by Tōnen O’Connor

I’ve been reading Shohaku Okumura’s new book, The Mountains and Waters Sutra, a Practioner’s Guide to Dōgen’s Sansuikyo,and I came across the following :

There is actually no such thing as what we call “water”: it is merely a collection of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. When electrolyzed it becomes a vapor of hydrogen and oxygen. Just as a bubble is an event within the interaction between air and water, water is an event in which hydrogen and oxygen are connected. There is no fixed entity called water. 1

Every once in awhile I have a reaction to a statement that is a sudden sense of realization, a sort of “Wow!,” a sense of profound awareness. I suppose I could say of “getting it.” That is what happened when I read the words above. Water is not a THING; water is an EVENT. Suddenly my whole understanding of interdependent origination took on clarity. What surrounds me are not “things.” They are “events.” I am an event. The universe is a vast event to which everything contributes.

An event is defined by the dictionary on my computer as simply “a thing that happens.” But to happen, various conditions must occur and come together and result in the event. Events arise when the necessary conditions are met. For an event like a birthday party we need a person whose birthday it is, we need friends to invite, we need a location, we need a festive atmosphere (balloons?) and of course a birthday cake. Now we have a birthday party, but as we all know, it will end today.

Things arise and things perish. Interdependent origination means that conditions are always at work to create events. And in turn the components of the event are defined by the event. The birthday party is made up of a birthday person, birthday guests, a birthday cake. An identical cake yesterday or tomorrow is not a birthday cake. And yet on The Day, the cake assumes the identity of a birthday cake and has its reality as such.

water 2

Events are manifestations of impermanence. An event always has a life span, be it of a millisecond or a century. Our lives carry on for a certain period of time and come to an end, just as does the flow of historical events. We speak of “the Roman Empire” that ceased to be when its necessary components disintegrated.

I felt my subjective relationship to the “things” around me begin to alter subtly as I began to view them as “events.” There is a history of coming together in any event, be it the event we call a chair or a desk or a tree or a cloud. They are all very much here in their thingness, but their character as an event reminds me of their dependence on causes and conditions and of their ceaseless change, whether immediately visible or not.

Returning to the dictionary definition of an event as “a thing that happens,” I was struck by the word “happens” and again turning to my dictionary found “happen” defined as “to ensue as an effect or result of an action or event.” So what we call interdependence can be thought of as the mutual happening of everything.

What then came to mind was the arts movement in the 1950’s that featured Happenings as the medium of expression. The events incorporated chance, impermanence, and were dependent upon those participating, including the audience. The American composer John Cage (1912-1992), deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, was prominent in this movement. He is quoted as saying, “The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations.”

water 3Happenings did not attempt to imitate what nature looked like, but rather how nature operated. An exploration of the web brought further information about the concepts guiding their works, although the individual artists worked in different ways:

A main component of Happenings was the involvement of the viewer. Each instance a Happening occurred the viewer was used to add in an element of chance so, every time a piece was performed or exhibited it would never be the same as the previous time. Unlike preceding works of art which were, by definition, static, Happenings could evolve and provide a unique encounter for each individual who partook in the experience.

The concept of the ephemeral was important to Happenings, as the performance was a temporary experience, and, as such could not be exhibited in a museum in the traditional sense. The only artifacts remaining from original Happenings are photographs and oral histories. This was a challenge to the art that had previously been defined by the art object itself. Art was now defined by the action, activity, occasion, and/or experience that constituted the Happening, which was fundamentally fleeting and immaterial.

As I refreshed my memory of the art movement, I realized that in their own way they were actualizing the Buddhist teachings on interdependence and impermanence. So perhaps an even better way of describing things, rather than as events, is as happenings. The entire universe is happening at this moment. And this moment of mine overlaps with moments all over the world where simultaneously things are happening in others’ worlds and times. I remember how excited I was as a child when I first realized that the very moment I got out of bed in the morning was simultaneously the moment when someone half way around the world was going to bed. We were all doing something together in a moment of time, even though our personal times appeared to differ.

water 4Uchiyama Roshi has said that our world comes into existence with us, lives and dies with us. While I agree that my world as I view and experience it is unique to me and cannot be shared, I also know that my world exists within a matrix of millions of other personal worlds that are also happening at this very moment. Within that phenomenon there is broad sharing of experience: the sun rises at the same time for my immediate neighbor as for me. My compassion rises because I recognize something of my own world in another’s.

My sense of the living nature of the universe increased when I realized that however solid, concrete and immobile that chair may seem, in reality it is happening. The happening of this chair is an expression of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness, a teaching illustrated in the famous exchange between Tung-shan (n.d.) and a monk:

A monk asked Tung Shan: “What is Buddha?”

Tung-shan said: “Three pounds of hemp.” 2

One way of understanding this is that if “Buddha” refers to Buddha-nature, which is the functioning of emptiness, three pounds of hemp are as good an example as anything else , whether a thing or an idea. Three pounds of hemp are happening, as is the entire universe.


1. The Mountains and Waters Sutra, a Practitioner’s Guide to Dōgen’s Sansuikyo, Wisdom Publications, 2018 p.157

2. The Blue Cliff Record, trans. Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary, Shambala Publications, 1992, Case Twelve, p.81

Tōnen O’Connor


Tōnen s the Resident Priest Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, ordained in 1994, receiving dharma transmission in 1999 from Tozen Akiyama, and performing zuise at Eiheiji and Sojiji in 2000. She coordinates the MZC’s prison program serving over 160 inmates in 14 state institutions. She is active in Milwaukee with the Committee for Interfaith Understanding and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as well as currently serving on the Board of the Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, IN

Photo credits

Featured image:  By Marlon Felippe [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Aerated water: I, Mschel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Surface waves: Roger McLassus [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Drop before impact: By No machine-readable author provided. Roger McLassus 1951 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons