Here’s a small, intimate story from Buddhist history. When Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, died, his disciples found that he had kept a journal of his conversations with his teacher in China, Ju-ching. Years later, when Dogen’s senior disciple, Ejo, died, the monks went through his things and found that he’d recorded his own teacher’s sayings—titled Zuimonki (Record of Things Heard), Zen students still study them today. This is just one quiet, beautiful way in which the teacher–student relationship takes shape.
Here’s one of the stories Ejo left for us:
One day Dogen instructed, “An ancient has said, ‘Associating with a good person is like walking through mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp.’” This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become a good person yourself without being aware of it.
This, too, is a quiet, beautiful description of that relationship. My teachers didn’t teach me much, not explicitly—being with them wasn’t like being in a classroom. I was just near them—watching them, sure, and they were probably watching me, but mostly we were just soaking each other up. One of my teachers gives a lot of dharma talks at various temples, and I became his interpreter. I did this off and on for years, memorizing his cadence, learning to anticipate his train of thought. Now, when I speak Japanese, and especially if I’m talking about the dharma, I kind of sound like him. I’m not imitating him, not exactly. I just absorbed certain things.
The mist is more than just your teacher, of course. So much of my sense of humor was shaped by my childhood best friend—it’s mine, but it’s also not mine at all. There’s a way that my wife, Tracy, looks at animals, with such unguarded affection, and when I first met her I didn’t relate to it at all. Now, when I see a cat or a little bird, I see it with eyes that are more like her eyes—again, not because I chose it but because, in a sense, I allowed it.
There’s another side to this, one that Dogen left to the imagination, which is that mist and dew can be anything, not just the good stuff. If we are surrounded by fear, if we stay in that space long enough, we come to be drenched in fear ourselves. If our parents belong to a particular political party, there’s a good chance we’ll end up there as well (even if we rebel for a while). The same is true for religion. We are the air we breathe.
I think about this mist and dew a lot—as a parent, a husband, a teacher, a student. I want to be in the good mist; I want to be the good mist. I want to be soaked through with generosity and patience and a commitment to vow. I want that for everyone.
But recently I also find myself thinking of the mist and dew in terms of culture, how so much of how we’re formed and what we believe isn’t taught or said or explained. It’s in the weave of our clothes, in our skin, in our bones. Racism doesn’t just happen, and despite how it sometimes looks on the news, most racism isn’t conscious. It goes too deep for that. Sexism is the same. Our assumptions about capitalism and democracy and the primacy of the individual—we don’t believe in those things because they’re true, necessarily, but rather because they’re so integral to our experience that we can’t imagine another way.
What do we do with all this? The painful truth is that though we can choose a teacher or a friend or a partner, we can’t choose our parents or our culture or the systems in which we function. And that means we can’t really choose who we are, not in the way we might want to. We can’t choose the starting place that is now—only the trajectory, and even that choice is influenced by factors we can’t see. It’s a lot to hold.
Buddhism doesn’t just fix this; we can’t free ourselves completely from how we grew up. What we can do, however, is start to notice the degree to which we are conditioned beings. We can acknowledge how much we don’t know about who we are, about how we got this way. Maybe, in that acknowledgement, is an opportunity to give ourselves a break. But we can also recognize that as conditioned beings, we are able still to be conditioned. That’s good news.
This brings us back to the mist and the dew. If you want to be kind, there are practices you can undertake, things you can try—and by all means, do those things. But perhaps the simplest, most subtle path is to spend time with people who are kind. Want to be more generous? Find people who are generous, walk beside them, and let yourself slowly get drenched. It isn’t a recipe; it isn’t something we can perfectly control. All we can do is create the causes and conditions of change.
There’s one more thing about the mist and the dew: the reality that others, every day, are walking beside you. You are the mist, and they, whether you like it or not, are slowly, imperceptibly, getting soaked through by you. There’s nothing you can do to stop this, no possible way to avoid that responsibility. Notice that burden. Carry it with intention, with awareness, with an understanding that what you say and do matters in ways you cannot see, and that you cannot take back.
The truth is, none of us can ever get dry. This is what practice is all about—agreeing to your role in things, meeting it with your eyes wide open, saying yes to the whole wet mess.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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