Donkeys and wisdom

Reading Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. Merrifield is British, once a warehouse clerk, then a geography professor in New York City, and now a writer residing in Auvergne, in southern France, where he lives with wife and daughters.

He is on a walking tour of Auvergne. The setting of his travels is reminiscent of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, as is the sense of quiet and solitude. Merrifield has his donkey Gribouille with whom to converse and think aloud. Merrifield readily conveys the experience of being with a donkey and the lessons that being with a donkey convey: patience, observation, reflection.

With a donkey, I’m compelled to go at their pace, to enter into their way of doing things. It’s stop-and-go all the while. That’s how it is with a donkey. I have to learn patience, to quell my impatience and frustration, my desire to hurtle along, to overtake … Things work differently with a donkey on a dirt trail: patience becomes a daydream that gently rocks from side to side, like a baby’s cradle, or like a sailboat out on a windless sea. It’s the gift of relishing the rhythm of precise steps, of treading slower yet going farther, of treasuring the present moment, making it endure longer, stretching it out in all its glorious fullness …

Merrifield frequently evokes the many donkeys of literature and lore, especially Sancho Panza’s Dapple and Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Plato. Now, Platero and I happens to be one of my favorite books, (Don Quixote is a close rival). Plato and I is dubbed a children’s book only because an adult conversing with a donkey would be considered of juvenile interest. It is no coincidence that both Cervantes and Jimenez are Spanish, for Spain has that celebrated tendency to turn out what the (Spanish) writer Azorín called el filosofo pequeno, the “little philosopher.” This contrasts to those “big” philosophers of Britain and Germany and ancient Greece with their mighty theories, abstractions, and constructs. But living with a donkey only evokes thoughts of nature, food, trees, sky, stars, and fresh air.

Along the way, Merrifield talks about Dostoevsky, Spinoza, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard, Guy Debord, Anne Sexton, Greek myths — always in the context of donkeys. He tells us about other donkeys: the elderly Benjamin of Orwell’s Animal Farm, the all-suffering donkey of Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar. This is a wonderful intellectual feast. To be able to relate it to something natural but a little unexpected like a donkey is both clever and insightful. We don’t want the journey to end, the book to finish. We want to get more insights from Gribouille, from Merrifield. We want the book to go slow, at the pace of a donkey, and to enjoy the quiet solitude of the ancient countryside.

Dogs and silence

The monks of New Skete in Cambridge (New York) are well known as dog trainers, having published books and created video and television versions of their methods. Their chief premise is that the spiritual bond of humans and animals reveals methods of coexistence and interaction that benefit both, that humans can work with dogs on the basis of friendship. Would that this premise, based neither on self-interested economics nor psychological assertiveness, would be applied universally by all cultures and societies.

A friend of Hermitary speculates that part of the good relations between the monks and the dogs they train, especially evident in their video presentations, is based on the Jungian identification of introversion in objects mixed with extroversion in feeling and sensitivity. This permits the monk — typically introverted and summoning spiritual qualities to his external work — to express affection not to other people but to animals and the natural world. This combination yields precise and ethical results that bind person and animal closely.

On a more extreme (but justifiable) continuum, we might experience a radical moral imperative identifying the rights of animals (humans included) as identical on the full scale of sentience. But that is material for a different reflection.

The monks of New Skete are refreshing, even startling, in their apprehension of both human and animal need for solitude. Solitude is the inner stability of self-identity that separates self but remains potentially latent for mutual understanding. The process for breaching this divide of species and natures is, they find, a concept borrowed from one of our favorite poets, Rilke.

The term is “inseeing,” which Rilke describes (coincidentally) in the context of dogs. He muses:

I love inseeing. Can you imagine with me how glorious it is to insee, for example, a dog as one passes by. Insee (I don’t mean in-spect, which is only a kind of human gymnastic, by means of which one immediately comes out again on the other side of the dog, regarding it merely, so to speak, as a window upon the humanity lying behind it, not that) — but to let oneself precisely into the dog’s very center, the point from which it becomes a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished, in order to watch it under the influence of its first embarrassments and inspirations and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been better made.

If I am to tell you where my all-greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was to be found, I must confess to you: it was to be found time and again, here and there, in such timeless moments of this divine inseeing.

