Actualized by the Myriad Things
Walking in the Cottonwood Hills, in Joshua Tree National Park, going over and under boulders, my muscles were stabbed by yucca, and grabbed by thorns. I’d been given instructions by the guides from the course I was taking: walk out into the world, be open and vulnerable, and let yourself be drawn to a being or a presence with which you resonate. Then sit down and offer it your attention. Have a conversation. Study its relationship with the other beings of the world.
I found myself sitting inside a carved-out space in a huge 20-foot rock. As I looked out through my rock window, I contemplated: what is the relationship with this rock and the other beings of the world? What I noticed, heard, and felt is that rock is actually defined by what has been stripped away. What makes a rock a rock is wind, erosion, the time it spent under the earth in fire. A rock is earthquake. It is mineral. Rocks are the bones of the earth. I felt this profound affinity with rock, because I know what it feels like to be eroded, and be pulled under the earth and be transformed by fire.
Later, I went to the Aravaipa Canyon, in southeastern Arizona,and engaged in similar activity. This time, I was hanging out with a mighty Saguaro cactus. They are really tall, and hundreds of years old. As I listened with my heart to this being, I actually felt it as an ancestor. “Who are you?” I asked. “Mahapajapati” came the reply. Mahapajapati was Buddha’s aunt, who raised him when his mother died. She was also a great teacher, who wanted to practice in the Buddha’s community, but he resisted the idea of women practicing at the same level as men. She persisted for years, and eventually prevailed.
I asked her, “What are the qualities you want me to attend to?” And I heard: Devotion. Clarity. Persistence. Not waiting for permission to preach the dharma. Community support. Advocacy. Activism. Generosity.
When I share these kinds of things, you might ask, “but aren’t you just making this up?” Because of course, rocks and cactus don’t talk, right? Yes, it’s true that I’m just making up a story. And yet. The great “and yet” of Zen! Always the two truths. This “me” that is making it all up was created by, and only exists, through relationship with the “other.”
This is how we evolve. We often think of evolution as the story of survival of the fittest, and natural selection. This is a popular and accurate story. But there are other recent stories, proposed by biologists such as Lynn Margulis, that we also have evolved through symbiosis—organisms living in intricate intermeshed relationship. As writer David Abrams said, “the human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself. Induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. It is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity.”
There was a term that they used in the course I was taking—participatory consciousness. This means the recognition that we are co-creating even our consciousness. As Abrams says, “We might think of the sensing body as an open circuit that completes itself only in things and in the world.” This is no different than Zen master Shunryu Suzuki saying “enlightenment comes from all things, to us. When we attain enlightenment, everything comes. This is not the same as intellectual experience in which ‘I’ understand some thing. In direct experience, it means, a truth came to me.”
Zen ancestor Eihei Dogen called this “being actualized by the myriad things.” This line is nested inside of a larger teaching in the Genjo Koan. “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. Thus, the body and mind of self and other drops away. No trace remains. And this no trace continues, endlessly.”
I find this to be such a helpful, specific instruction to work through our self-created suffering. Study the ways you construct your “self:” the ways you interpret your experience, identify with fixed views, make others into objects to judge and blame. But don’t study this self to further identify with it. Study it to see that it’s empty of self-existence. It’s just a story. There’s so much more to be perceived, felt, and imagined than the contents of our narrow box of self-referential habits of thought.
Once we see through the constrictions of our personal narrative, we are then open to be influenced by the direct experience of that which is larger than the personal “self”. We are available to be “actualized by the myriad things.” Our notions of separation, “body and mind of self and other” falls away, and there it is: raw, present-moment awareness. This direct, intuitive apprehension of the ever-changing reality of life is also known as prajna—wisdom. Shohaku Okumura described prajna as a way of knowing “not as a certain way of using our brains” but “what’s there when I let go of my thought.” He calls this “the mind that sees all sides of reality.”
This is the grand journey of practice: the invitation to participate as an open entity, a part of the whole, learning and growing through direct engagement with the myriad beings of the world.