we can become selfless like water.


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