As the inspiration of their work with dogs, inseeing is the source of the monks’ gentle, tolerant and sympathetic relations to their dogs. Not only do they view animals as our earthly companions, in the fashion of St. Francis of Assisi, they view animals as spiritual counterparts, while at the same time conscious of the physical and psychological differences.

So it is fitting that what works for the monks at the profoundest spiritual level should work in training dogs, too, namely, silence. Thus Thomas Dobush, a founding monk of New Skete, writing in 1973, noted:

Learning the value of silence is knowing to listen to, instead of screaming at, opening your mind enough to find what the end of someone else’s sentence sounds like, or listening to a dog until you discover what is needed instead of imposing yourself in the name of training.

Silence as a quality in the life of dogs is a rational extension of what we come to understand in ourselves. In their book How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, chapter 22 is titled “Silence and Your Dog.” The fallacy that training needs noise and stimuli ignores the efficacy of silent communication and the need in dogs to rationalize and accommodate an instinct for quiet, whether in observant scanning, in the reassuring presence of their human companion, or in that flowing meditative state in which dogs seem to revel.

More to the point is how we humans structure our lives: in bustle and noise or in quietude and tranquility. Surely if dogs negatively perceive our infectious nervousness and constant noise, we must admit the value of silence even as a practical tool for our own lives, let alone that of dogs. But there is a deeper philosophy to silence, and the monk-authors place a generous quotation from Max Picard’s The World of Silence at the lead of this chapter to announce it.

Animals are creatures that lead silence through the world of man and language and are always putting silence down in front of us. Many things that human words have upset are set at rest again in the silence of animals. Animals move through the world like a caravan of silence.

A whole world, that of nature and that of animals is filled with silence. Nature and animals seem like protuberances of silence. The silence of animals and the silence of nature would not be so great and noble if it were merely a failure of language to materialize. Silence has been entrusted to the animals and to nature as something created for its own sake.

Time, space, technology, self

Einstein purportedly said that the more one looked at quantum physics (and presumably his special theory of relativity) the sillier it looked. Whether that referred to the lay person’s ignorance or to the theories themselves, the indefiniteness and expansiveness of the twentieth-century astrophysical theory is all but impossible to prove, demonstrate, experience, or confirm. There is not existential significance to it.

The elasticity of time has always seemed inexorable: the image of a distant star’s twinkling light that reaches us today but set out millennia ago. More poignant is the image of a star that died millennia ago but the light of which reaches us now. Vastness, emptiness, and absence are the heart of this vast dark structure, though the scientist, ever optimistic, would have us see now not moribund matter but waves, light, and energy. It’s all the same. The cold reaches of time are heavy with a resonant melancholy, and the promises of far-away paradises leave us forlorn and rueful. Like Emily Bronte, one is tempted to renounce any heaven if it is not earth.

Science never discovers much that is helpful to society because everything is two-edged and courts disaster. We are deceived by convenience, speed, and pleasure, distracted from the alienation from self and nature that every invention brings. Not alienation from other people, as surveys want to insist. Television, video games, and the internet create cocoons of individualism, we are warned. But in fact as social phenomena they bring cultures and subcultures closer to one another in ways similar to religion, fashion, or language. Still, this process merely molds modernity into a homogeneous dependence.

Technologies are dominated by the powerful who profit and control them. Technology does not make new water, ancient foods, renewed species, or new forests. The proud products of technology do not feed, cloth, or nourish. Not because they are diverted from noble ends but because noble ends do not matter to the powerful. We borrow aspects of technology for old purposes: tools to communicate, to interact socially, to give ourselves the illusion of self-control and purpose. These entertain us, distract us from the structures that matter. Time is never recaptured, and space is physically destroyed by the progress of society and the necessities of fuel, consumption, and technology.

The chaos underlying the subatomic world as science describes it is epistemological but not relevant. The relativity of Einstein’s theory refers to the physical position of objects, not the intellectual decisions about ethics. Yet the subatomic world mirrors or defines our social world: looking vertically we see in society not the exercise of refined natural law but the artificiality of culture and structures implanted before us like totems. We can learn more from a few days’ observation of nature and simplicity than we can from a Bosch-like vision of subatomic particles confirming our greatest fear, that of fundamental chaos.

Not chaos specifically, we will be reminded. Laws govern the impossibly indeterminate character of the world we do not see or that does not matter to us. Except that the seething energy of that subatomic world, like the world discovered in the seething bowels of Hades, was harnessed by their metaphorical occupants risen to the surface of Earth to assume the role of the powerful.

Thus the old saying that a direct line exists from Galileo to the atomic bomb and that therefore we should remain ignorant of science and nature at first carries a certain ethical weight, persuading us to believe that human activity in technology is doomed to be antithetical to tranquility and peace. But of course that was not the motive for silencing Galileo. The same forces that would perceive the revolution in power that Galileo represented would want to hold that power firmly to themselves, and perhaps harness a similar weapon in the name of authority. And so it has. One can never win when power asserts itself by force, irregardless of the purported cause it champions.

Nor does it matter whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa because it hardly affects our daily lives. Our animal existence is obscurantism in regards to both curiosity and scientific knowledge. We sense more acutely the passage of time and the changes in space approximate to us. That very narrow-mindedness is what, unfortunately, allows the scientists and technologists and the powerful free reign to harness power against the individual, who is too busy earning a living or coping with the vicissitudes of subjective time and space to object to what unnatural devices are arising around him or her.

Why, indeed, should human consciousness, that grand fragmentation between ourselves and nature, not be pulled between benign uses of science and technology versus insidious uses? Technology projects our human nature as clearly and fatefully as anything we do. We do not participate as authorities and are mere spectators: like the lower members of a tribe of mammals watching the powerful tribal leaders from the perimeter. Technology and its products are more efficacious than the gods in this reverse-creation, this undoing of the planet.

Our commands and wishes as a subset of society are without voice or result. Technology is the handmaid of the powerful, and hardly of we who dabble in its amusing end-products, oblivious to the experiments in multiplying lethal equivalents. The communication technology we enjoy and find useful will one day be used against us. The medieval clergy’s desire to ban the crossbow in the Hundred Years War because it was too barbaric is like the modern clergy’s pleas for nuclear disarmament. The truly powerful have long put Galileo in the dungeon workshop — not because of his pronouncements of science but because the rest of the people may listen to him. Now he is in the dungeon cranking out the tools of earth’s destruction. The meek hopes of moralizers and poets need now to be tools of solitude, not dissent. The momentum of technology has long drowned out their voices.

Time and space are fragmented in our daily lives, though the rapid pace of modern life is calculated to make this oblivious, to hustle us along from pausing to ponder ultimate purpose. Memories become fragments of time, complete with textures and emotions, fragile and dependent upon the thin frail tissue of our cells. With age our cells deteriorate like old film and musty paper, those hallmark creations of technology. To hoard memories is as futile as stuffing a warehouse with clutter. Meaning and sentiment assigned to memories are as quickly lost and forgotten. If death is a dissipation, we are wise not to cling obsessively to what we will have to eventually give up.

A perennial human desire is to cling to memory like a piece of furniture or an old photograph. It is only natural and inevitable that we should do so, for we have learned to identify ourselves with material objects which seem to last as long as our corresponding sentiments about them. We devise mechanisms of continuity as feverishly as our bodies slough off old cells — so that we can remain, in time and space, a self.

Memory is consciousness and a mundane function of identity. The marvel of sleep, of unconsciousness without loss of identity upon awakening is like that subatomic world where nothing seems real or permanent until we look away from the electron microscope and feel the solidity of a table or chair, then sigh in relief. We ought to write paeans to sleep and to dreaming, both marvels of existence as much as are black holes, cosmic strings, and an expanding universe.

But we awaken to our mortality, like a prisoner or exile who dreams of freedom and security but awakens to his confines, his limbs still bound in chains. “We are all chained to Fortune,” Seneca wrote. “Some chains are gold and other base metals, but chains nevertheless.” Can we awaken to other than our mortality, or rather to the thought of it, the weight of it?

An “expanding” universe, suggests a mundane analogy. What “expands” more that the awakening self? And the expansion continues quantitatively through our waking day, but qualitatively only in meditation. In meditation, the field of mind reverberates with chaotic waves and particles just like the subatomic world, until we look away from the mind and its shooting thoughts and ignore what goes on in it. Like the subatomic world, motion and identification of particles (or thoughts) is relative and depends on the observer, on our perspective.

