The late novelist and professor David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College begins this way:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This story I am inclined to believe produced a huge chuckle in the crowd. It was a good joke. But for we Zennists it perfectly explains today’s big existential problem.
Like the young fish most people have never looked beyond the surface of the world that we live and toil in and will one day die in. The idea that we live in an invisible spiritual medium sounds, well, crazy. Sure, we accept radio signals which are configurations of an invisible aether which is like this medium still, the idea of a spiritual medium isn’t going to sell to the public.
Recently, in my Zennist notes I came across this. The emphasis is mine.
One winter day Dōni made his way to a lecture series given by Zen master Tōrei (Enji, 1721- 1792), a leading disciple of the Rinzai master Hakuin. At one point in the sermon (which was open to both clergy and laity), Tōrei admonished his listeners: "Fish live in water without being aware of the water, and human beings live in the Wondrous Dharma without being aware of the Wondrous Dharma. First seek your own dwelling place" (Janine Anderson Sawada, Confucian Values and Popular Zen).
If Zen master Tōrei had been giving the commencement address at Kenyon College it certainly would not have been like Wallace’s. After introducing the fish joke, Tōrei might have paused then speaking into the microphone said something like this, “First you must seek your own dwelling place. Don’t end up being like those young fish.”
Unfortunately, the world is full of these young fish. Young adults have a diploma and in some cases huge student loans to payoff. The bulk of them could not care less about seeking their own dwelling place, that is, seeing their own true nature. But a long time ago, a few of us did. And that made all the difference.