By Mauricio Yūshin Marassi, La Stella del Mattino Zen Community.

This article was published:
In Italian: on Dharma N°6 2001, Roma, Italy.

In English: on Dogen Zenji’s Mind Here and Now, Ed. Sotoshu Shumucho 2001, Japan.

(This English version has been critically edited by my elder brother rev. Daitsu Tom Wright, to whom is going all my appreciation. M.Y.M.)

It is truly difficult to express oneself from a Buddhist perspective, because such a perspective, however existing, takes the shape of water. Though I am a congealed body-mind-spirit shape, as an adult at an increasingly older adult stage, in the Zen Buddhist spiritual melting pot, my roots are soaked in and consubstantial with the Christian world. Because of this natural inevitability, having now become aware of this, each image of the religious culture coming to mind is seen with the instruments of my origins and, together, savored by the possibility of my new means. And then, sometimes, it is compared, reread and tried out again by the new Christianity that with wide open eyes I am discovering in myself. So, the plot of my thought, proceeding along the Zen Way, fades, is reborn and, at each presence, reforms together with the echo of Jesus’ words. And I am glad of this company. The Zen tradition has a precise date of birth. Even if its epiphany must be traced back to the sixth century in China, however, the first silent appearance was at the moment in which Shakyamuni held up a flower on Vulture Peak, and his disciple Mahakasyapa smiled. In that speechless moment, a flower was held up; no, it wasn’t a book held up for its content, neither was it a shocking miracle. The miracle was all in the mystery of the existence of that normal ephemeral perennial flower. Here my fellow, that young Palestinian who quietly follows me, reminds me: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:14) and again: “And whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name receives me.” (Mt 18:5). And so I recognize myself and it cheers me up to know that the body of life, its clearest symbols, the flowers in the wild, the children, and so forth, are really what they appear to be. And so is the air, the stars, the water, the woods, the sea, the mountains, my hand moving, the voice of my daughter and the empty silence, when also silence hushes. In the year 1240 AD, Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, in the chapter of his Shobogenzo entitled: “Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors” (Keisei Sanshoku) reports an ancient Chinese poem, composed by a man who called himself Layman Dongpo, as follows: Valley sounds are the long broad tongue. Mountain colors are no other than the unconditioned body. Eighty-four thousand verses are heard throughout the night. What can I say about this at a future time? Dogen comments by saying: “The valley sounds of Dongpo would refresh practitioners of later generations […] The tongue doesn’t take a break.” (1) If we consider reality from a strictly Buddhist perspective, we can’t speak of a surrounding world, because, in Buddhism, the unitary component dominates any particular perspective. That is: we can speak about a single hair if it is a way of speaking about the Universe. The end of the skein implies the entire skein. For an Easterner, educated within the parameters and the cultural relations of a world grown from the seeds germinated thousands of years ago in the Indus River basin and east of the Great Wall, to hear that in the guise of bread and wine, Christians eat the flesh and the blood of the Son of God is an extremely strong message, perhaps even unbecoming, in the sense of expressing that which is not spoken of nor done because it is inopportune. However, through these words, even with an intensity perhaps exaggerated for an Oriental sensibility, the substantial sharing of “life” appears immediately between man and God. In that act, God and man become the same. Just as the mountains, the air we breath, every kind of food, the words we exchange with each other are extensions of our existence that intricately tie us to the overall Universe, such is the One in its particular forms. And so respect for the environment isn’t respect for environment: not throwing litter on the ground doesn’t reveal respect to other space. There is no other space. That is, a clean person simply keeps clean all his life under his own eyes: the hands and the rest of the body, one’s clothing, the place where one is. There is no substantial difference between these elements. Indeed, in Buddhist terms, it is more correct to speak about ecophilia (2) rather then about ecology. When Dongpo mentions the valley sounds and the mountain colors he isn’t using a metaphor or utilizing a poetical image to refer our heart to sensations linked at that atmosphere. He is really speaking about mountains, brooks and woods. Further, when speaking about a little bristle on the tip of the trunk of an elephant we are signifying the elephant itself. In the same way, if we open all our eyes (the eyes at the side of the nose, the eye of our emotive heart, the eye of our imagining mind and the eye of our spirit which is devoid of discrimination) and we welcome a flower in its miraculous majesty, we welcome the whole miracle of the creation and its uncontaminated purity. Introducing the term ecophilia I should express myself in such a way as to remain inside of me. If I speak of ecology it seems to me to give life to an ideological set or, at least, to a superstructural one. I see the activity of my brain that watchfully examines the environment outside of me and, recalling from memory all the knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, botany, geology, toxicology etc., it issues a judgement about the state of the environment. From which, then, follows a more or less enormous demand of a greater ideological adherence to the ideal of an uncontaminated environment or of a healthy environment, if this or that constitutes my base of judgement. Often, speaking with my adolescent daughter, we dwell upon why I indicate to her one particular behavior or another. Among the whys that an adolescent willingly brings in to question, there are all those connected to the normative behavior, that is, connected to