Master Dogen taught in his fascicle Henzan—Encountering Everywhere, that whole-hearted practice of the Way is to take up the study of one thing and to understand it deeply. He encouraged us to “study each dharma exhaustively and then to study it still further.”
In Spring of 2000 during one of our three-month training intensives, called ango, we were presented with an art practice assignment: to choose one thing, one object, and be in its presence for next 90 days with full attention. Daido Roshi charged us to enter into the continuously changing nature of our experience, and bring our understanding into a form of creative expression.
To paraphrase Dogen Zenji in Henzan: How is it to encounter one thing, as all-inclusive study, thorough exploration, exhaustive inquiry? To enter and see form within the sixty-five hundred thousand revolving bodies, encountering it everywhere? “Encountering everywhere” does not mean calmly and idly entering one subject and leaving another. Encountering everywhere means seeing with the whole eyeball. Encountering everywhere means attaining complete intimacy. To see into the skin of ones own face and know how thick it is—that is encountering everywhere.
I remember Roshi encouraging us, “This is not about artistic mastery, but about being honest with yourself, your subject, what you are experiencing. You may experience boredom, and want to switch to something else; let go of this desire and bring yourself back to the subject again, and go into it even more deeply.”
One thing, to spend time with, lends itself to sustained exploration. Just a simple object, it could be anything—a tree, stone, a toaster. Study each Dharma exhaustively, and study it still further.
My spark plugs were fired up and I couldn’t wait to begin. “Don’t go out and look for your subject, let it find you,” Roshi would implore us. “If you go out looking there are only two possibilities, you’ll find it or you won’t. Either way you will be disappointed. Open up and be receptive—your subject will find you. Trust this.”
Spring was in the air and I was excited by the light changing and the beginnings of warmth. I thought I would head out into nature and let my object envelop my attention. I finished a hot cup of tea, letting the liturgy for art practice begin, then went into the kitchen to wash my mug.
One of the residents was preparing his usual Sunday meal, a steak and potato dinner with broccoli. Within a few steps into the kitchen, I felt it. Right there on the table my subject presented itself loud and clear, right into my hara. It found me.
I stood transfixed feeling its quiet solid, stance—its aloneness—its golden brown-oblong-ish beauty. I said to the resident preparing his meal, “Taien, may I please have your potato.”
“Hey Hojin, there’s a bag of them over there.”
“May I get you another one, and may I have this one?”
He looked at me with that look of ‘whatever,’ and said, “Sure, I’ll get another.”
I scooped it up in both hands, this little weighty ball and brought it to my nose, taking in centuries of earthen smell.
My body tingled with great pleasure. We were home.
Wrapping it in a well worn red bandana, during the next six months when we were together, I was doubly delighted that my subject was not fixed in one place. I was able to carry it everywhere. It rode on dashboards of cars, sat on my desk, lived in a drawer, slept next to my bed, in my bed on my body. We went on field trips outside and to homes of friends.
And so it began, our life together. Choosing to express this intimate relationship with words, here are excerpts from my journal entries—
How can I walk on the earth every day and not feel its power? All that is living burns. How do you make food out of fire? Out of light? Out of water? How do you unlock the energy stored in you? That fuels your motion, your feelings, your thoughts?
I don’t know the first thing about you. I’ve seen you mashed, chopped, cubed, quartered, chipped, fried, boiled and baked. I love that you begin in dirt, you grow in dirt, and you wear it. Gravity, fissures, body of earth, return to earth.
There you are, sitting by the window. Uplifted yet centered. We sit together for a while and your voice murmurs, “Look at me, take me in. Now close your eyes. Keep your eyes closed.” In the after-image there are two of you and a deep, blood-red crevasse in between. Then nothing is distinct. All forms have dissolved and a bright whiteness appears. Opening my eyes again the feeling is raw, calm. I see a twisted three-lined mouth with a right dimple, two eyes sprouting, three nodes in one, four in the other. Tiny green fingertip undersides, point upward like a tiny eyelash. Raw head with peaks, mountain pictogram, wrinkles moving upward. Pock marks, bruise marks, dirt clumps.
Your voice speaks again, “Close your eyes. Now, touch me.” It feels like Nanny’s hand that I could find beneath the covers and pet, those 80-year-old hands that have held me in water, played with me in garden and in sand. Handled money, newspapers, cooked fine meals. Hands that wiped tears and snot and slid through my curls.
