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Becoming the Mountains and Rivers

When we know something intimately, taught Dogen, it ceases to exist and so do we. John Daido Loori Roshi examines this quintessential teaching in Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Featured in the fifteenth anniversary issue of Buddhadharma, “The Best of 15 Years.”

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen is known to us as an outstanding poet, metaphysician, and one of Japan’s leading spiritual figures. He was also a lover of nature. Dogen built his primary monastery, Eiheiji, deep in the mountains, preferring the unspoiled forested hills, crags, and roaring streams of Echizen Province to the high society of Kyoto. So it should not come as a surprise that Dogen wrote beautifully and eloquently about the landscape that surrounded him. Yet we must remember that he was first and foremost a Zen Buddhist master, so the mountains and rivers he speaks of are not to be simply understood as the mountains and rivers of metaphor, but as the mountains and rivers of the true dharma eye, the realized truth of the universe. It can be said, in fact, that the Mountains and Rivers Sutra is not about mountains and rivers at all, but that the mountains and rivers themselves are the sutra, the true buddhadharma.

Master Dogen taught:

What different types of beings see is different. We should reflect on this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing a single object? Or is it that we have mistaken a variety of images for a single object? We should examine this question in detail, concentrate every effort on understanding it, and then concentrate even more. Given this multitude of perspectives, it follows that training on the way of practice and verification cannot be of one or two kinds, and the realm of ultimate reality must also have a thousand types and ten thousand kinds.

Water, being dependent on water, is liberated.

If we consider this even further, it seems that although we say there are many types of water, ultimately, there is not original water, no water of various types. However, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings that see water do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others. Water, being dependent on water, is liberated.

There are endless ways of perceiving water. Rain for a farmer who has just sowed the seeds of a new crop is a blessing. Rain for another farmer who is trying to dry his harvested hay is a nuisance. For an expert kayaker, the roar of the approaching rapids sounds ecstatic. For the owner of a house precariously perched at the edge of a flooding riverbank, it’s threatening.

How we perceive water completely depends on who we are. It also depends on the time and place in which we find ourselves, as well as our relationship to water.

Years ago when I was in the Navy, one of my shipmates invited me to visit his home. He was from a Cajun shrimping family outside New Orleans. We traveled in a small motorboat to a wood hut propped up on stilts over the bayou. The brackish smell of the swamp filled the air. Alligators slithered by. Huge cypress trees emerging from the muck overhung the house. My friend’s relationship to water was very different from anything that I had ever witnessed or experienced myself. The water I was familiar with was always distant, apart from me. He lived in water. He was always surrounded by it. Whose was the true water?

However, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings that see water do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others. Water, being dependent on water, is liberated.

Water is liberated because it is empty of any fixed characteristics. And although there are many ways of seeing water, for the individual being who’s seeing it, there is only that one way. Nothing else exists at that moment.

One day, in front of the assembly at Mount Gridhrakuta, instead of offering the usual sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower. At that moment, there was just the flower. It filled the whole universe. When Mahakashyapa saw that flower and smiled, there was just Mahakashyapa smiling. There was no Buddha, no assembly, or even the flower.

Every single object that we perceive, we have created ourselves. When we look at water, we create a particular image of water—different from someone else’s perception of water. It is this diversity that allows for unlimited artistic expression. Thousands of depictions of sunsets have appeared in our poetry, literature, film, painting, and photography. Amidst all of those portrayals, is there just one sun?

Michelangelo, when asked to speak about his approach to sculpting, said that he didn’t actually create images; he just released them from the stone. He would patiently chip away until the perfect figure that had always been within the stone was revealed. Zen practice works in a similar way. It removes all the extra so we can get to the ground of being, realize it, and then actualize it. From realization arises clear and appropriate action, which is the essence of upaya, or skillful means. Skillful means change according to time, place, position, and degree. What was effective twenty years ago may not be effective today. What is skillful in one place may not be appropriate in another.

While I was a research scientist working in a chemical plant, I found out that my company was polluting a local stream. I was in a position of authority at the time, so I used it. I went to the plant engineer and talked to him about the problem. At first he was resistant, but when I offered to help him figure out alternative means to get rid of our waste, he agreed to cooperate. We worked together and the pollution stopped. Five years later, when a different ecological crisis involved the same plant, I was no longer working there. All I could do was stand outside the fence with a picket sign and protest, just like everyone else.

In taking up causes, we need to be aware of the degree of action required. We have a tendency to fall into extremes. We either wallow in hopelessness, hiding from our problems like an ostrich with its head in the sand, or we run around in a frenzy like a chicken without a head. Either way, we do not accomplish anything worthwhile.

Before Vincent Van Gogh turned seriously to painting, he held a ministry in the Borinage, a coal-mining district in the Belgian province of Hainaut. There he witnessed severe suffering and deprivation. Wanting to help the miners who were part of his congregation, Van Gogh gave away everything he owned: his clothes, food, furniture, even his house. In two weeks he had nothing left. He became just one more lonely soul shivering in a doorway.

In any given situation, how do we know how much action is necessary and optimal? This is a difficult and subtle question. Many of us engage a worthy cause with a vengeance. We know unequivocally what’s wrong and what’s right, and from that knowing we obtain plenty of fuel to propel our anger. To be able to funnel that energy into effective and skillful action requires that we take all aspects of a situation into consideration. It challenges us to be very clear about the nature of what is in front of us.

Appearing and disappearing are important dimensions of compassionate action. Sometimes we need to be very present; sometimes we need to be invisible.

Finally, as we prepare to take action we need to honestly ask ourselves, what are our talents? How much energy and time do we have to offer? How can we use our gifts for the benefit of others?

Our Buddhist ancestors were masters of skillful means. Appearing and disappearing in harmony with the occasion, they created countless kinds of expedient means to alleviate suffering. Appearing and disappearing are important dimensions of compassionate action. Sometimes we need to be very present; sometimes we need to be invisible. Both can be equally effective. Both depend on being awake.

From the timeless beginning to the present, the mountains have always been the dwelling place of the great sages. Wise ones and sages have made the mountains their personal chambers, their own body and mind. And it is through these wise ones and sages that the mountains are actualized. Although many great sages and wise ones have gathered in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains, no one has encountered a single one of them. There is only the manifestation of the life of the mountain itself; not a single trace of anyone having entered can be found.

The appearance of the mountains is completely different when we are in the world gazing at the distant mountains and when we are in the mountains meeting the mountains. Our notions and understanding of non-flowing could not be the same as the dragon’s understanding. Humans and gods reside in their own worlds, and other beings may doubt this, or again, they may not. Therefore, without giving way to our surprise and doubt, we should study the words “mountains flow” with the sages and adepts. Taking one view, there is flowing; from another perspective, there is non-flowing. At one point in time there is flowing; at another, not flowing. If our study is not like this, it is not the true teaching of the Way.

Since time immemorial, sages and wise ones have entered the mountains for periods of fasting, pilgrimage, and retreat, and to build temples and monasteries. Why does Dogen say that no one has ever met a single one of them?

There is no separation between the sage and the mountain.

The dwelling place of the great sages is the realm that is free of the dualities of motion and rest, man and woman, being and nonbeing; it is free of all the dualities arising from the mistaken notion of a distinct and separate self.

When Dogen speaks of “entering the mountains,” he’s speaking of the non-dual dharma. There is no separation between the sage and the mountain. When we have made the mountains our own body and mind, our personal chambers, there is no meeting them, since the mountains and sages are one reality. That the sages have entered the mountains means that there is no one to meet and nothing to be met. There is only the mountain itself.

The appearance of the mountains is completely different when we are in the world gazing at the distant mountains and when we are in the mountains meeting the mountains.

The nature of the mountain is completely different when we have separated ourselves from it as observers, and when we are the mountain with the whole body and mind. When we are intimate with something, it no longer exists and we no longer exist. There is no way to talk about it, to judge it, to analyze it, or categorize it. It fills the whole universe.

