I like to watch small things, insignificant things to most people. The way that water always takes the course of least resistance when flowing down the small mountain stream just below our house. Or how the snow which is piled high across the Sierra mountains this winter fell down one ephemeral tiny snowflake after another, not a single one knowing beforehand where it was going but none failing to find its place amongst the other trillion snowflakes that formed a white blanket across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Or how selflessly each will dissolve into another form when the sun’s warm rays finally bring their transforming grace.
I watched a group of deer move silently through deep snow down the steep hillside foraging for scraps of food below our deck the other day. To watch a deer move is to watch the most extraordinary embodiment of awareness. Every nerve ending seems to vibrate with an intense sensory awareness but with no strain or excess effort. Each step is taken with such care and precision as to take one’s breath away. And each of them do it in a completely and seamlessly spontaneous way.
This is how I first got into spirituality, by immersing myself in nature and watching, watching very, very closely. When you do this for a long time something interesting begins to happen. You begin to sense and feel not only a deeper connection to the natural world but something even more subtle and alluring. You begin to intuit and feel a sort of subterranean movement in the world and within yourself. There is something, call it a sustaining generative power, a creative source, that begins to open its eyes within you. What becomes conscious is without name, it belongs to everything, and it is seen everywhere. Let’s call it the Tao.
Be very careful when looking for a definition of the Tao. We all like to have our intellectual ducks in a row but the Tao is too all-inclusive to grasp in an idea. In Zen, which arose out of a blending of the native Taoism of China with the Buddhism of India, no descriptions of reality are ultimately accepted. This is an attitude shared with both Zen and Taoism. You could say that the goal of both Taoism and Zen is to awaken to reality, but also be able to embody and express it with the whole body-mind. In these two forms of spirituality, one is not encouraged to describe reality, or one’s true nature, but to express it spontaneously. This emphasis on the ability to express and embody the Tao finds its most articulate expression in Zen, which is famous for Zen masters using all manner of actions to express the great Tao. For the Tao is not a noun, not a thing or a cosmic someone who watches over you, but rather the source and expression of all of life, including you!
I remember going in to meet with Zen teacher Kwong Roshi, with whom I did many retreats in my twenties. For a few years, every time I would see him for a private meeting I would get nervous and completely forget what I wanted to talk with him about. As I would sit nervously face-to-face in front of him, he would just stare out the small window on the side of the wall as I fumbled with my words. He would then give a few instructions for my practice and send me on my way.
One day I had a big shift. When I went in to see Kwong, I was no longer nervous at all. I did my customary full floor bows and sat directly in front of him. I immediately hit the floor hard with my hand and very loudly shouted, “Kaaaaaaa!” I then asked, “What is the true nature of this action?” Not so much as a question but as an opening salvo in our dialogue. Kwong looked at me long and hard and asked, “What is the true nature of this action?” Now we were cooking, like two kids playing with fire, tossing it back and forth to see if either one of us would get burned. I responded to his question immediately by once again hitting the floor hard and yelling, “Kaaaaaaaa!” To which Kwong responded, “Fifty percent.” And he gave me a smile. It would take me another seven years to realize the remaining fifty percent. (Sorry, I will not be explaining the other fifty percent here.)
This dialogue sounds pretty strange by conventional standards. That’s because it was a dharma dialogue, and a dharma dialogue uses words and actions to express awakened mind, not simply to describe it. The proof of an awakening’s authenticity lies in the embodied expression of it, not in the profound description of it. When I went in to see Kwong, I expressed my realization—he challenged it to see how deep and stable it was, and I responded.
The embodied activity or spirit of our dialogue was the Tao in action. And the spirit of our dialogue was charged with presence and dynamic energy. Kwong never looked out the window again during any of our subsequent meetings. Instead, I could see something in his eyes, as if he were silently saying, “I’m so glad you could finally show up here fully. I’ve been waiting for you.”
The Tao is all around us and all within us. It is not approached by grasping for it, or understanding it, but rather by aligning with the natural way of things. And what is the natural way of things?
Start here, pay attention. Pay attention to the natural way of things. Watch the clouds moving across the sky, The way water flows around things or the way a group of deer keep watch over one another. Watch also the rise and fall of your own breath and how connected it is to every sense organ. And how your insides are connected to what appears outside and how what is outside is connected to everything inside. When you begin to notice these things you will develop a sense and feel for the Tao. Hold it lightly With reverence and respect. And Care for the Tao in all things. Care for the Tao in all things.