Fall Ango Week 6: Moon in a dewdrop

November 3, 2023

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.

Dear sangha,

Here in the middle of the fall practice period, we have arrived at an essential image of Genjo Koan, the moon reflected in the water.

How lucky to receive this gift in this lifetime…!

And, this series of beautiful images includes many, many layers, and can be a point of practice for lifetimes. So it’s also ok for us to also be confounded together and let other parts of ourselves beyond (while including) our discursive minds to spend time with and turn over what Dogen-zenji is offering here.

One frame that may help us is to open to how the moon and the water, the vast and the particular, the transcendent and the material, are totally intimate and nondual. Given this possibility, what is this intimacy? How does this intimacy live in our life?

It can often feel that awakening is somewhere else, that it doesn’t belong among the tight confines of our close, karmic struggles and concerns. But Dogen pointedly asserts: Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky.

Soto Zen practice offers a way of living out the faith of the water never hindering the moon, and the moon never breaking the water. Our practice supports the possibility that we can live in the vastness of awakening that is really right Here. 

Nishiari Bokusan, a Dharma grandfather to Suzki-roshi said: “As soon as we say a person attains awakening, there is a gap.” A gap between the moon and the water. The moon is vast. Awakening is vast. And reflected in a puddle and a dewdrop, reflected in each of us, reflected in everything we do.  In this, we are not broken. Emptiness does not negate our unique individuality, because it is the myriad unique relational circumstances of our lives. Emptiness only negates the appearance of separation, that we could somehow happen in isolation.

A dewdrop can reflect the whole moon. This moment, any moment can reflect awakening.

The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Bokusan-roshi says, “The entire water is the moon. The entire moon is the water.” So then we can ask, how do we care for the depth of the drop? How do we attend to the height of the moon? 

It could be anything we do wholeheartedly. It could be any moment where there’s a love or a fullness of heart, a total engagement where we become whole.  Each reflection – What is a reflection?

A reflection could be you and me, a moment or a day, a sound or a shadow, sitting upright or a bow. What is the way of meeting a reflection that realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky?  In even a small act of kindness, we can appreciate the reflection of the moon, the manifestation of our true nature, the genjo or actualization of the koan or ultimate question of what is liberation in this world of suffering. Even a moment of contact, just saying “hi” between two people, can have depths and layers of meaning and karma. Being in touch with the depths can deepen the meeting, the intimacy, can fully honor another human being and make it impossible to dehumanize either the person we are meeting or ourselves. And in that moment we are training in how to care for the world.  Even a tiny moment can teach us to appreciate that the depth of the dewdrop is the height of the moon.

And it’s also important to honor that living in this faith may be disorienting in moments.  It may run counter to a lot of conditioning most of us have received that has, over and over, asked us to make the world smaller and less meaningful than it is.  That has asked us to imagine a self over here and others over there. That slices and dices the world and drains it of the profundity of its meaning.

Again, in his commentary on Genjo Koan, Nishiari Bokusan says: “If you look at tiny things, you can see the totality of the person. This is a scary thing.” So maybe even if I like the idea of a moon in the vast sky in a dew drop, maybe it might also be scary to consider how fully exposed I am in every little thing I do. 

A number of years ago we heard of a study that was done to find out why people often feel uncomfortable at hearing recordings of their own voices. The prevailing wisdom is that this uneasiness happens because the sound of our voice in a recording is different from how our voice sounds to us inside our own heads. Often our voice in a recording sounds higher, somehow different, or at least a little unfamiliar to the one we hear from the inside. But this study found that what was more often actually causing the discomfort was how more of our emotions, that we think we are hiding or not letting show, are actually perceptible to others in our voices. Hearing a recording allows us to hear ourselves as others do- with a much broader spectrum of emotion than we think we are showing, and it was this that makes people squirm when hearing recordings of their voices- that we’re so exposed.

There is a beautiful and complex koan from The Blue Cliff Record, Case 27:

A monk asks Yunmen, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”

Yunmen replies: “Body exposed in the golden wind.”

This is a good koan for the fall, for this season of release and change and letting go. The natural world is offering many teachings to support us right now: how is it when we come into the season of letting go of the ways of being we have learned that we think keep us protected and safe from the vast complexity of our being?

What happens for us when it becomes clear that we’re a reflection of all that ever was, that the complexity of the vast sky is shining through this random moment, this email, this capacity to read, this skeptical mind, this aching heart, this puzzled thought?

Dogen offers us this solace- not to worry, we can’t hinder it!  Even with all our thinking and trying to get things into distinct boxes, we’re still the whole sky, as the Jewel Mirror Samadhi says: “true eternity still flows.”

The intimate nonduality of the moon and dewdrop, of awakening and us, is not something fixed or something to figure out. It’s about dynamic possibility and potential in each tiny thing. How do we do each tiny thing? How can we give ourselves to what is right here so fully that we align with how it contains everything?  Even though it may be tiny, how do we let this dewdrop right here be incomparable?

So we can take care that sometimes this possibility of non-separation, or non-duality feels scary: I don’t want to be exposed in all the messiness of this world! I want my leaves to cover me in the golden wind! I want to shelter in the ways of being that are familiar and well-worn. I want to know what side to take, and what’s “good” excluding all that’s “bad” and “wrong.” In the BZC November newsletter Bianca offers a beautiful description of this feeling: “I’m not sure I can even fathom something on the other side of knowing—the other side of doubt. I can’t imagine being that vulnerable, that empty. What kind of existence is that—that doesn’t live to show anyone anything, but just to live—and love?”

And even while in moments it may be scary, sometimes this same engagement can also be empowering, even the tiniest things are expressions of our totality, even small acts contribute to the vastness of all being. So it matters very much what we do, and what we think, how we encounter one another, and how we encounter the world.  Which can come to give us support to truly care for what is right here, just now, in front of me.

With great respect and gratitude,

Sarah and Charlie

Zen Priest, Dharma Teachers

Fall Ango Week 5: Do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past

Fall Ango Week 4: Keep Your Eyes Closely on the Boat…

Fall Ango Week 3: When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark…

Fall Ango Week 2: As all things are Buddha-dharma…

Fall Ango Week 1: Practicing with Genjo Koan