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Dai-En Roshi had bad asthma living in Tokyo in the 1970’s. She suffered by the oppressive pollutants in the air for over 10 years living in her small apartment, working as an English teacher so that she could pursue her love of classical ballet. When she left Tokyo behind to become a nun, she became a resident on the island of Shikoku at a mountain temple called Kappa Dojo. The longer she was at Kappa Dojo, where she lived for 15 months in a small hut, the more her lung condition improved. She was healthier than she had ever been. The air is fresh and clean. Dai-En Roshi was content and at peace, having no designs of ever leaving. In addition to daily zazen and sutra chanting, her life consisted of much physical labor – digging pits, moving rocks, gardening – back-breaking work. She grew physically strong on the mountain. Though life was rugged, she experienced a deep kind of happiness that could not be taken away, or so she thought.
She grew quickly dismayed and disillusioned when her teacher, Noda Daito Roshi, told her she’d need to move to Nagoya to train at the Nisodo (Women’s Monastery). Nagoya is a big city like Tokyo, with very poor air quality, not much better than what she inhaled in the nation’s capital. In expressing her complaint to Daito Roshi, he responded, “Make friends with your asthma.” In other words, don’t run away from your problems. Change your perception of your issue, whether it’s a physical, mental, or spiritual dilemma. Within the illness lies the cure.
But our way of dealing with health issues in the west is not necessarily to accommodate them, but to eradicate them. I would never advocate for doing nothing for a serious health issue. In fact, I believe a host of physical, mental and spiritual issues can be treated inexpensively through a diet high in greens, fruits, legumes, and nuts, through moderate exercise like integral yoga, and a good night’s rest. Dogen Zenji advocates eating moderately, and elsewhere we can find Zen Master’s pointing out the importance of sleep:
The Chinese Chan Master Hua was an advocate of a vegan diet, and he spoke vehemently on the karma that we have accumulated as a result of the way we humans have treated animals over the past 2000+ years.
Good diet, exercise, and sleep are easy to understand, but often challenging for a variety of reasons to implement.
But what if we have an illness that is not easily curable. Buddhism has a way of perceiving illness that is different from our western ways.
In the west, we often find our answers in pills. If you have a problem, take a pill. We don’t think about changing our lifestyle. That’s perhaps a bit too inconvenient.
In any case, modern medicines are derived from plants among other things. We generally think of medicine as something material like a tablet that can be absorbed into the body through the stomach. From a Buddhist perspective, however, the Dharma itself is medicine, and the Buddha is a doctor. Healing from physical, mental, and spiritual ills through taking in the Dharma-medicine has always been a part of the Buddhist tradition. In other words, there is no separation between body, mind, and spirit from a Buddhist perspective. A spiritual illness can influence us on the physical plane. Likewise, physical illnesses can affect us spiritually.
Take a moment to look away from these words and to land your eyes on a tree or something in the natural world. Take a moment to really be with it, not as an object, not as something fleeting, but as a friend and a companion on life’s journey.
We share the same DNA with oak trees. Not 100%, but we are related. The chlorophyll molecule that makes plants look green to our eyes is related to the same molecules in our eyes that allow us to capture light and to see. This ability of sight, found in so many creatures on our planet, did not always exist, but evolved over millions of years of life and death. It took many generations and thousands of years before eyes that were water-based evolved.  Is this not a miracle!
Take a moment to look back at that green tree or plant. Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you can see, and that you have soft water-based eyes that share some of the same genetic material as that of plants.
From a Zen perspective, the very act of looking deeply like that is the ingestion of medicine. If you can feel the presence of gratitude within you, the medicine has taken hold.
Every moment is a moment of awakening to our relatedness with “fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles,” Dogen Zenji’s way of referring to the inanimate world. This is not merely an idea. It’s that feeling that you have when you come home after being away in a far-off place for a long time. Your whole body recognizes “home” and can finally be at ease.
Humans have two kinds of eyes. We have our physical eyes. But we also have our mind’s eye, or what Zen calls the “Dharma Eye.” We can see forms with our physical eye. But we also have another kind of eye that we don’t often acknowledge, or are unaware of, namely the Dharma Eye.
Take a moment to look back at that tree and see if you can distinguish these two “Eyes” at work.
Physical sight by itself has us see or treat things as mere objects for our use. If we look only with the physical eye, we see how the tree is either in our way or a means to our own ends. We might see the tree as wood we can cash in on, as an inconvenience in Fall when we need to tend to the leaves that drop, or as an ornament for the space it’s occupying.
We don’t see that the tree has its own plan that might be different from ours. That a tree has its own plan may sound ridiculous to us in an age where we think of ourselves as lords over all creation. We may not recognize the spiritual dimension when we rely solely on physical sight. Unless we have a practice or have a spontaneous awakening, we spend most our time in relying solely on our physical eyes with very little awareness of our Dharma Eye.
For most, the Dharma Eye is shrouded by excessive thought, or as Uchiyama Kosho Roshi calls them, “secretions of the brain.” With “secretions of the brain” predominating, there is little or unskillfully concentrated effort at the base of our awareness. This kind of awareness may be characterized as daydreaming on one end of the spectrum, to unruly or agitated rumination on the other end. Our thoughts create reality, and they pull us in one direction and then another, like a fish that’s been hooked and is being pulled around.
Believing in our thoughts can create an internal hell, and this is where practice is essential. We come to recognize that thoughts are just thoughts. Just as we wipe away excessive sweat when working out, we learn to wipe away excessive thoughts when we meditate. This takes practice. Meditation with a group (especially in the same physical location) is essential as we begin this practice. Meditation not only grounds us in the here and now, but it also allows us to use our minds as we wish, rather than our minds pulling us here or there or creating false images. As Dogen Zenji says in his instructions for zazen, “The treasure store will open of itself, and you may enjoy it freely.”
The Dharma Eye is a unique gift to humans. We have the capacity to think about our lives, and not just make decisions based on our reflections, but to simply notice that we notice. This is contemplation, and it is sometimes synonymous with meditation, and I would also suggest that it can be at times equal to medication because it can heal our mind, or help us deal better or respond more skillfully to the pressures that life throws at us.
We can’t distance our mind from the world. The world creates our mind, and our mind creates the world. It’s thanks to the world around us that we can see – both kinds of sight. From a Buddhist psychology perspective, the world doesn’t exist without us. There is no objective world or universe apart from what we see. Our sight – both kinds of sight – are dependent on the natural world (as well as the human world).
Take a moment to check out your posture. Can you sit more upright now? If you made any physical changes to how you are sitting, do you notice any accompanying mental changes?
Your ability to notice the relationship between your posture and how you feel is a kind of insight or contemplation.
Manjushri is not just any monk or person, but the embodiment of wisdom. He’s a teacher of the monk, Sudhana. But he is also depicted in Buddhist imagery riding a lion. He sits upright in the center of Zen meditation halls around the world, encouraging practitioners to have an upright posture. In shikantaza (just sitting), we simply sit upright. We don’t try to direct our mind or focus on something.
In the quotation above, Manjushri (the embodiment of Wisdom) is pointing out the relationship between the medicine we can “see” in the world – all the herbs – and the medicine that comes from meditation. Sudhana uses his “Eye” to “look” for medicine. He’s using both his physical and his Dharma Eye to look, otherwise he couldn’t return and say, “there is nothing that is not medicine.” The medicine we are looking for is found within us, and it’s also found all around us in the natural world. Even our illnesses contain within them the seeds of medicine if we know how to see them. There is nothing that is not helping us to mature. Looking with the Dharma Eye, taking in the Dharma is healing.