River Seeing River: Teaching of Mountains and Rivers, Part III

~ Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi ~

The Prologue

Morning dew on the tips of ten thousand grasses reveals the truth of all of the myriad forms of this great earth. Have you seen it? The sounds of the river valley sing the eighty-four thousand hymns of suchness. Have you heard them? Pervading throughout these forms and sounds is a trail far from words and ideas. Have you found it? If not, then look, listen and enter right here.

The Main Case

Zen Master Dogen said, “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment. Solidified, it is harder than diamond: who could break it? Melted, it is softer than milk: who could break it? This being the case we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by the river. We should then study that occasion, when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not a study only of the time when humans and gods see the river: there is a study of the river seeing the river. The river practices and verifies the river; hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.”

The Capping Verse

The mind empty of all activity embraces all that appears.
    Like gazing into the jewel mirror, form and reflection see each other.
No coming or going, no arising or vanishing, no abiding.
The ten thousand hands and eyes manifest of themselves
   each in accord to circumstances, and yet never forget their way.


This section of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” deals with the third of the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan. The third rank reflects the development of maturity in practice—the functioning of emptiness in everyday life and the birth of compassion as the activity of the world.
Master Dogen spoke about rivers the way he spoke about mountains: intimately, not just as a metaphor or as a description of a physical river. The river Dogen speaks of in this sutra is the river of the dharmadhatu, the phenomenal realm, the realm of the ten thousand things. Rivers, like mountains, have always had a special spiritual significance. A lot of history has unfolded along the banks of the Ganges in India, the Yangtze River in China, the Euphrates and Tigris of Mesopotamia. Much of the dharma and the teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have taken shape along the banks of rivers as well.
Thoreau said of the Merrimack River:

There is an inward voice that in the stream sends forth its spirit to the listening ear, and in calm content it flows on like wisdom, welcome with its own respect, clear in its breast like all these beautiful thoughts. It receives the green and graceful trees. They smile in its peaceful arms.

rocks edging river

Photo by T. Taudigani

In Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha, the river plays a key role in Gautama’s awakening. For me, that book was a very powerful teaching. I remember it was a very troubled time in my life when I returned to it, and heard it as if for the first time, although I had studied it many years earlier in school. Somehow, the book had not penetrated when I was younger. But at this later time, the reading of Siddhartha took me to the Delaware River. Going to the river became a pilgrimage for me, a place to go to receive the river’s spirit, to be nourished. I didn’t know what was going on. I was moved by what Hesse had to say about Siddhartha. Each time I went to the Delaware, it was like a clear, cool, refreshing drink of water, soothing a fire inside me. I didn’t understand, but I kept going back. I photographed the multiplicity of the river’s faces and forms revealed at different times. I found myself traveling the river, immersing myself in it. This went on for years, and for years the river taught me. Then, finally, I heard it. I heard it speak. I heard what it was saying to Siddhartha, and to Thoreau.

In Hesse’s story, Siddhartha is in great pain and misery. He wanders into the forest, and finally comes to a river—the river that a ferryman had taken him across earlier in the book. In Buddhist imagery that river and that crossing over is prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha, prajna paramita. Go, go, hurry, cross over to the other side.” We can understand that crossing over in many ways. We can understand it as us crossing over to the other shore, or as the other shore being none other than this shore. We can also understand it as the shore crossing over to us.
Hesse poignantly describes Siddhartha’s agonized state of mind as he prepares to throw himself into the river, but then something happens:

From a remote part of the soul, from the past of his tired life he heard the sound. It was one word, one syllable, which without thinking he spoke instinctively. The ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers, the holy ‘Om,’ which had the meaning of the Perfect One, or perfection. At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha’s ears, his thundering soul suddenly awakened, and he recognized the folly of his action.

