Are “we” destroying the natural world?

Nine Talks on Genjōkōan
photo © Shodo Spring

Is it egocentric to say we’re destroying the natural world, since we are part of nature anyway— even though it is clearly something that is happening through us?


In Shobogenzo Butsukojoji (The Matter of Going Beyond Buddha), Dōgen wrote:

“The great sky does not obstruct the drifting of the white clouds” is Shitou’s expression. Nor does the great sky obstruct the great sky. The great sky does not impede the great sky itself from drifting, and also the white clouds do not impede the white clouds themselves. White clouds are drifting without obstruction; furthermore, the drifting of white clouds does not impede the great sky from drifting. Not obstructing others is non-obstruction of the self. [The great sky and the white clouds] do not require each other’s non-obstruction. It is not that there exists some mutual non-obstruction. For this reason, [they] don’t obstruct [each other.] This is how we uphold nature and form of ‘the great sky,’ ‘non-obstruction,’ and ‘the drifting of the white clouds.’”

Here Dōgen is talking about a well-known expression from a story about Shitou Xiqian (Jp. Sekito Kisen 700-790), in which Shitou says, “The great sky does not obstruct the drifting of the white clouds.” This is a source of something I often say— that when we are sitting in zazen, we are like a vast sky, and our thoughts are like clouds coming and going. Sitting like a vast sky doesn’t hinder or stop white clouds freely flying. According to Sekito this is the essential meaning of Buddha Dharma. That means we do nothing. We don’t know anything and we don’t gain anything. We are just sitting. Within this just sitting, clouds are freely coming and going.

In his comment on this koan story, Dogen said a very interesting thing. He said, “The great sky does not impede the great sky itself from drifting, and also the white clouds do not impede the white clouds themselves.” “Great sky” is this entire network of interdependent origination. In this case we are like white clouds within the vast sky. Somehow, we are born, stay for a while, and disappear. Each and every being is like a white cloud in the vast sky, but he also says the great sky doesn’t hinder the great sky— each and every cloud doesn’t hinder each and every cloud flying freely. I think this is a really great comment. Everything is moving and changing, coming and going within this great nature. Within this entire network of interdependent origination, every one of us is like a cloud in the sky. Appear, stay for a while, change, and disappear. In our zazen we really become a part of this movement. White clouds do not hinder the entire network, or vast sky.

But somehow, we human beings destroy nature. We hinder this entire movement because of our desires, because of our delusion that we are the center of the world, and that it is the right thing to fulfill our desires. By trying to fulfill our desires, we disturb this entire network. We are even destroying nature. Even though we are a very tiny part of nature, we think we are the owner of nature. I think that is a very basic delusion we modern human beings have. And so we harm ourselves.

Sometimes I feel like we human beings, and our civilization, are creating a cancer for nature. Cancer is really a part of this body. But somehow a cancer grows in a different way from the order and harmony of this body. I don’t think cancer has an evil intention to destroy nature. But somehow it grows so quickly. Because of that nature, when the cancer grows to a certain extent this entire body dies. And when this entire body dies, the cancer has to die. So cancer is a kind of a paradoxical being. In a sense this process of growth, to live and grow freely, is a process of dying. Our human civilization, what we are doing in this modern time, seems like the same thing. Because we are a very tiny part of nature, we are living together with nature as a part of nature. But somehow we grow too fast, and within this process of growing we destroy nature. When we destroy nature more than a certain extent nature dies. When nature dies we have to die. There’s no way for us to live without nature, without air or water. But even though we know it, we still pollute the water and the air. This is a basic kind of ignorance.

I heard that in a healthy body there is always a cell which could become a cancer, but doesn’t necessarily grow as a cancer. There might be some way to stop from being a cancer, even though we still don’t know what it is. We need to find that way as our wisdom. I think Buddha’s teaching can be one contribution to this modern civilization, to avoid total destruction. What we can do as Buddhists or Dogen Zenji’s disciples is, I think, to present this practice and the view that we are part of an entire network of interdependent origination, that we cannot exist without the support or relationship with all those things. Then our life could be changed. Some people say it’s too late, but I think it’s never too late. If we think it’s too late, that is the end of the story. We need to continue.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

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