In classical China there was a widespread belief that prolonged meditation gave one miraculous powers: the ability to read other people’s minds; to see past lives; to do extraordinary things with the body’s energy; and so on.
Now we think that claims like that are ludicrous. Yet we imagine, equally ludicrously, that through Zazen we might cultivate compassion, wisdom, happiness, joy.
Dogen, in talking about these claims—the ability to read minds and so on, referred to them as the small mystical powers. They were small because they were limited by person, place, circumstance, and time.
In contrast he talked about the great mystical power. By implication he is talking about Zazen.The famous example which he gave was fetching water and carrying firewood. In other words, the most mundane tasks we can imagine. Contemporary zen people often talk about washing the dishes.
What does Dogen mean when he talks about the great mystical power?
Last week I was with my mother at the seaside in Edinburgh. We were sitting on the promenade. On the low sea wall was a little Indian girl, playing with her mother. The mother had produced two straws and both of them were delightedly waving around these straws like magicians wands. Waving them at the sea, the sky, the birds, the sand and so on.
The little girl was so happy, so new.
And I suddenly saw that that little girl was manifesting the great mystical power.
And the reason why Dogen referred to the small mystical powers as small was that they simply involved changing the world.
And that the great mystical power is not changing the world, it is renewing the world.
Renewing the world and in this way, stopping, like the hand of another on a falling person, the collapse into nothingness.