inconvenient activities, seemingly lacking of amusement or playful attraction. Personal hygiene, mental hygiene, moral hygiene, the aesthetic and the hygiene of dress, the aesthetic and the hygiene of one’s own room, including the bed, the cupboard and all that goes with it. The quality and the quantity of the relationships with those nearest, family members, first of all, and then, friends, teachers, schoolmates and companions in different activities. Or, the way of dealing with a flower in a flower-bed or one found in the wild, or how to deal with a candy wrapper or with the water in a brook. There is a common denominator among all these kinds of behavior and attention and, if we are aware and convinced of it, it is easily transmissible also to the younger. That is what I am calling ecophilia. Each of us lives out his or her Universe, in a personal way. In Buddhism, when a child is born, it is not assumed that the child has come into the world, that is, into some pre-existing world which new-born beings join. Each new-born being starts its own world, which it wouldn’t without him (or her). When we die that world dies with us. So, the universe we live out is our universe, it is our own personal universe. Therefore, every time we litter or throw away some trash, or carry out some malevolent deed or insincere relationship in our universe, we will find ourselves living with just those elements, and it is with those elements we are building our life. That’s why my daughter came to mind: when she was a toddler, speaking about those things in a way understandable to her, I used to ask her if she had happily slept in the bed she had just piddled in. At her resentful denial, I used to add the consideration: your life is like your bed, what you put in it you will find in it. The same holds true for everything in our world. When we burn down a forest, in our personal world, in our personal life, there will be one less forest, many burned animals, disrupted territory. When we ill-treat a person we will add so much “evil” to our life. When we do “good” we will have increased “good” in our life. This is why to accomplish “good” has no reward. The reward is in the good action itself, that accomplished, created, maintains us in the “good”. Conversely, to perform an evil act, does not automatically imply guilt, and so there is no punishment; the evil itself posed, inserted among the folds, in the substance of our life, is the punishment that we cause to ourselves. Many years have passed since I formulated this way of education regarding the whys of normative behavior. It seems to me that the comprehension has grown together with the consciousness of the actual reality of the phenomenon. The “conditioned interdependence” or “law of cause and effect” (3) which indicates the texture of our unique and exclusive world among billions of others, a world simultaneously interconnected with all others, gives us a clue to formulating a view of environmental care as culture in the intellectual sense, but also grounded in personal interest. Therefore, it is easy to hear and easy to adopt. An interest that, being applied to the Universe, doesn’t develop against other interests or against the interest of others. Rather, it gives us the fantastic opportunity of being “egoistical”: not only without harming but with the expectation of the full satisfaction of the people around us, they themselves being part of our Universe and, therefore, beneficiaries of our care. I am not referring to a sort of goodness in which we gratify each other because we must be good, or to that vapid world where everybody acts with goodness on account of religious conformism. I am referring to a situation in which despite my neighbor being disagreeable to me, he, being part of my world, and I, being part of his, it is convenient for both of us to behave correctly, to care for our habitat. After all, the contrary would correspond to “piddling in the bed before lying in it”. All this can be real only if we clearly see that what we usually refer to as the “outside environment” is actually the inside of our life. In this case, too, there are other well known words that echo between me and myself: “…Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other… ” (Lk. 6:27-29), “… Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…” (Mt. 19:19). Jesus is a great expert on ecophilia. To do zazen is to be body. This body is every-body; it is the whole-body. And everyone has his own body. If Christ isn’t all and in all, Christianity isn’t a religion, it is but a myth. When Mahatma Gandhi led a peaceful revolt against English colonialism on the Indian subcontinent in the last century, the basic attitude for his actions was translated by Westerners as “non-violence”. This expression was a translation of an ancient Sanskrit term: ahimsa. The concept that this word expresses, is held in common by all three Indian religious streams. We find it in Patanjali’s Rajayoga as well as in Buddhism and Jainism. It is so important that it is considered a prerequisite virtue to attain true knowledge: this can’t live without that. The Sanskrit glossary (Ashram Vidya Ed.) translates ahimsa as follows: “behavior of who, having realized the unity of Life, spontaneously refrains from any act or thought susceptible to harm a living being”. Shall we try to say the same thing by using different terminology? Whosoever is aware of the Life meaning refrains from harming the biosphere (4). This corresponds automatically to those who advocate the inevitability of pollution and the necessity to harm the biosphere for economic reasons, and find doing those things justifiable in the light of so-called progress or modernity. These same people knowingly lie or ignore the intimate sense of existence. Anyway, it is impossible for such people to establish a reliable scale of values. Their right derives from strength, not from justice. Their claims win because they tickle our side making it easier to follow: it is the way that leads to the “wide gate” (Mt 7:13). Buddhist conversion, i.e., to stop diverging from our Life, is, refusing the blandishment of the “wide gate”, to come back to a “me” who comprehends us and renders natural, inevitable to express ourselves with ahimsa (5).