Master Dogen said, “To hear sounds with the whole body and mind, to see forms with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.” To understand intimately does not mean to acquire information. Intimacy is the dwelling place of the great sages. It is realization, a quantum leap of consciousness in which our way of perceiving ourselves and the universe radically changes and a new imperative begins to guide our actions.

In Zen we say that enlightenment without morality is not yet enlightenment, and morality without enlightenment is not yet morality. On one side, we have the danger of wisdom that lacks compassion. As Gary Snyder once said, “Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.” On the other hand, we have compassion without wisdom, which essentially becomes doing good. Of course, doing good is valuable. But doing good is different from realizing compassion. It is only doing good. When we are doing good, we should carefully examine who or what is being served by our actions. Doing good requires a sense of self—there is someone who will help someone else. In compassion there is no self, no other, no doer or doing. Ultimately, compassion is dependent on wisdom, and wisdom is dependent on compassion. When we lift up one, we have lifted both.

Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva—who embody wisdom and compassion—always sit together on either side of the Buddha statue in the altar of the Buddha hall of a Zen monastery. Wisdom is compassion; compassion is wisdom. But although we say that they are two sides of the same reality, they cannot even begin to function in our lives until we acknowledge that we’re responsible for the whole catastrophe. Each one of us creates the entire universe with our mind.

Taking one view, there is flowing; from another perspective, there is non-flowing. At one point in time there is flowing; at another, not flowing.

One of the beginner koans reads: The bridge flows; the river is still. What kind of reality is this? It’s not something that we can explain rationally. It’s not something that we can understand intellectually. Understanding will only get us so far. Zazen, wisdom, and compassion, the Five Ranks, can’t be understood. They must be realized; they must be made real in everything we do.

Shakyamuni Buddha never heard of the Five Ranks. Neither did Mahakashyapa nor Ananda. It wasn’t until Dongshan and his successor Caoshan decided to create a framework to study the interplay between the relative and absolute realms that the Five Ranks came into being. But as is true of any other aspect of the teachings, the Five Ranks are simply a means to realization; they are not an end in themselves.

To realize all form as one’s own body and mind is to dwell in a universe that is unborn and inextinguishable, a universe that has no beginning or end.

When it comes down to it, all the skillful means in the world won’t help us if we do not realize the mountains, do not realize our body and mind. Why? Because realizing the mountains as one’s own body and mind is transformative. “Mountains” are all form—all things, all beings sentient and insentient, and neither sentient nor insentient. To realize all form as one’s own body and mind is to dwell in a universe that is unborn and inextinguishable, a universe that has no beginning or end. You have no beginning or end. Then how will you care for the mountains and rivers, for your own body and mind, the body and mind of the universe?

The only limits that exist are the ones we have set for ourselves. Take off the blinders, break the chains, push down the walls of your cage, and take a step forward. When you’ve taken that step, acknowledge it, let it go, and take another step. And when you finally arrive at enlightenment, at whole body and mind intimacy, acknowledge it, let it go, and take a step forward. This kind of practice is, always has been, and always will be the ceaseless practice of all the buddhas and ancestors. By practicing in this way, you actualize their very being, their very life. You give life to the Buddha.

Water is the palace of the true dragon; it is not flowing away. If we regard it as only flowing, we slander water; for it is the same as imposing non-flowing. Water is nothing but the real form of water just as it is. Water is the water virtue; it is not flowing. In the thorough study of the flowing, or the non-flowing, of a single [drop of] water, the entirety of the ten thousand realms is instantly realized.

Among mountains, there are mountains hidden in jewels; there are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness. An ancient wise one has said, “Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” This teaching is not saying that mountains are mountains; it says that mountains are mountains. Thus, we should thoroughly study these mountains. When we thoroughly study the mountains, this is the mountain training. Then these mountains and rivers themselves spontaneously become wise ones and sages.