I’ve even watched her hold your ancestors. How she loved them. She would fold her apron in half, load in a pile, carry them to the sink for washing, one by one with a bristle brush. She’d say, “Take off your shoes. This has to be done barefoot.” She propped me on the counter to help, and she had a big wooden bowl she’d pile them into. She would say to me, “Keep the skin, the skin is good. It will keep your hair curly and it’ll keep your feet close to earth.”
Where do you come from? The earth? Holy ground? William Bryant Logan in his book called Dirt says “Whenever there are decay and repose there begins to be soil.” He also said, “In truth we don’t know the first thing about dirt—we don’t even know where it comes from.”
One of the best parts of reaching you is the opportunity to dig a hole in the earth. To get out and stand on the earth, my work boots are heaven; you are a hidden treasure. To stick a spade into clumpy soil and press down with my foot—I’m in love—I’m sinking in love.
Last night I wrapped you up in a bandana, and this morning your bright yellow green eyes have changed. They are now tinged on the edges with maroon. They have grown a little longer.
Our skins are exactly alike in texture, especially coming out of winter with a slight chaff. The darkened area of pigment my mom always called ‘beauty marks’—some call ‘freckles’—over time they become ‘age spots.’ Yours are the latter, although I’m not sure how old you are. Slightly raised dark brown marks, one the shape of Africa, freckles of chocolate dappled all over your gorgeous body.
How do we lose sight of the marvel and wonderousness of living, breathing life? We hardly touch the dirt or hear the voices of metals, plants, creatures—beads, boards or plugs. Your rawness reminds me how raw it is—how fragile my caring for you—and my seeing you as you are.
One, two, three, four, five, ten, twenty hands reach into the morning light. The eyes have become hands, the hands have become long, protruding eyes now pointing in all directions. Small silvery threads sprout in the air from the knobby flowering fingers, pointing upwards and downwards. No longer round, yet exactly round and stable, it lies naturally in its horizontal roundness.
Can we call this aging? Though your wrinkles are more pronounced and what were once concave hollows are now tree-forming fingers, your skin is wrapped tighter, folded around a greening body. Are you sick? Are you suffering in this phase of turning, fading, moving into something new?
There is no moving away here, although what I call your eyes or your hands could so easily become your legs—why not? Why not grow them, use them and flee? Or why not use your inner strength to rock, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until—until you have the momentum to get up a good roll, and roll away? Quickly!
You are turning into a monster. Teeth. Sprouts.
Grace. Love you like a potato.
Are you free?
Your body is full of sounds—howling—barking sea lions sitting with their heads’ up—body stretched in a U-shape, flippers outside to the side, holding up the blubbery body. From small hollows—clusters, family, sangha, sit closely by each other, on top of each other, parts touching parts. Bodies of purple and green freshness, purple as an eggplant, as the second day of a shiner. As pure and deep as grape juice concentrate before the water is added, before it’s stirred. Dense purple body, touching, reaching, basking in the warmth of being—of needing.
Your skin is wearing thin, those places beneath the surface, beneath your brown, crusty, dirty shell-like protection. Are you pushing through—upward—outward, greener than the new spring grasses gathered in those places that were once empty pits, empty eye sockets, where tiny, itsy bitsy eyes seemed to want to pop out but hadn’t. The time had not come. It was a question as to whether it would, although the potential was always there, clearly visible. Each day revealing a process of becoming—of growing.
One night I looked at you sitting late into the night, your round shape under the moonlight. Looking into the blackness of your body there were many more colors—every color was in the blackness that formed your body. Your body in the darkness, still and silent, posses something moving, coming up from behind. Rounded mounds like tarantulas are furry bodies on long legs but never leaving your roundness. At another moment, butterflies are landing in groups, or there are birds, opening up their wings and finding a good spot before settling in for the night.
The shadow cast by your body is a hole with no depth, a hole that won’t allow the body to disappear. Rather, a buoyancy, a doubling, making the body of a bird, a bird that is now occupying the entire room—that goes through the room, through the walls, through the air, and is born in the great forest, up through the roots of trees into each roaring branch, splayed in roots through the dirt. Running in, on, through, running rivers, across boulder bodies, in plants, twigs, stars, sky, and into the moon.
While this body lies next to that body, we are horizontal. When this body sits next to that body, we are vertical. When this body stands up, that body is standing.
Can you see? Even in the darkest, most haunting places, lie the freshest, greenest opportunity—the potential to bloom.
I embrace those eyes that can hold mine so steady, without stopping or failing to see something of virtue.
I love that these eyes are the bearer of a next generation of eyes that will grow into a set of seeing eyes. And in them, they too will harbor this great mystery.
I cherish that you do not conceal yourself, cannot conceal yourself, that there is nothing to be concealed.