What follows (in italics) is section 12 of Dōgen’s “Mountains and Waters Sūtra” (Sansui-Kyō), which appears in Moon in a Dewdrop, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and translated by Kazuaki and Arnold Kotler, North Point Press. Comments (in roman) between Dōgen’s text are my own attempts to relate him to the place project.
All beings do not see mountains and waters in the same way. Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, but they do not regard jeweled ornaments as water. What in the human realm corresponds to their water? We only see their jeweled ornaments as water.
Dōgen’s words make me think of Lake Turkana in Kenya, known by some as the Jade Sea, for its luminous color in the midst of volcanic desert. He seems to anticipate the idea of cultural relativity here but trumps it with a sort of cosmic relativity, recognizing beings other than human beings.
Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions.
Position and context. Who we are, what we are, where we are, when we are – all of it conditions how we see what we see, even something as basic and, to living organisms, universal as water. He says “human beings see water as water,” and I think first, how mundane, not to see the fantastic imagery of the hungry ghosts and dragons. Then I think, when you carry water, carry water. Nothing special. Water. Then I think that water interpenetrates my body so well that I am water, that water is I. And I think Dōgen is up to something along these lines, reminding us of the oneness of all. We are human beings, hungry ghosts, dragons, and water.
Another point is the asymmetry of the analogies: beings see water as certain other things, but do not see or use other things as water. Does this suggest something mutable and protean about water, that water is more target than source of metaphors?
Thus the views of all beings are not the same. You should question this matter now. Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing? You should pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit. Accordingly, endeavors in practice-realization of the way are not limited to one or two kinds. The ultimate realm has one thousand kinds and ten thousand ways.
My project in studying places is borne out of a recognition that different people seem to see the same thing (a particular place, for instance) differently. A forester sees lumber in a tree, while a bird sees a potential home, a tree climber a limb, an afternoon hiker shelter. This plurality of views suggests the relativity of culture, the boundedness of our ways of seeing, understanding, negotiating the world. I can’t tell whether Dōgen wants us to appreciate that relativity or climb beyond it, or both. Probably both.
When we think about the meaning of this, it seems that there is water for various beings but there is no original water – there is no water common to all types of beings. But water for these various kinds of beings does not depend on mind or body, does not arise from actions, does not depend on self or other. Water’s freedom depends only on water.
Is water reality? Is the water that does not depend an original condition, Buddha nature? (There I go, yet another sort of water!) And the various waters are the various relativities, the many perspectives, that people invent about water. I have a cup of water. I see a pond full of water. I see a river dried up, without water. This still suggests a duality of waters and water. But then the nonduality of both?
Therefore, water is not just earth, water, fire, wind, space, or consciousness. Water is not blue, yellow, red, white, or black. Water is not forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, or mind-objects. But water as earth, water, fire, wind, and space realizes itself.
Water is not those myriad things but realizes itself as those myriad things.
For this reason, it is difficult to say who is creating this land and palace right now or how such things are being created. To say that the world is resting on the wheel of space or on the wheel of wind is not the truth of the self or the truth of others. Such a statement is based only on a small view. People speak this way because they think that it must be impossible to exist without having a place on which to rest.
Note the reference to “small view.” It suggests, I suppose, an alternative: big view. Dōgen, I gather, is directing our attention to big view via small views. The paragraph follows from the previous one, which says water realizes itself as it manifests in such things as forms, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. So water is realizing itself in those things, but those things are also creations of our relative perspectives: positions, contexts, culture, and the sort.
Another term comes to mind: “mutual causality,” from systems theory, which way of thinking seems homologous to buddhist thinking.
All of this relates to place because, like water, place and space create us as we create places and spaces. If you push, it is hard to make a distinction, to find a linear thread from one to the other. The thread ravels both ways.