Posted inOther Teachings

Be Still & Know: A Zen Reading of a Biblical Saying, by Ruben Habito, Part 3 of 3

June 10, 2017

Be Still and Know that… I AM.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of Be Still & Know

My teacher Yamada Koun gives an account of his own experience of opening to this infinite and boundless “I am.” In 1953, he wrote to his own teacher, Soen Nakagawa, about how he was riding a train and reading a passage by Dogen that said,

“The mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.”

And that passage just jumped out at him and he realized, “That’s it!” What is referred to as “mind” here, hsin in Chinese, or kokoro in Japanese, is the True Self, our Original Face, the “true nature” that we are, as understood in the Zen tradition. To see this “true nature” is to come to true awakening. The question “What is the mind?” is the same as the question “What or who am I?” Yamada Koun Roshi experienced the fact that was behind the expression from Dogen and was awakened.

He came to the realization that this “mind,” this “self,” this “I” that we refer to in our discursive language, is truly, truly nothing but the mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, in short, each and every thing that exists in the whole universe. To put it in terms of what we were looking at earlier, our “True Self” is everything that is a partaker of this “to be,” and there is no single thing that exists in this universe that is separate from this “to be” that has now come to be manifest in me. Perhaps I am saying too much here—I do not wish to block your own path to opening your eyes—but all of this is offered as a pointer to that source of living water.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Again, what is there to “see”? If we think that God is some magnificent thing that we can see out there, some magnificent being or Being that we can now recognize and bow down to in adoration, then there is a conceptual disjoint here. Whatever we can objectify is no longer the living God, but an idol that we have constructed in our own little mind. As long as we think that we have it, then we already miss it. God is beyond anything that we can ever imagine. Again, our medieval theologians are united in this, that God is that beyond which we can ever conceive, greater than that which can ever be conceived. So we think, “Ah, that’s it!”— and we need to be reminded, no, it is beyond that.

But in all of these efforts and endeavors, we are invited to just come back to the purity of heart that we originally have been, this original blessing we are endowed with right from the start. You are good. You are beloved. You are, just as you are. And you partake in this boundless “I am,” as you are. So as we really hear that in the depths of our hearts and melt into it, and therein find the “ground of our be-ing” (to borrow from Paul Tillich’s phrase), then what emerges is a view, no longer from the small “I am,” but from that infinite ground of all that proclaims “I AM.” We see our little “I am” in its place in the light of this big picture, and we are able to accept that little “I am” as the gift that we have received from the universe, that we can now also give back to the rest of the universe, in loving service to all.

Finally, what is there “to see” when it is said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”? Frankly, there is nothing that we can adequately say, or ever think of or imagine, by way of answering this directly. Yet the gospel passage says, “for they shall see God.” How can we understand this? Let us take some hints from Zen tradition. In Zen, the experience of awakening is expressed as “seeing one’s true nature,” “seeing one’s True Self.” Awakening is seeing what or who you truly are. Not just as an aspect or part of it, but just as you are. Now, in the Japanese language, when someone explains something to you and you “see” what the person is conveying, you say, “Naru hodo,” translated in English as “Oh, I see.” “Naru hodo” literally means “It becomes exactly.” What was not seen before is now seen clearly for what it is, and so “it becomes exactly” just as it is. This is a daily expression, naru hodo, that people use lightly in casual conversations.

“That’s it, exactly.” So that’s what we are invited to experience, that moment of “That’s it, exactly.”

The Orthodox tradition has upheld and preserved an important aspect of the Christian message, which somehow got lost in a lot of the theological tradition of Western Christianity. This is the theme of theosis, translated as “deification,” or “divinization,” as the ultimate destiny of the human being. God became human so that humans may become God. That infinite, boundless mystery that we refer to as God, which is beyond everything in this created universe yet is also that which is the ground of this created universe, has now willingly assumed this bodily being of ours, this flesh, this earth. And in doing so, through this event that is called the Incarnation, literally, “becoming flesh,” we are able to open our eyes to our true and ultimate density, that is, to come back to our home at the heart of that infinite mystery, in that boundless and infinite and pure “to be.”

Let us take this message in all simplicity and allow it to sink in as we sit in stillness. Western Christianity has become preoccupied with human fallenness, on the doctrine of “original sin,” and that has served to sidetrack this important message of our ultimate destiny as emphasized in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Let us just take this invitation to come back and hear the words again. Be still, and know . . . I AM.

And in the very resonance of that, through each and every participant of that “I AM” in the universe, we see how our ultimate destiny is to sing the glories of that “I AM,” vast and boundless, and never-ending. Indeed, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.


Published as Be Still and Know in Tricycle, Spring 2017 . Excerpted from Be Still and Know: Zen and the Bible, by Ruben L. F. Habito, to be published by Orbis Books in April 2017.

Images: Featured) Sunset by AdinaVoicu, 1) Yellowstone National Park by tpsdave,  2) Yellowstone sunset by skeeze; all images CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member