Describing the teachings of the river, Hesse ends his passage with:

He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on mirror, sky blue reflected in them. The river looked at him with a thousand eyes, green, white, crystal, sky blue. How he loved this river! How it enchanted him! How grateful he was to it! In his heart, he heard the newly awoken voice speak. And it said to him, ‘Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.’ Yes, he wanted to learn from it. He wanted to listen to it. It seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets would understand much more, many secrets, old secrets.

Master Dogen addresses the secrets of the river and of all water: “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment.” It is none of these dualities. Physically, water is H20 , composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, two odorless and tasteless gases. You bring them together and you get water. But water is not oxygen, and it is not hydrogen. It is not a gas. It is what D.H. Lawrence calls in one of his poems “the third thing.” It is the same way with absolute and relative, with all the dualities. Reality is not either one or the other; it is always the third thing. The third thing is not strong or weak, not wet or dry, not moving or still, not cold or hot, not being or nonbeing, not delusion or enlightenment. What is the third thing that Dogen speaks of, that the sutra speaks of, that the river speaks of?
Once Master Dongshan was crossing the river with Yunju, who was a successor in his lineage. He asked Yunju, “How deep is the river?” Yunju responded, “Not wet.” Dongshan said, “You clod.” “How would you say it, Master?” asked Yunju. Dongshan said, “Not dry.” Does that reveal the third thing? Is that neither wet nor dry?
“Harder than diamond, softer than milk.” “Harder than diamond” expresses the unchanging suchness of all things, the thusness of all things. Just this moment! “Softer than milk” refers to the conditioned suchness of things. With these two phrases—harder than diamond, softer than milk—Dogen presents the absolute and the conditioned aspects of reality.
Then Dogen says: “We should then study that occasion, when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not a study only of the time when humans and gods see the river: there is a study of the river seeing the river. “The river practices and verifies the river; hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self.” We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.”
What is the path on which the self meets the self, and the other meets the other? It is the practice of the river seeing the river, seeing itself. Dogen expresses it slightly differently in another one of his writings, “Genjokoan.” He says, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. And to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” When you study the self, you begin to realize that the self is a self-created idea. We create it moment to moment. We create it like we create all the ten thousand things, by our interdependency and our co-origination with the whole universe. What happens when the self is forgotten? What remains? The whole phenomenal universe remains. The whole dharmadhatu remains. “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things” is the same as seeing the ten thousand things as our own body and mind.
Master Dongshan said, “Everywhere I look, I meet myself. It is at once me, and yet I am not it.” Both of these truths exist simultaneously, but somehow that doesn’t compute. Our brains can’t deal with it. The two things seem mutually exclusive. That’s why practice is so vital. You need to see it for yourself, and see that words don’t reach it. There is no way this reality can be conveyed by words, any more than the taste of the crystal clear water can be conveyed in any other way than by tasting it.
The prologue says, “Morning dew on the tips of the ten thousand grasses reveals the truth of all the myriad forms of this great earth.” Each thing, each tip of grass, each dewdrop, each and every thing throughout the whole phenomenal universe contains the totality of the universe. That’s the truth of the myriad forms of this great earth.
“The sounds of the river valley sing the eighty-four thousand hymns of suchness. Have you heard them?” The sounds don’t just say Om, as they did in Siddhartha’s river. They sing the eighty-four thousand hymns, the eighty-four thousand gathas, the sermon of rock and water. “Pervading throughout these sounds and forms is a trail far from words and ideas. Have you found it?” If you wish to enter it, simply look and listen. But look with the whole body and mind. See with the whole body and mind. Listen and hear with the whole body and mind. Then you’ll understand them intimately. That’s the entry. If you go chasing it, you won’t find it. “To carry the self forward and realize the ten thousand things is delusion,” as Master Dogen said. “That the ten thousand things advance and realize the self is enlightenment.” The other shore arrives.
traces in snow on river

Photo by Bryan Lawton

What does it mean that the river practices and verifies the river? It means that you practice and verify yourself, and in so doing, this practice and verification become the practice and verification of all buddhas, past, present and future.

