Big Sky Mind

A Dharma Talk by Christopher Kakuyo Sensei


Ever since I was a small boy I have been in love the vast blue sky – some of my earliest memories are of the crazy summer blues of Colorado’s mountain skies and the bluest of blue in the fall as the aspens would turn gold

– I remember once being in an old miner cemetery above Central City Colorado looking up through aspen leaves into the blue sky = the electricity still a part of me today. 

I also remember when I was a little older, we drove to Iowa to see my Aunt – Driving in our 1959 green impala land yacht we headed east.  In Colorado you get experience the height of the Rockies and their majestic peaks west of the city and then as you drive east of the city you are at the gateway of the great plains – 

in no time the mountains are left behind in the distance and the first thing you notice is how big – how big the sky is.

Years later as an adult driving in this same direct, I was moved deeply by this same experience – Since then they I have had a love of big sky country.  I love the drive across eastern Colorado and all of  Kansas. 

( as a disclaimer  Montana has I asked me to not forget to mention them also.)

I have had  a long  connection the sky, from the great plains to the vast sky above the pacific.  I have a connection to its boundlessness – its openness. 

You may wonder what this travelogue is going – one of my favorite teachings from Gyomay Kubose Sensei is that the teachings of the Buddha are manifest everywhere and we just need to look. 

In traditional Pure Land Buddhism, in the sutra that describes the pure land of the Buddha, it is the land itself that teaches the dharma, the wind blowing through the trees, the song of the birds, the flowing river. Everything there teaches the dharma. 

The same can be true for the here and now, the pure land is here and now and like the wind in the trees of the sutra, the vast sky can also teach us about the dharma.


In Koyo Kubose’s Book Bright Dawn in the Sky chapter he writes,

“I think identifying with the sky is a universal human experience. When looking at the sky from the top of the mountain or across a white plain. There is a feeling that takes us out of ourselves.”

To practice  the way,  to stand up for social justice, to minister to the suffering, to realize awakening, we cultivate our hearts and minds toward openness.   We cultivate resilience and the vast sky and Big Sky Mind can be a source of our resilience. 

What is it about vast spaces that tend to make us quiet? Words seem less urgent, time slows down?

The thing that was preoccupying us just moments before has disappeared in boundlessness of the sky itself.  Maybe because the sky has not where to go and nothing to do and no one to be – 

I love the lines from our service manual which are drawn from Dogen’s great work the Shobogenzo  – here is the original.

The great sky does not obstruct the drifting of the white clouds” is Shitou’s expression. Nor does the great sky obstruct the great sky. The great sky does not impede the great sky itself from drifting,

Here Dogen is using the vast sky as a teacher of letting go in meditation. 

When we sit in meditation, we become the vast sky allowing our thoughts to rise and fall and not hindering them in their rising and falling or chasing them across the sky. 

In a world that at times feels like it is closing in on us, suffocating us with ignorance and greed, racism and hate, making us want to turn away from the world that desperately needs us right now, how important is it for our resilience, our practice  to find the antidote to this turning away. 

The foremost scholar of Dogen Shōhaku Okumura Roshi writes

Sitting like a vast sky doesn’t hinder or stop white clouds freely flying. According to Sekito this is the essential meaning of Buddha Dharma.

That means we do nothing. We don’t know anything and we don’t gain anything. We are just sitting. Within this just sitting, clouds are freely coming and going.

there is also this line from Dogen, 

The great sky does not impede the great sky itself from drifting,

What does that mean? 

I love this again from Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

Dogen said a very interesting thing. He said, “The great sky does not impede the great sky itself from drifting, and also the white clouds do not impede the white clouds themselves.” 

“Great sky” is this entire network of interdependent origination. In this case we are like white clouds within the vast sky. Somehow, we are born, stay for a while, and disappear. 

Each and every being is like a white cloud in the vast sky, but he also says the great sky doesn’t hinder the great sky— each and every cloud doesn’t hinder each and every cloud flying freely. 

The sky as teacher as metaphor for mind – this is how spiritual truths are realized, it is through the power of the imaginal, the poetic, the language of dreams 

Back to Rev Koyo’s Sky chapter about the feeling that watching the sky can give us –

“ There is a feeling that takes us out of ourselves and allows us to view our concerns from a wide perspective. Having a wide perspective is called Takkan

“In Japanese. I came across this word in an essay written by my father .he explained how many unnecessary worries in life come from being attached to and victimized by a narrow egocentric view. takkan means to take the Longview of things.” 

So the sky can remind us the take the wide view the long view of our lives 

When we find ourselves in the narrow cell of our stories about how things are supposed to be, our feelings of shame, unworthiness  we can open up our big sky mind and give ourselves  room to breathe, give us room and perspective so we can begin to see the stories for what they are, just stories and let them simply float away.   


photo by Ashish Bogawat

Too many times in my life I locked myself into that narrow cell of my stories and my emotions, becoming my emotions and stories my world got smaller and I found it harder to breath and ended up losing my authentic self in the process.

Maybe that is the difference of feeling an emotion and becoming an emotion.  

Maybe feeling the emotion is when we allow ourselves to really feel it with judgement, without a need to change it,   when we simply give it room to be, 

And when we  become the emotion when there is no room, no space between us and the emotion, no room for it to breath or for us to let it go, to let it just be and not try to fix it.   

To experience our emotions we need room for them to just be, so they can be set free.  

Maybe – but that space to allow it to happen is what the sky has taught me. 

There is a lot the sky has to teach us – especially when we think of an everyday Buddhism kind of way – 

each morning when we wake up and look toward the sky

to remind us of the Big Sky Mind 

and we can think of Big Sky Mind as taking a wider perspective, of making room  and cultivating our awareness  of our own suffering and that of others that we are all intimately connected. 


Rev Koyo goes on to say, 

Whenever people are in conflict with one another taking a wide view means to see the situation from the other persons perspective. A wide view means that other people count just as much as we do, that their needs are just as important as ours. The conflict does not have to be experienced as my needs are more important than yours. The needs of both sides should be recognized as equally valid. Then it is easier to focus on resolving how their needs can be mutually met.  Of course, there are no guarantees, but resolution is more likely when things are seen from a wider perspective than just from one’s own position. Dualistic thinking such as, 

I am right you are wrong , only polarizes the problem and intensifies the conflict WAR can be an acronym for  “ we are right “  indeed this describes what happens whether the war is personal conflict between individuals or armed conflict between nations 

As the old saying goes about relationships,

 you can be right or you can be in a relationship. 

I would like to close with two quotes in relation to Big Sky – Big Mind, the first is from Shunryu Suzuki…

“With big mind we accept each of our experiences as if recognizing the face we see in a mirror as our own. For us there is no fear of losing this mind. There is nowhere to come or to go; there is no fear of death, no suffering from old age or sickness. Because we enjoy all aspects of life as an unfolding of big mind, we do not care for any excessive joy. So we have imperturbable composure, and it is with this imperturbable composure of big mind that we practice zazen.”

And this from 

Emily Dickenson 

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

May the sky be one of our teachers and as Ryokan – the Holy Fool of the Zen tradition explained may our mind be no more than a passage of wind in the vast sky.

Namu Amida Butsu 

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