Or can we awaken as we dream, a pervading order within a seeming chaos, a continuity not of memory fixed in impermanence but in soil and wind and sunlight and stars, our selves identical with the seeming tranquility and solitude that these natural objects connote? Space and time are not outside of us, to return to Einstein, but perspectives. Space and time are not exceptions to or even the contexts of our existence but merely projections of what we desire.

William James on “New Thought”

In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James describes the seedbed of what is today called New Age. He traces the thought of Emerson and Thoreau through the intellectual movements of the nineteenth century (the whole book could be titled “Varieties of American Religious Experience”). Transcendentalism flowers at the core of the late nineteenth century into New Thought, “mind-cure” movement, and what one writer at the time called “menticulture.”

This was the apex of what James calls “healthy-mindedness,” of optimism, the rejection of morbid sentiment and outdated religion. The discovery of nature was a sanguine tonic for morose religious dispositions.

One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkleyian idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of “law” and “progress” and “development”; another the optimistic popular science of evolutionism … and finally Hinduism has contributed a strain. But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is … an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry and all nervously precautionary states of mind.

Something typical of American culture permeates these observations, resonant with historical experience, manifest destiny, the psychology of the conquered frontier. The heyday of the country’s imperial pursuits was an exhilaration of the new, untried, uninherited, and experimental. A sense of boastful pride that scoffs at suffering and tragedy as unmasculine, at discipline and practice as exaggeration. Only the right frame of mind is needed to affect wonders! Thus the New Thought of the era is but the new thought of the whole culture, on the brink of conquest and in search of a psychology to go along with it.

Reading William James today one senses an antiquarianism in both science (specifically psychology) and religion. The movement he describes and today seems to fit well the label of New Age never influenced the institutions and mores of the U.S. except as a useful palliative, an amusing sideline to the business of business.

Certainly the movement even from James’ day was morally too weak and narcissistic to assume social change or serve as a catalyst for social reform. That, of course, was not its purpose, veering away from the traditional interventionist roles of Church and State in the Old World. In that, New Thought, like New Age, is entirely a religious experience or surrogate for one. Religion is abstract and a subjective application of values if it has not the ability to change people, even if by force. That lesson New Thought and New Age learned. With their cheery optimism, they never forced or judged anyone, even to the point of a tolerance that is amoral and often irrelevant. It was an inevitable reaction to centuries of intolerance.

In turning away from the vicious wars of religion that had engulfed Europe and Britain for centuries, the U.S. rigorously subjugated the religious experience to the mind, relegating religious thought to the status of a social decoration. This reaction saved the culture from both sectarian conflict as much as ethical or moral conscience. The elective civil disobedience of Thoreau or the rabid abolitionism of his New England compatriots quickly ebbed with the new-found interest in the self that New Thought and its successors pursued. “Pessimism leads to weakness. Optimism leads to power,” James quotes a typical mind-cure pamphlet of his day. Such was a national consciousness of power formed, and a view that power is always good simply because it exists.

William James makes the interesting distinction between “first-born” and “second-born” in the religious thought of his day. He makes his point, but not as might be expected. Not from a Christian but a psychological angle does he refine the religious experience. Among the positive, healthy-minded believers, he notes, there is no doubt or crisis (perhaps a modest or perfunctory and staged one). There is only faith, light, and trust. They are the first-born because they are reliable citizens of the Kingdom, born into inheritance, exactly as intended by their culture of belief, they are models of orthodox (if “new”) thinking.

Not so the second-born. James gives the example of Leo Tolstoy, who enjoyed all the wealth and plaudits of this world, including the respectability of establish religious belief. But there came to Tolstoy

absolute disenchantment with ordinary life, and the fact that the whole range of habitual values may, to a man as powerful and full of faculty as he was, come to appear so ghastly a mockery.

Tolstoy had seen through the veil of order, necessity and decorum at a vast moral disorder, paradox, and unrest in the universe. It was not a matter, like the “first-born,” of recovering a fundamental optimism or cheerful disposition that never questions the prescriptions of life and society. It was not a restoration or healthy-mindedness that reshaped Tolstoy’s values. It was a discovery or quest for order and meaning, to be “saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before,” writes James.

Such a topic would take James far afield from his interest in charting the psychological phenomena attending to the second-born. Tolstoy alone would be a significant case of outright rebellion that supersedes the modest subjective turns of thought of James’ anecdotal examples. The simplicity of Tolstoy’s later tales, their quiet and reflective wisdom, his insights into the absolute necessity to escape Church, State, military, and institutions in society and culture in order to recover the essence of Jesus and the true spirit of Christianity, leave the cheery optimism of mind-cureists and their contemporaries far behind. The solitary does not tolerate psychological sleights of hand but demands close study of sages like Tolstoy. The whole thrust of the desert hermits, for example, resound with this clarity and fierceness.

And William James himself sensed this well enough to conclude with helpful insight that

systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope.

Or, one might add, less than the solitary who bravely launches forth to confront the universe with his or her questions.

Four more virtues

We hover at the primitive evolutionary level of controlled drives, on the brink of social and moral vice: violence in our drive for survival, hatred in our instinct for security, pride in our triumphant optimism to force change on the world and others. Society functions at a level of deliberate ignorance, and expects the individual to similarly ignore the tenuousness of the enterprise we call culture and morals.

Virtues can only be exercised by turning back the instincts, by renouncing, suppressing, or ignoring our desires, refusing our propensity for vices, which is to say our propensity to revert to where evolution left us not so many thousand years ago.

This minimal control is not a learning of moral lessons from a punishing and unforgiving social world. Rather it is an exhausting of the will, of the instinct to fight, to get ahead, to succeed. The social motives are the dregs of the drive to preserve and extend our haunted bodies, their fragile cells and what underlies our mind and identity. Not much evolution of the human brain seems to have transpired after human beings became what Aristotle calls “social animals” — though he meant political and communitarian.

The practice of virtue is so difficult because society teaches us to sublimate and suppress rather than to renounce. We are then haunted by sin and guilt and desire, regardless of our experience and practice. We have not yet given up desire, for evolution wants us to believe that to give up desire is to give up altogether the instinct to live. We want to control desire, transform it, refine it into socially acceptable pleasures.

But we are at that tipping point where our will is poised to be transformed into more than instinct, more than a drive, more than a sophistication of baser instincts. We must reach a point where we can exercise virtue (vir>, the Latin for strength) because of our awareness of reality. We cannot exercise virtue because we are driven to it by biology on the one hand or human authority on the other.

Japanese Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) builds the eight awarenesses without the burden of moralizing — that is, of invoking authority. This method anticipates the best of psychology but, further, improves the possibility of success by couching virtues as phenomena to be conscious of, phenomena to monitor. Vice is the product of inattention and lack of awareness. Vice should not be empowered epistemologically, giving it undue corrupting and debilitating strengths.

The previous entry (“Four Virtues”) covered Dogen’s first four awarenesses. Here are the other four.

The fifth awareness is unfailing recollection, by which Dogen means right mindfulness. To focus the mind entirely on what is good and right does not entail an interrelation with the world or with any given thought but rather an emptiness that is filled only with the glow of equanimity and silence. A part of Buddhist psychology is to identify with no particular object, and so doing, to automatically relieve the mind of accretions. The process is like a stream of water gently but effectively washing soil from a rock — a complement to Dogen’s fourth awareness: diligence. During the “cleansing” process, the mind learns what to do and how to respond to noise, thoughts, and distractions.

Unfailing recollection is both a process and an inaction. The process involves strengthening the mind. The inaction involves no intervention in the process — a getting-rid-of that knows its own requirements and needs no help or intentionality from us. It is the discovery of that part of the self that can wriggle out of evolutionary patterns of instinct and desire. A practical analogy is fasting. Fasting is both a process and an inaction. It involves a volitional part and a part that the body understands at a cellular level that we cannot comprehend nor be aware of. Dogen provides us with his own apt image: desires are thieves who would steal our strength and virtue, and exploit the inaction that we would suffer in the role of helpless victims. But by coupling inaction to a process, we make progress.

The sixth awareness is to cultivate meditation-concentration. This virtue represents maturing of the fifth one, the secure exercise of right mindfulness. Here one arrives at a “state of stability,” says Dogen, “and you will be able to know the characteristics of the phenomena arising and persisting in the world.”

