Start with Your Shoes

Featured in Mountain Record 32.2, Winter 2013-2014

The  word “thing” borders on the uncouth. It’s casual, even trivial in tone. And yet, our lives are filled with “things.” We build them, fix them, sell them, buy them, love them, hate them, eat them, protect them, destroy them. We rely upon them. So, somewhere along the way, when it comes to “things,” we cross from the inconsequential to the essential. But who among us even notices?

At the heart of this issue lies the question of how we regard the phenomenal world. Is it something to be used, incidental to what really matters? Or is it inseparable from sacredness itself? Does it depend on which thing we’re talking about? Are rivers different from a pair of socks? If we want to live in a sacred world, where will we find it? Will it be apart from piglets, coffee cups and postage stamps?

Shugen Sensei opens the issue by framing spiritual practice as an exploration of this very matter. He teaches: “That is what practice is—seeing how we turn the self into an object in each and every moment, and how we do this to everything our senses touch.” Ryushin Sensei looks at the high cost of this tendency: “We objectify people...and in objectifying them, we depersonalize them. We take their lives away. In this amazing dance between this and that, self and other, we freeze the world and steal its life.”

There are voices in this issue that speak to this frozen world in which a thing is just a thing—vague and trivial as the word itself. Wendell Berry reflects on the destructiveness of an economy based solely on profiting from things. Amy Leach sums up a mindset that cares more for stuff than for creatures. Eve Ensler speaks about her experience of being made into an object by modern medicine.

But then, how is it that sometimes we inhabit a sentient, numinous world? Thomas Berry writes about allowing things to teach us as a way to rediscover our natural wonder. Author bell hooks examines the power of a quilt to transform, to lift the spirit and stir the soul. The dharma teachings in this issue offer a perspective that is essential to Mahayana Buddhism: fundamentally, there are no things, just as there is no self. Padmasambhava puts it simply: “Firmly resolve that objects and mind are not two.”

In exploring this theme, I’ve discovered a personal challenge, and I hope that in these pages, you’ll discover one yourself. Sometimes spiritual teachings bring us to the edge of our usual way of seeing and then abruptly leave us there to fend for ourselves. Just last week, I heard Shugen Sensei speak about cultivating a mind of reverence for the dharma. He said, “If you find that difficult . . . then start with your shoes.” I don’t know why, but in the moment, I was completely taken aback. I would say that most days, I have a healthy sense of reverence for the dharma. But when was the last time I handled my flip flops with reverence? Later, slipping my feet into their well-worn contours, I remembered Daido Roshi’s slippers, and how after he died, I suddenly saw the pair of them come alive in all their tender dignity. What does it take for a thing to cease being just a thing in our eyes?

Danica Shoan Ankele, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor