White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 59: Seeing a Tall Tree

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, September 19th, 2009

The leaves are turning, 
their colours changing from green through the various shades, 
in some cases to bright red, 
in some cases burgundy, 
in some cases brown.

At a certain point, 
the stem is released from the tree 
and the leaf flutters down. 

Here we sit, 
breathing in oxygen, 
the work of the trees.

Now it's sometimes said that trees are the lungs of the planet 
but that's because human beings came up with that description.

Perhaps trees might say: 
"Look at them, aren't they cute? 
What they have inside them are the trees of the planet, 
taking in oxygen, 
letting out carbon dioxide so that we can take that carbon dioxide 
and feed on it and let out the waste: oxygen."

But of course, that's a cartoon.

The verse: 

Seeing a tall tree,

"May all beings

Shed the struggle of self-righteousness 
And be free of pettiness and aggression." 

Well, pettiness and aggression are based on values which have been determined
in whatever manner they've been determined: 
THIS is important. 
THIS is not. 
THIS is worth having and saving and protecting. 
THIS is not.

Where do these values come from? 
Well, human beings made them up. 
They're stories. 

So, here we are, in Ottawa.
Let's go back 400 million years,
at which time we wouldn't have been around,
but if we were, we would have been sitting at the bottom of a tropical sea.

However, there are no human beings on the planet, no human beings.
Giant ferns have evolved.
The sea recedes, it dries up,
the mud becomes limestone
embedded in which there are the remains of all these different types of plants and a few animals,
one of which was the squid.

Cephalopoda are fossilized in this area.
Over time, the plants evolved and changed and before you know it,
only a couple of hundred millions years, there were giant stands of white pine in this part of the country that grew tall. 

Now, a tree is a tree is a tree.
The tree has no value until people come along and start saying to themselves:
"What can I use this for? What can I make out of it?",
which evolved into a very simple point of view: 

"How can I make some money? How can I make more money?" 

Out of that comes a system of evaluation,
so certain trees become more valuable
because they could make tall masts for ships that crossed the water between here and Europe.
Bringing what? Well, basically if we look into the history,
I can encapsulate it by saying bringing people who were slaves,
more or less, perhaps not with that title but with that function
which is to work forever for someone else
so that they can make more and more money,
cutting down the great stands of trees which were the best for the masts of sailing ships. 

So, let's not go off track.

Before people started to value trees,
a tree was a tree was a tree and we know that life in general is very flexible; it adapts.
We've all seen trees growing horizontally out of rocks where there appears to be no earth whatsoever
and then, having made it out of the rock, the little cells go:
"Hey! We can go straight up now" and the vertical tree grows.
Still, there is no value to it because no one has stood around, looked and said:
"Yeah, you know, I could cut that down and that angle, that angle, that's really amazing.
I'll take it, I'll skin it, I'll polish it up and I'll sell it."

But that didn't happen when trees
were just trees
were just trees
without an artificial sense of value. 

Now, we do that to ourselves all the time.

We have value systems that we didn't even know that we had 
and as we sit, 
as we face that bare white wall, 
we start to see these patterns, 
these unquestioned assumptions we have about who we are and how the world is and what's going on.

These patterns were not patterns that we as Knowing chose; 
they were just stuff that we picked up from other people, 
stories about what was valuable and what was not.

So of course we all want to be valued. 
That's the story of self-image.

Now, does a tall white pine want to be valued? 
Of course, a metaphor, 
but metaphors can be useful in reminding us of what's going on and what we're doing.

What we're doing is sitting, 
it has been said, 
sitting "like a withered tree" 
looking into the rising and falling of moments, 
and as the Knowing, 
recognizing those moments of experience, 
those dharmas, 
and using them to practise more and more deeply, 
to practise the reality of the whole moment so that eventually, 
our tendency to fall into the patterns of self-description fade in power...

And actually, 
they become more and more amusing, 
after you get over the embarrassment of course.

At least, that's been my experience. 

So keep on doing what you're doing. 
Don't believe any of the stories because they're wrong.

If you're telling them to yourself, 
and you're listening to them and following them, 
you're listening to and following an idiot. [students giggle]

Why would you want to do that?

Now, come on, 
you don't want to do that, 
do you?

No no no no no. [O-sensei and students laugh] 

So sit like a withered tree. 
See what comes up. 
Use it to open fully the whole bodymind to the whole moment.

The verse again. 

Seeing a tall tree,

"May all beings

Shed the struggle of self-righteousness 
And be free of pettiness and aggression." 

Thank you for listening.