Born As The Earth

· Earth Initiative, Teachings · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi

Koans of the Way of Reality, Case 8

Main Case
A visiting student began to ask, “The truths of the Earth continually wait. They are not so concealed either. They’re calm, subtle, untransmissible by print.”
The teacher interrupted, saying, “Stop, stop! Is that Walt Whitman’s poem?”
The student said, “Yes it is.”
The teacher said, “Those are the words that describe his reality. What is the reality itself? Show me.”

Born as the Earth is not the same as being born, or birth, or born into the world. It’s not a matter of simply occupying space on this planet. Born as the Earth is to realize the world, to realize the mountains, the rivers, and the great Earth as the body and mind of the Tathagata, as one’s own body and mind. Dew on the pine trees, a thousand grasses, are the real form of truth—the limitless life of endless spring. The question is: Where do you find yourself?

Listen! Mountain streams and bird songs all recite the scriptures.
Look! Mountain form, trees and forests, abide in suchness.
Don’t you see?
It’s not a matter of words—It contains the whole universe.

In the early years of the Monastery, Daido Roshi began to develop a vision of integrating spiritual practice with the study of and practice of the natural world, the teachings of the mountains and rivers. Being out in the wilderness was important to him throughout his life; he spent time camping and canoeing in upstate New York alone and with his family, and when he took up photography, he often would venture into the woods and streams to photograph. When he founded the Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order, the wilderness was already an intrinsic part of his spiritual life and something he wanted to share with his students. From early on he spoke of it as “Being born as the Earth.” That teaching has stayed with me and is close to my own heart.


In Many Religious Traditions, spiritual awakening is compared to a new birth, an experience of renewal, a sense of discovering our life as if for the first time. Within Buddhism, awakening is being born to our own body and mind as the whole of the realized world. The Buddha said, “At this moment, the Earth, myself, and all creatures enter the Way.” So while Buddhism doesn’t have much history of environmental advocacy per se, it’s had a very long, very direct relationship with the Earth. This is especially true of Zen. Images of the natural world are found throughout Zen literature and Zen monasteries were often situated in the mountains and took the mountain’s name as their own. Every monastery in our tradition has a mountain name, even if it’s in the city. At the Monastery our mountain name is Tenkozan: Mountain of Heavenly Light. Fire Lotus Temple’s mountain name is Taidosan: Peaceful Way Mountain. There’s this very intimate relationship with the mountain as a sacred being, a teacher in a different form.

We can think of being born in this way as realizing our true nature as Buddha. When the self is realized as selfless, then what is birth? Daido Roshi said, “Born as the Earth is not the same as being born, or birth, or born into the world.” Being born is not becoming. It is something else.

The world pours in through our senses: sights, sounds, tastes, textures, thoughts. We hear and see and feel. Some things we find pleasant, others unpleasant; there is the cold of winter, the heat of summer. And while our sense-consciousness is true because it accurately perceives the world in the first moment of contact, it is also illusory. Almost instantaneously, we overlay that moment of pure contact with our own conditioned mind—our beliefs, histories, desires, prejudices—and in this overlay, our experience becomes illusory. Still, although it is an illusory view of reality, this overlay offers an accurate depiction of our conditioned mind. That’s why we practice and study what we call the self: it is essential that we see this overlay for what it is and begin to discover just how vast the gap is between our conditioned perception and the real truth of life. We live from within this gap, so it’s no wonder that we feel anxious and ill at ease.

Our sense of a separate self also arises in this gap, and this is the true source of our anxiety, an anxiety born from desire and our continual failure to satisfy these desires in a lasting way. This is samsara. As we begin to practice, we take on the responsibility of facing the reality of this moment and seeing through our illusions. But we’re not usually ready for how real this actually is, how fierce reality can appear to us.