In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Dogen speaks eloquently of mountains and rivers. He speaks of being in the mountains as a flower opening in the world, of blue mountains walking, of mountains flowing. He invokes rivers rising up to the heavens and descending into crevices. He refers to a mountain giving birth to a mountain child. And he describes the various possible attributes of mountains and rivers in terms of the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan.

The first of the Five Ranks is the absolute basis of reality. The second is emergence out of the realization of the absolute. The third rank is the manifestation of that realization in the relative world. It’s a synthesis of form and emptiness, where compassion begins to manifest effortlessly. The fourth rank is mutual integration—the bodhisattva ceaselessly responding to the cries of the world.

The first two ranks show both sides of all phenomena—absolute on one side, relative on the other—while recognizing the relationship between the two. In the third and fourth ranks, the two realms are independent. Absolute is absolute, and relative is relative. A devil is a devil, a buddha is a buddha.

Finally, we arrive at the concluding paragraph of this incredible sutra, where Dogen brings it home to the fifth rank. Here, complete unity is attained, so that unity and disparity, form and emptiness, absolute and relative, all disappear. Everything is seen at once, and no trace of enlightenment or non-enlightenment remains. Dongshan’s verse to the fifth rank reads:

Who dares to equal the one
Who falls into neither being nor non-being!
All of us want to leave
The current of ordinary life,
But this one, after all, comes back
To sit among the coals and ashes.

In Genjokoan, Dogen says, “No trace of enlightenment remains and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” We call this endless activity “filling a well with snow,” the seemingly inane occupation of the ancient sages. No one can tell whether they’re sages or whether they’re crazy, whether they’re ordinary or holy. One of them gathers a few others and they all climb the mountain to get to the snow-capped peaks. They fill their buckets with snow and carry them down and throw the snow into the well, trying to fill it. Of course, filling the well with snow is impossible. Yet they do it, trip after trip, day after day. It is like the four bodhisattva vows that all Zen practitioners make each night:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.

It is impossible to save numberless beings, yet we vow to do it. It’s impossible to exhaust inexhaustible desires; impossible to master infinite dharmas; impossible to attain the unattainable. Impossible, yet we’ll do it.

An ancient master once said: “Thirty years ago, before studying Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I had more intimate knowledge, I came to see mountains not as mountains and rivers not as rivers. But now that I have attained the substance, I again see mountains just as mountains, and rivers just as rivers.”

The zazen of a beginner is innocent. It’s free, open, and receptive. But after a while, it becomes rote. It’s one thing to really practice this incredible Way with the whole body and mind, and quite another to simply look like a Zen practitioner. Much of our practice involves maintaining this freshness, this receptivity.

This teaching is not saying that mountains are mountains; it says that mountains are mountains.

The river sings the eighty-four thousand verses. Do we hear them? The mountain reveals the form of the true dharma, the virtue of harmony. Can we see it?

This is the mountain of the nature of all dharmas, the ten thousand things, the whole phenomenal universe. It pervades all time and space, from the beginningless beginning to the endless end. In other words, it’s the body and mind of the ten thousand things—and, it’s just a mountain.

Thus, we should thoroughly study these mountains. When we thoroughly study the mountains, this is the mountain training. Then these mountains and rivers themselves spontaneously become wise ones and sages.

When Dogen says, “thoroughly study the mountains,” he means for us to take these mountains and rivers as the koan of our lives. Whether we look at these mountains and rivers with the eyes of a biologist, a geologist, a hydrologist, a sage, a deer, as the mountain, as the river, the fact is that they are constantly proclaiming the dharma. The river sings the eighty-four thousand verses. Do we hear them? The mountain reveals the form of the true dharma, the virtue of harmony. Can we see it?

When we go deep into ourselves, when we engage Zen practice fully, that practice becomes the practice of all buddhas past, present, and future. It is the verification and actualization of the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha and all of the subsequent buddhas. It is also the practice and verification of these mountains and rivers, and of your life and my life, the life of wise ones, sages, and ordinary beings.