The basic elements of life are not unlike the basic elements of Zen practice. To become one with Zen is to uncover the fundamental truths of the universe. This may at first glance seem a mystery, but with practice, the underlying truths that are reflected in the elemental building blocks of life will appear to the Zen student as familiar and comforting helpers along the way.
Take the water element, for example. How are we like water in our practice? We flow, ever-onwards, never stopping, always going, going, like the brook, falling over rocks and into pools, always a new turn in the stream. Like water, the practitioner continues brightly, with confidence and purity onward, not clinging to the thought or sensation or dislike that arises, not lingering to give any of it purchase, saturated in, absorbed in this exact moment while not becoming attached to it. Always flowing, bubbling on.
By stepping courageously into the next moment without bringing the idea or feeling with us, we enter the changefulness of flowing time and use time skillfully. “Keep going,” says my teacher. By not fundamentally taking up residence anywhere, we, like the water, keep moving on, ever-changing until we can go on beyond all the bubbling changeful going, going, going and reach the other shore.
I saw a play in the 90’s, “Pig Earth,” about peasant life in a small village in France. I remember very little about the play but I do remember vividly that the set was comprised of dirt. Loads and loads of dirt filled the stage. The actors trudged through the dirt, worked hard to move the dirt and got very dirty.
Dirt is hard when dry, heavy when wet, very dense to plow or till or pull weeds from. Older farmers are often stooped, limping and broken down from decades of effort to move dirt around, to plant the seeds and grow them well. The earth they contend with every day is the element of solidity and stability. We go into the earth as the ultimate protection from the fury of some elements and use earth to smother, extinguish others.
In Zen practice, we too go down into our own earthiness to steady ourselves in order to fully dwell in each moment and through time, even though the world around us or within us may be anything but stable.
We practice to move nimbly forward through the flowing changing quality of time while remaining planted in the dense unchanging quality of our awareness. Our minds anchor us in presence like the dirt, just here, just here, just here. This steadiness is an innate trusting in and acceptance of change that itself does not change.
Fire must be tended with care so as to not burn out of control…or dwindle to smoke and ash. Our inner fires when left unattended can kindle old habits of passionate greed or hate that like grass fires burn quickly, spreading out of control in all directions, hot and destructive. The sudden surge of heat signals that our anger, pride, our ambition or our sexual drive is raging out of control and will certainly burn somebody.
We learn to sit in the steadiness of the earth beneath us, staying calmly in the flow of the heat as it runs through the mind and body. We practice seeing every impassioned thought and emotion and impulse steadily, not dwelling there, going on, going on, with confidence, cooling the flames by letting time flow by, refusing to be drawn closer to the flame.
We harness time and stabilize our attention so that our inner fire can be a source of energy for a steady, ethical, harmless practice to cultivate the mind that fundamentally does not dwell anywhere while dwelling fully, caring fully, for each moment in this precious, fragile life.
We need our fire to warm our hearts to the ultimate power and beauty of a practice that promises us eternal wellbeing, Ultimate Compassion, Absolute Truth. Our steady flame of love for these great mysterious powerful possibilities and for the guides that direct our search, this love is the ultimate elemental friend. It is a love we cultivate and a fire we tend with every insight, every act of kindness and generosity, every prayer and every opening we experience that tears away the veil of delusion, leaving us under the open sky, bathed in the brightest light. Without this love, practice can be drudgery, tiring and replete with doubt.
Rumi, who often uses the elements in his writing, says it best. In hundreds and hundreds of poems, he shows us how to fall in love with Mystery:
This world of two gardens, both so beautiful.
This world a street where a funeral is passing.
Let us rise together and leave this world,
As water goes bowing down itself to the sea.
From gardens to the gardener,
From grieving to a wedding feast.
We tremble like leaves about to let go.*
Author: Lao Huo Shakya
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*excerpt from “Leaves About to Let Go,” Rumi, Bridge to the Soul, trans. Coleman Barks, p. 32