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John Daido Loori

Teachings of the Insentient 

Zen and the Environment


We are in a unique period of human history. For the first time, the major threats to our existence are not the natural disasters that were the biggest fears for our predecessors a thousand years ago, but human-created dangers. This places us at a critical time in evolution, a time that could decide the fate of both the human race and the planet we all share. The most compelling paradox we are encountering is that, on the one hand, we possess a degree of knowledge and technological capability hardly dreamed of only decades ago. We understand complex data about the furthest reaches of space and the most subtle workings of minute fragments of atoms. On the other hand, millions of us starve. Our environment is polluted. The Earth’s natural resources are being plundered at an alarming rate, and the spectre of global ecological catastrophe raises the possibility of the extinction of our species and all life. In spite of our understanding so much about the universe and its functioning, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding who we are, what our life is, and what our relationship is with the “ten thousand things” that comprise phenomenal existence.

Our way of perceiving ourselves and the universe has remained dualistic and virtually static throughout the development of human history. It is a perspective that assumes separation of self and other. As a result of that assumption of duality, we’ve created forms of philosophy, art, science, medicine, ecology, theology, psychology, politics, sociology, ethics, and morality that are basically permutations derived from that initial premise of separation. The merging consequences create the kind of world we now live in. The issues of nuclear war, pollution of natural resources, the AIDS epidemic, the national drug problem, poverty, starvation, and immorality in religion, politics, and business all share the fundamental idea of how we understand the self. How we understand the self is how we understand the universe, and how we understand the universe determines how we relate to it, what we do about it, and how we combust our lives within it.

Very recently in the West, we’ve become aware of the existence of an entirely different way of understanding reality. Its origins go back to a piece of writing once known only to Buddhists. In The Flower Garland Sutra, composed in seventh-century China, a universe is described in which everything interpenetrates with everything else in identity and interdependence; in which everything needs everything else and there’s not a single speck of dust that does not affect the whole. In the sutra’s most resounding metaphor, the Diamond Net of Indra, all existence is seen as a vast net of gems that extends throughout the universe, not only in the three dimensions of space but in the fourth dimension of time as well. Each point of this huge net contains a multi-faceted diamond which reflects every other diamond, and as such, essentially “contains” every other diamond in the net. The diamonds represent the entire universe of the past, present, and future. In a sense, what the metaphor depicts is how each and every thing in the universe contains every other thing throughout all time.

The Diamond Net of Indra is not just a philosophical postulation; it is a description of realized reality. It is the direct experience of thousands of Buddhist men and women for more than two thousand years. Predictably, not too many people took this teaching very seriously until the twentieth century, when the discovery of one of the unique uses of laser light demonstrated the relevance of this ancient image. Using laser light you can make a photographic image on a photographic plate; when laser light is transmitted through the plate, a three-dimensional image is projected. This in itself is pretty remarkable—a holographic image you can walk into, that allows you to actually sit among the objects in the picture. Even more remarkable, and what is radically changing our basic way of seeing things, is the fact that you can cut that photographic plate in half and project laser light through only half of it and still project the whole image. You can cut the half in half and project through it and still project the whole image, cut the quarter in half, cut the eighth in half and so on, down to the smallest piece of that photographic plate. When you project light through it, you project the whole image. Nothing is missing. This indicates only one thing: each part of the plate contains all the information of the whole, just like the gems in the Diamond Net.

As a result of that discovery, biologists have begun to examine biology in terms of the holographic model. New brain theory also uses a holographic model, and physicists have begun to look at the universe through the “eyes” of a holographic paradigm. As we enter the twenty-first century scientists are beginning to provide experimental verification of the experience transmitted as the Diamond Net for 2500 years by Buddhist practitioners.

Realizing the holographic universe is what I like to call Twenty-first Century Mind because it’s only by coming to understand the nature of the universe as a whole that there is any possibility of doing something about the problems we face. Twenty-first Century Mind is the mind of ancient Buddhas’ it’s the Buddha Mind, the mind of all sentient beings. We already have it but we’ve buried it under a lifetime of conditioning—conditioning by our parents, teachers, culture, nation, and education. When we realize the interdependent universe, there’s no way to avoid responsibility for it; it becomes unavoidably clear that what we do and what happens to us are the same thing. When you realize that deeply, it’s no longer possible to postpone, blame, or be a victim. We create our universe—that’s what is realized. That is the empowerment that comes from realization. When we listen to the problems of the world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a feeling of despair. What can we do? The situation seems hopeless. Out of that despair and hopelessness can come a true empowerment, but that will only become real for us when we understand who we really are—beyond the bag of skin, beyond the words and ideas that describe ourselves. What is the truth, the reality of our existence? What is “beingness” itself?


Zen Master Keizan stated:
So good people, observing carefully, you have become fully aware of this mystic consciousness. This is called insentient or inanimate. It is called inanimate because there is no running after sound and form, no bondage of emotion or when you hear talk of the insentient, don’t make the mistake of understanding it as fences or walls. As long as your feelings and thoughts are not deluded and attached to your perception, and your perception is not scattered here and there at random, then that mystic consciousness will be bright and unclouded, clearly aware. If you try to grasp this, you cannot get it; it has no form, so it is not existent. If you try to get rid of it, you cannot separate from it because it is forever with you; it’s not non-existent. It is not cognition, it is not thought, it is not tied to any of the psycho-physical elements. Then what is it?

When Keizan says there is “no bondage of emotion or discrimination” he does not mean lack of feeling or caring. He means no bondage, no attachment. What is no bondage to emotion? When you cry, just cry. When you feel, just feel with the whole body and mind.  Don’t separate yourself. Separation causes bondage, and separation inhibits and restricts our freedom.

This mystic teaching is always manifest and teaching clearly. It is what causes us to raise the eyebrows and blink the eyes. It is involved in our walking, standing, sitting, reclining, washing, hurrying, dying, being born, eating when hungry, sleeping when tired. All this is teaching, everything down to the chirping of insects. Nothing is hidden. Therefore, everything is always teaching clearly and unceasingly.

We should see and we should hear these teachings. We should see and hear the voice of these mountains and rivers, and of the endangered and extinct species. We should see and hear the voice of the atom, the homeless, the children; the voice of the teachings of countless generations past, present, and future. If you try to see with the eye and hear with the ear, you’ll never get it. Only if you see with the ear and hear with the eye will you truly be able to see “it” clearly. How do you see with the ear and hear with the eye? Zazen. Zazen is the dragon entering the water, the lion entering the mountains. Zazen is the Bodhi seat of the Buddha, the true transmission of the Twenty-first Century Mind, the voice of the ten thousand things.
[pp 51-53]



John Daido Loori Roshi (1931-2009) abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, founded the Mountains and Rivers Order.  He received shiho dharma transmission from Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1986), dendokyoshi certification from the Japanese Soto school and transmission in the Japanese Rinzai school. He is succeeded by three senior students to whom he gave dharma transmission: Bonnie Myotai Treace, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold and Conrad Ryushin Marchaj. He was an accomplished photographer (the example at top of this page is from his exhibitTao of Water), author of more than twenty books, and a pioneer in Zen Environmental Studies. The above was extracted from his small volumeTeachings of the Insentient - Zen & the Environment.

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