“We are not like blocks of ice, conducting ourselves as solid individuals as we move from place to place. We are like water flowing freely.”
~ Soko Morinaga, Novice to Master
Many people hold water in a special place in their cultural beliefs and rituals, from baptized Christians to surfers. This statement is almost too obvious to be worth writing, but there's no other way to start. There's a reason for water's high regard that extends deeper than the anatomical fact that we consist mostly of water. Water has a tremendous amount to offer us, in essentially every aspect of our lives.
Morinaga's analogy highlighted above encapsulates the essence of Zen Buddhism as I understand it (and that's a far-from-perfect understanding, to be fair). Many of the repeated lessons throughout his work can be distilled to the name of the corresponding chapter: We are like water. In fact, a further simplified version – we are water – could (to the best of my limited understanding) serve as a complement to the popular Zen koans: “What is your original face?” or “Where did you come from when you were born and where will you go when you die?” From a deeper appreciation for life and understanding of death to an increased respect for our bodies and surroundings to an improved ability to confront the difficulties of life, Morinaga’s plainly powerful metaphor gives us a strong foundation for our understanding of Zen.
With respect to our environment (in this case meaning all of our surroundings, material possessions, and humanity itself), the metaphor serves the purpose of pointing out the fact that all is one. Morinaga wants us to realize that there is no way to harm something other than our ‘self’ because there is no individual self separate from the whole. To expand upon his metaphor, it is as if our bodies of water are streams whose source and destination is one ocean. It is impossible to pollute a distinct stream without affecting the ocean and ourselves in the process. There are many instances in which this metaphor applies to our daily lives: throwing a piece of litter on the ground, saying hurtful words, getting involved in a physical fight. This lesson seems to be growing in importance every day, as humans continue to destroy our physical environment and engage in wars while neglecting to look beyond the immediate gains to see the imminent consequences.
Even worse, in some cases, people understand the eventual results of their actions but choose to consider themselves to be separate from those consequences. For example, it is common to overhear people who choose not to recycle or opt to purchase a Hummer saying that it won’t make a difference to them or they just don’t care. It is hard to imagine that there would be nearly as much violence (physical, verbal, destruction of environments/ecosystems, etc.) if everyone realized that there is no distinction between self and other. Morinaga’s words not only agree with, but also give an easily comprehensible rationale to the well known saying, “Do unto others as you wish to have done unto yourself.” Namely, we must obey this rule because by polluting the water, we are polluting our own ‘self.’
Keep the water clean, my friends.