Now, take all of this and look at our present situation with the environmental crisis we face today. We’ve created a situation in which our home as we know it is in peril, arguably the greatest trial in human history. Whether we realize it or not, this must bring with it a very deep anxiety. What are the implications of living on a planet that can no longer sustain our way of life? In the midst of this trial, and as practitioners, we aspire to turn toward the Earth and the painful reality of today. Spiritual training offers us a way to face such difficulties with an open, spacious, and even joyful state of mind.


The Buddha Realized that human life exists within a morality so deep and vast that we’ll never realize the whole. Everything we do affects those around us and changes history. How we understand and move through this world, how we act, what we say—all of our innumerable actions have an effect. Of course, many of these effects are so subtle we don’t notice them, but they are creating karma nevertheless, and because of that, life is profoundly moral. It is also deeply spiritual.

As human beings, we know that we’re alive, and with this knowledge, life becomes a spiritual matter. We wonder about life and death—we feel a sense of awe at the miracle of living and dying. We can understand that every breath we take, every particle of our being, our heat, our energy, our fluids, has been moving through this universe since the very beginning. This lends a different perspective to the Buddha’s teaching, “This body does not belong to you.” This is true not only because there is no permanent self, but also because our bodies are literally being recycled and reused. That’s how we got here. So as Daido Roshi says, “The question is, where do we find the self?”

In this koan, developed by Daido Roshi as part of a unique collection, a student asks, “The truths of the Earth continually wait. They’re not so concealed either. They’re calm, subtle, un-transmissible by print.” This is a quote from Whitman’s Song of the Rolling Earth, appearing in a larger section:

Amelioration is one of the earth’s words,
The earth neither lags nor hastens,
It has all attributes, growths, effects, latent in itself from the jump,
It is not half beautiful only, defects and
excrescences show just as much as perfections show.

The earth does not withhold, it is generous enough,
The truths of the earth continually wait,
they are not so conceal’d either,
They are calm, subtle, un-transmissible by print,
They are imbued through all things conveying themselves willingly,
Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter,
I speak not, yet if you hear me not of what avail am I to you?
To bear, to better, lacking these of what avail am I?

“The truths of the Earth continually wait, they are not so conceal’d either.” The truths of the Earth are utterly present. How else could it be? And whatever is true of this Earth is true for everything that is of this Earth, because nothing is left out—everything we see and touch and experience, whether we think of it as belonging to the natural world or not. Nothing is hidden. This is also true of the dharma. The dharma is nothing but uncontrived, unconditioned truth.


In The First Lines of Mountain Colors and Valley Sounds, Master Dogen’s fascicle that we’ve been studying during this Spring Ango, Dogen says we should examine the examples of our ancestors. We learn from each other all the time, which is why it’s so important that we practice together in the same space. Not only because it’s mutually supportive, but also because we’re living examples for each other, examples of how to embody wisdom, compassion, generosity, patience, authenticity, spontaneity. Humanness, in other words.

When we think about the scope of human history, and our earliest ancestors, we realize that our very first teacher was this Earth. We looked to the natural world, the sky, the seasons, the mountains and rivers, the other living beings around us to learn how to be part of this world, to learn how to attune to it. Whitman expresses this so beautifully in his poem. What happens when we turn to the mountain as an example of practice? What better role model of patience and generosity could we find?

When the student offers Whitman’s verse, the teacher cries out, “Stop! Stop!” Why? Whose words is the student using? Whose experience does she draw on? This “Stop!” is like a wake up call. Stop and turn around. Stop and know for yourself. Understand beyond knowing. Don’t get caught in the words—beautiful though they might be, words ultimately do not reach it. Our profound affinity with the Earth, with the truth it embodies, has to be experienced for ourselves.


Not that long ago, we were living beneath the vaulted sky, drawing our water from the river and our food from the forest. Our profound dependence on the Earth was obvious and inarguable. That dependence hasn’t changed one bit, but our current way of life fools us. Although it may be hidden from view, the truth of how inextricable our life is from the Earth abides deep within us. When someone we love is ill, their suffering fills us and we feel their distress. Just so, whether we’re conscious of it or not, I believe that we are feeling the distress of the Earth. How could we not?

