[Essay] Excursions: September by Clint Stevens

This piece is part of the Excursions series.


“There are those who, attracted by grass, flowers, mountains, and waters, flow into the buddha way.” –Dogen, “On the Endeavor of the Way”

What is this? This earth, a pearl in atmosphere, swirling around the sun in the arm of a vast galaxy, our milky way. So it has been for time beyond knowing, and what is it made of, all these transformations? Who knows what. Yet here, walking this field this morning, I know it is here.

What is this grass? Is it little bluestem or broomsedge? I can’t tell. And then I think what is, after all, species? Moments of time in the great Way. A moment of time that we call a plant, a grass. It is not a thing but a reaching out into and from other things. The grass is made of soil, and it is made of water, and it is made of the sun, and it is made of my breath, and I am made by its breath, and we go on breathing together. 

In the path into the woods, the path rush is made by my walking; it is not separate from my walking, for it loves the hard, compacted soil where nothing else can grow. The duckweed is made by calm, clean water, and it makes calm, clean water. The shield lichen on the tree, though we call it one thing, is actually algae living inside a fungus, each making the other. Our own bodies are like this, depending on and feeding the bacteria inside us and upon us. The putty root orchid, one of the few plants in southern Illinois that photosynthesize during the winter (look for its crinkly gray-green leaf with parallel veins this winter): its seeds lack an endosperm, so each “seed” must land on just the right patch of mycelium, which will provide the nutrients the orchid needs to grow; the orchid in turn gives the fungus access to the benefits of photosynthesis. Many trees like the cottonwood develop light-weight seeds with tufts of fibers that allow them to float on the breeze to new habitats. Oaks, quite differently, have developed bushy-tailed rodents to transport their acorns far and wide. 

Ecologists call this mutualism. The Buddhadharma calls it dependent origination: the origin of one thing depends on another, and therefore nothing exists absolutely in and of itself. Each is made by myriad relationships. Endless and ongoing interdependence. All things depend upon and interpenetrate with all other things. Everything makes everything else. Everything becomes everything else. There is, then, no self (except as an idea) that can be lifted from this matrix anymore than a fish can live without water. In the long ago, creeping and crawling and flying things made flowers. And flowers made them. And they go on making each other today. The quick eye and sharp talon of the hawk has made the rabbit what it is–fast and keen and quick to multiply. The cosmos is a dance in which the dancers are the dance. So Yeats writes at the end of “Among Schoolchildren”:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

There is no separate self, but there is activity. And activity, we may say, is selfing. And selfing is a gem of infinite facets. Dogen writes in “The Body-and-Mind Study of the Way” that “this human body, undivided by self and others, is the entire world of the ten directions.” Similarly, in “Undivided Activity,” he seems to anticipate the language of microbiology by telling us that “there are innumerable beings in yourself.” Is your self today what it was yesterday? We know the answer is always yes and no. And where does your body end?  The lettuce you eat, which will become your flesh, was made of the body of your ancestors. And all these were made of and by the sun and the wind and the seasons. “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be,” so goes Siddhartha Gautama’s famous explanation of dependent origination. And so goes it all, together and undivided endlessly.

Observe this closely, see it for yourself, and carry with you each day Whitman’s lovely meditation on grass in Song of Myself, which ends:

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

__________________________________________________________________________

*The quotations from Dogen are taken from Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, 2012.

About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.

Click here to read more of the Excursions series and check back as more installments are released monthly.

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