It is said that Buddha predicted that there would be a time when Buddhism would disappear from the face of the earth. He defined that period as a time in which there would be no living masters, no realized beings, nobody sitting zazen, and no sutras, no teachings available. Let’s say that that time of great darkness has appeared. Let’s say it goes on for five hundred years. In such a case one would have to wonder about the mind-to-mind transmission.
And indeed, there are historical gaps in the mind-to-mind transmission. We chant the lineage list of the Zen ancestors as though it was a continuum. In Chinese culture there was a great value placed on ancestral continuity. If there was no legitimate ancestor, someone would take a likely name and splice it in just to assure the appearance of the seamlessness of the lineage. Today, Buddhist historians discover that these inserted names are not the proper successors. And the scholars say. “Aha! Mind-to-mind transmission is bogus. This teacher died and a hundred years later this other teacher, who supposedly received direct mind-to-mind transmission from him, was just born. There is no such thing as mind-to-mind transmission.” That’s a scholarly appreciation. From the point of view of the dharma, if mind-to-mind transmission disappeared from the face of the earth for a million years, one person doing zazen, realizing his or her true self, would have the same realization as the buddhas of the past. The gap of a million years would be filled in an instant, mind-to-mind.
broken river

Photo by Luc Sesselle

If electricity disappeared from the face of the earth and someone, a billion years from now, created a generator, coiled a wire around it and began to turn it, the more they turned, the hotter the wire would get until finally it would glow and light would appear. It would be the same light as the light produced by the bulbs today. All that has to be done is to produce the electricity. In the case of the buddhadharma, all that needs to be done is to realize our buddha nature. And what is that realization? You realize that buddha mind has always been there. You do not attain it; you were born with it. Zen did not come to America from Japan; it has always been here, and it will always be here. But like the light bulb, electricity itself is not enough. You need to plug in the bulb to see the light. In the dharma you plug in people; the buddhadharma shines through humans, through buddhas. Only a buddha can realize buddha. Dogen said, “We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.”

One of the characteristics of the third rank of Dongshan is reaching a certain level of maturity of practice, as well as having emptiness function as the basis of our daily activity. This functioning is none other than the ten thousand hands and eyes of great compassion—Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. She always manifests according to circumstances. In her manifestations there is no sense of separateness. Clearly seeing our own face everywhere we look becomes the source of our actions. Not just seeing or knowing our own faces, our true selves, but acting on the basis of this knowledge. This is called the action of non-action. Compassion is not the same as doing good, or being nice. Compassion functions freely, with no hesitation, no limitation. It happens with no effort, the way you grow your hair, the way your heart beats, the way you breathe, the way your blood circulates, or the way you do all the ten thousand other things you do moment to moment. It does not take any conscious effort. Someone falls, you pick them up. There is no sense of doer, or what is being done.
The capping verse:

The mind empty of all activity embraces all that appears.
   Like gazing into the jewel mirror, form and reflection see each other.
No coming or going, no arising or vanishing, no abiding.
The ten thousand hands and eyes manifest of themselves
   each in accord to circumstances, and yet never forget their way.

This comes from Dongshan’s “Jewel Mirror of Samadhi.” It points to the realm of no coming or going, no arising or vanishing, no abiding. No holding onto any one place. The ten thousand hands and eyes manifest themselves in accord with circumstances, yet never forget their way. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva always acts in accord with circumstances, and appears in a form that is appropriate to each time and place. The great blue heron that resides in the wetlands comes and goes everyday like clockwork, yet it knows how to go its own way. It knows how to step outside of that pattern. It never forgets its own way.
If you want your practice to manifest in the world, if you want to help heal this great earth of ours which is groaning with sickness, you need to realize what Dogen speaks of, what countless realized men and women have spoken of. All you need to do is to listen with the whole body and mind, and through the hum of the distant highway, you’ll hear the voice of the river. Can you hear it? That’s it! Is that the third thing?
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