Daido Roshi says, “Born as the Earth is not the same as being born, or birth, or being born into the world. It’s not a matter of simply occupying space on this planet.” We all know what it is to sleepwalk through life, to just go through the motions without realizing what we’re in the middle of or attending to what is needed. We apply all of our energy to masking our anxiety and pain, but that pain is accurate. It’s accurate because we are moral and spiritual beings. That’s why when we hurt someone we feel shame and regret. The Buddha said those feelings are the guardians of the world; the pain that we experience at having hurt someone else shakes us awake. That pain is like saying, “Stop. Pay attention. Shift that path. There is a better way.” In this way, pain is part of our aliveness, part of our healing, part of our truth. It conveys to us that something is at risk, something sacred is being desecrated, something precious is being lost. But, if we don’t work with it well, it turns inward on itself, becoming numbness, drunkenness, worry or distraction. And so one of the essential skills we have to develop on the bodhisattva path is to be able to bear a certain degree of discomfort, skillfully and with compassion, while we are in the process of examining, realizing, and transforming our understanding of it. It’s not about having a high pain threshold, but rather being able to hold the pain within non-discriminating awareness; otherwise we can’t face reality. We can’t encounter anything that is true.

Daido Roshi says, “To realize mountains, rivers, and the great Earth as our own body and mind.” This is not a personal, karmic body, but it cannot be apart from that either. How could this body of truth, this body of reality, be anything other than you, though this “you” is not your self? How can there be anything other than this great Earth body, vast beyond time and space? Is there anyone who isn’t already born as the earth? It only needs to be realized. To discover our true body-mind, we have to let go of all that we hold as “me.” Then, all that we recognize as “me” is liberated, and so all things are liberated in their own dharma state.

If this is so, how is it then that when we open our eyes and uncover our ears, our senses encounter injustice, poverty, greed, the extinction of species, the acidification of oceans, the desertification of forests. It’s important that we don’t take in these teachings like we might a Sunday sermon— inspirational for a short while but then we just go back to business as usual. That just increases our anxiety. The Dharma challenges us to study, practice, realize and live it fully in our lives.

Daido Roshi says, “Listen! Mountain streams and bird songs are all reciting scriptures. Look! Mountain form, trees and forests, are all the body of suchness. Don’t you see? It’s not a matter of words. It just contains the whole universe.” What if we thought of the world and everything in it as being alive? We recognize life in animals and in plants and trees. But what about mountains, rocks, soil, space, sky, water? What is life after all? How do we define it? If we recognized everything as having life, how would that change things? Not just some forms, but everything. Perhaps some subtle truths are concealed just beyond the range of our senses, like the way dogs hear things we can’t, or how cats can see in the dark.

How can there be anything other than this great Earth body, vast beyond time and space? Is there anyone who isn’t already born as the earth?

I’ve been reading a book on the emotional life of animals in which the author describes the many different sounds elephants make with their trunks. When wildlife biologists began studying this closely, they recognized innumerable subtle kinds of trumpeting, all communicating different things. To those of us with untrained ears these sounds seem more or less alike, which is pretty much how it is when we hear a foreign language—it’s just a bunch of meaningless sounds that we can’t distinguish. But, if we take the time and learn the language, then it begins to open up. Suddenly, that person becomes someone; their life becomes present to us in a whole new way. What other conversations are taking place beyond the range of our ordinary ability to hear and understand? What if we recognize that there is a whole world beyond our senses, shimmering and pulsing with life in ways we’ve never considered?

Being born as the Earth is being awakened to the very nature of the Earth. In our awakening, everything is awakened. It has always been just thus. Stop. Look. Don’t you see? It contains the whole universe. The question is where do you find the self?

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi is the head of the Mountains and River Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of koans relevant to western practitioners which have been culled from ancient and modern sources by John Daido Loori, Roshi, founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order.

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