1) Cfr. “Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors”, in Enlightenment Unfolds, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by K. Tanahashi, Shambala, Boston & London, 1999.
2) The etymological sense of this neologism is “love (philia) for the abode (oikos)”.
3) The Sanskrit expression pratityasamutpada is often translated also as “the law of cause and effect”. This choice can be accepted only if we forget the con-sequential perspective inherent in the time flowing conception. Raimundo Panikkar (cfr. “El Silencio del Dios”, Guardiana Publicationes, S.A., Madrid, 1970. In English, “The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha,” translated by Robert R. Barr) translates pratityasamutpada as: converging production, harmonic arising, conditioned generation, conjunctive presence, mutual origination, and also as: “the epiphany of the totality as a whole,” “the global manifestation of the dynamism of all things,” “the universal concatenation.” Therefore, the expression “law of cause and effect” is valid only if we become aware that “cause and effect” are contemporary, that is, they appear together like right and left or the action and the reaction, and that they are circular. Indeed every cause is in turn an effect and vice versa: C exists because B exists, B in turn owes its existence to A, that exists because Z exists… It is the miraculous way in which the universe hangs together without the need to postulate a First Cause. Just here the anti-idolatrous strength of Buddhism resides, a religion that is simultaneously non-theistic and non-atheistic. In this light it is necessary to investigate with much attention the meaning of: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20).
4) If, as Gary Snyder proposes, (cfr. “Mountains Hidden in Mountains-Dogen Zenji and the Mind of Ecology” in “Dogen Zen and its relevance for our time,” Sotoshu Shumucho, Tokyo, 1999. Quoted from “The practice of the wild”, North Point Press, Berkley, CA, 1990), we translate “all sentient beings” as “biosphere”, that is with a singular substantive which implies an idea of the unity of the multiplicity of “all that is living”, it appears easily readable and clearly the ineluctable necessity for a Buddhist practitioner of the “Bodhisattva Vow,” i.e. the renunciation to a perspective of individual salvation, bonding one’s own redemption to that of all beings. Indeed, if we recognize the cosmic dimension of our body-world and its interconnections, we can’t really go anywhere if not together with all the body-worlds.
5) I think that the presence of ahimsa in all the religions of East and West in some way demonstrates its necessity, in a spiritual sense, because the broadmindedness of the caring heart is the condition that unites us rather than separates us from Life. Also, in a concrete sense, the safeguard of life is an exigency precisely because the world tends to proceed in the opposite direction. Looking from an extreme point of view, we can say that what is causing much harm to the biosphere, that is, to the life of the beings of the Universe, is the appearance of a new life. Each and every newborn life, in order to feed and to support itself, in some degree must do it at the disadvantage of other forms of life. And in the meanwhile, they contribute to the increase in noise, trash, carbon dioxide etc. etc. Looking from this perspective at the life of the world, it is possible to say that the most grave form of pollution is procreation. This point of view has a logical consequence: the maximum of purity is the absence of life. That is “the before the beginning” or “the after of the end”. However, unless we want to adhere to a hope or to a destiny of cosmic dissolution, stopping all kinds of procreation, working to reach soon the “after of the end”, i.e. the “maximum of purity”, the real possibility of existence is to proceed on tiptoe in respect to this you that is me and all the rest.

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