Friday, November 24, 2006


The four elements return to their natures,
just as a child turns to its mother.
Fire heats, wind moves, water wets,
earth remains solid.

These are the ninth and tenth stanzas of Sandokai. They speak of what are referred to, in traditional Buddhism, as the four elements: fire, wind, water, and earth. They are what comprise existence.

     Each of these elements has its own nature, its own disposition. Fire decontaminates. Wind brings fresh change. Water is all all-encompassing; it is contained in everything and contains everything. Earth is the solid nature of matter. In our terrestrial existence, everything returns to earth.

     At one time scientists believed the atom was the smallest unit of reality. But then it was decided that atoms were, or are, made up of smaller and smaller particles. I won’t try to name the particles—such as neutrons, and leptons, and muons, and neutrinos—because nuclear physicists are constantly discovering newer and tinier elementary units of existence.

Some of these subdivisions aren’t actual things but are crumbs of electrical energy.

     In themselves they can’t be seen, but their presence can be tracked and evaluated.

     There seems to be no end to these itsy-bitsy no-things. Which leads to the question: Is more more, or is more less?

     As Shunryu Suzuki says, the four Buddhist elements are not things we can see or touch. They are potential readiness, ability, capacity. To quote Suzuki, “Emptiness is the final being, which our thinking mind cannot reach.”

     To say this in scientific terms, nature abhors a vacuum. The human mind has a tough time conceiving of nothingness.

     That’s why Heaven and an afterlife were concocted. Because the human mind is unable to handle something that has no quantitative value, that has no demonstrable substance.

     The Irish writer Edna O’Brien said, “A nothing is a dreadful thing to hold onto.” That is a wonderful paradox worthy of Zen. How can a nothing be held onto?

     Suzuki, at this point in his interpretation of Sandokai, takes an enormous leap, which is the privilege of a Zen teacher. All of a sudden he talks about independence. He says each of the four classical elements is independent in its nature.

     But then he comes down to earth when he says each of us is independent, but we are all related to one another. And even though we are all related, each of us is independent.

     Everything has Buddha-nature. Everything is Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is not something “out there.” Buddha-nature is everywhere around us and in us. It’s not “there,” waiting to be found at  some time. It’s right here, right now.

     Time is not yesterday or tomorrow. Time is right now.

     Dogen said that Zen practice and attainment are one. Zazen isn’t a means to awakening but, if practiced correctly, is awakening.

     Buddha-nature is not a potentiality but an actuality. Buddha-nature doesn’t reach beyond impermanence; it is one with it.

     As part of our Zen practice, we need to learn how to appreciate each thing and each moment. That will enable us to understand all things and all moments.

     One flower includes all things. One flower is unconditional. One flower is the completeness of Buddha-nature. One flower exists right now.

     Be one with it.


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