Perhaps this awareness suggests an unattainable mastery. It is for each individual, especially the solitary, to begin at the beginning and allow the process to unfold, without intervention. Hard work this non-action! But it grants the mind permission to concentrate, meditate, and persist. It signals the drives to halt from their need to fill our minds with “data” — data for monitoring our environment, watching for enemies, awareness for survival — all the dross of instincts not appropriate to the higher level of the mind.

The enormous reserves of energy in these instincts and drives can be harnessed, but counter-intuitively. Our desires are strong and compelling, like a runaway fire, and can be inverted and put to fuel a quiet and indefinite flame in the hearth of a winter’s hut, a marvelous transformation.

Dogen’s phrase in describing the sixth awareness, already quoted above, is a felicitous one: “You will be able to know the characteristics of the phenomena arising and perishing in the world.” This insight applies not only to the ebb and flow of our mind’s thoughts and emotions. It applies to the whole social and natural world, the inevitable environments of our daily lives. Our insight becomes virtue. Virtue ought to teach us about the world: about power, ambition, desire, justice, sufficiency, sustainability. Our daily habits take on a larger context for perspective, but also take on a smaller context for understanding and evaluating the priority and efficacy of our drives. We get a feedback from our practice, not from the world. We identify our minds and hearts with equanimity and contentment (Dogen’s second virtue). Our introspection does not mean ignorance of the world around us, indifference, or apathy.

This virtue must be nurtured, like the hearth that must be attended. This attentiveness is Dogen’s seventh virtue: cultivate wisdom. Dogen uses several analogies. Wisdom is a

secure ship to cross the sea of aging, sickness, and death. It is also a bright lamp in the darkness of ignorance, good medicine for all the ailing, a sharp ax to fell the trees of afflictions.

All of these images strike at the notion of security, strength, and illumination. They dissipate ignorance of self and stop deliverance over to instincts. How many people do not know themselves and live as a series of drives? What do they do to themselves psychologically or in terms of health and how do they treat other people? The dominance of drives is the engine of society, like a fatal lure to tease the social self out of the inner self and assure that it cannot return to its abode. But those who cultivate wisdom are now longer lured because their guide is not external anymore. They affirm a fearlessness while remaining open-handed, a menace to no one, a personality without enemies. The wise person is simply another person, not special but one “with clear eyes,” says Dogen, “even though it be the mortal eye.”

Can there by an eighth awareness? What can further safeguard this wisdom but silence. Not engaging in vain talk is Dogen’s eighth awareness. This is not presented earlier in his list because it requires an endpoint of commitment. One cannot refuse to talk as long as one must be in the world. We offend (unwittingly or otherwise) by silence those to whom we are bound in any way. Speech is a courtesy if not a necessity, when we are in society. Speech is charity and hypocrisy all at once, inaccurate as an indicator of the best or vilest intentions. All wisdoms recognize that less the better.

But we can gradually and deftly remove vain talk from our lives by becoming conscious or its content, motive, and object. If measured, then prioritizing would come naturally and fills the content of talk with self-control and accuracy. Talk would serve not only to inform but to edify, cutting out desire as wishfulness or vicarious gratification.

Vain talk is the product of vain thoughts. Vain talk is the mind pursuing phenomena, what Dogen earlier considered a monitoring of “characteristics of the phenomena arising and perishing in the world.” With right mindfulness, the lessons and patterns are learned as wisdom, and the phenomena themselves need no longer be monitored in the same way. What started out as mountains and rivers, says the famous Buddhist saying, become meaningful exemplars of enlightenment and wisdom, after which they become again just mountains and rivers, such that it is ourselves that have changed, not them. Similarly our talk will go from mere talk to an exemplar of virtue, and then back to mere talk, but thereafter always enlightened, illuminated by wisdom. Thus we “extinguish the affliction of vain talk,” as Dogen calls it, and return — if we must — to just talk.

Each virtue or awareness is intricately related to the other. “These are the eight awareness of great people,” concludes Dogen.

Each one contains the eight, so there are sixty-four. If you expand them, they must be infinite; if you summarize them, there are sixty-four.