by Sybil Seisui Rosen
originally published in Mountain Record journal: Teachings of the Insentient (1998)
“Is everything in the world in the middle of my heart?” my nephew Austin asks me, out of the blue. He is four; I am dumbstruck. “Y-yes, absolutely,” I stammer. “Cars and trucks too?” he goes on. “Uh-huh,” I reply.
I don’t think he’s looking for answers because he already has them. He just wants to see if l have them too, though I’m sure my experience of them is less direct than his at present.
What really astonishes me is his second question. “Cars and trucks too?” Cars and trucks – hardly the stuff of spiritual practice. Yet the question resounds.
Austin and I share a sphere through which passes a never-ending stream of toys and spoons, umbrellas and toothbrushes. All these things sprang into being, into their suchness, out of a creative impulse of our busy human minds. Were we beavers, our evolution might have outfitted us with built-in tools: teeth that never stop growing (handy if you’re in the business of gnawing down trees); rudder-like tails that provide ballast when working on land; noses and ears that close during dives underwater. Instead, we humans developed problem-solving brains, which led in turn to the emergence of external tools—like axes and footstools, nose and ear plugs. And also provided us with that mixed bag of perceptions we call consciousness.
The Sanskrit word for consciousness—vijnana—means literally “to divide,” no doubt referring to our human need to separate reality into comprehensible pieces. But Austin’s young consciousness doesn’t divide so readily. Instinctively he knows that the universe he encompasses includes not only the natural world; his boundless heart does not so easily segregate the ten thousand things into categories: the natural and the artificial, the sublime and the man-made. He knows all things, just as they are, dwell in him, are him.
The universe, and everything in it, is inherently, blazingly, alive. Even cars and trucks, even—as Daido Roshi says—the Brooklyn Bridge. As I think about this, it makes sense. Over a century ago, the cement for that bridge was fired in kilns not far from Zen Mountain Monastery, in Rosendale, New York. The limestone from which the cement came was originally sediment laid down hundreds of millions of years ago at the bottom of a vast shallow inland sea. There, shells of lime once belonging to primitive aquatic creatures sifted down into the sand and silt; with time and pressure they lithified into limestone to be mined, eons later, for cement and ultimately to span the New York harbor. All time, all space, this moment.
In lnstructions for the Zen Cook, Master Dogen writes; “See the pot as your own head; see the water as your lifeblood.” He points to a way of experiencing these things that act as our helpmates in navigating the relative world that we have created, that we surround ourselves with, that are no other than ourselves. A boss of mine used to say: “Take care of the people who take care of you.” Is it any different with things?
By the by, Austin’s third question to me that day was: “Is everything in the world in the middle of LaRue’ s heart?” LaRue is the dog.
Daido Roshi told me I’d have to stop telling this story when Austin became a teenager. So I did. But now that he and his brother Jared are in their twenties, I feel I can embarrass them anew. Though embarrass is not the right word. I think they’ll be thrilled to be part of this retrospective as the Monastery was an impactful encounter in their very young lives. And they have grown to be kind, loving, productive men who reminisce often about the people they met here and the things we did together.
I was a relatively new student when I wrote this piece. Re-reading it some twenty years later, I marvel at the certainty of the voice. These days I’m less certain about more things, and as I write that, I hear Daidoshi laugh.
Sybil Seisui Rosen lives in Georgia and is a writer, actor and director for stage and screen.