Blue Mountains Walking: Teaching of Mountains and Rivers, Part II

~ Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi ~

The Prologue

Inexhaustible are its mysteries. In order to realize its myriad forms and creations, one must love it utterly, study its essential spirit diligently and never cease contemplating it. Outside of this, there is nothing else.

The Main Case

Master Dogen said, “Master Dayang Shanggai addressed the assembly: ‘The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.’”…
“Because the blue mountains are walking they are constant. Their walk is swifter than the wind; yet those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be ‘in the mountains’ is a flower opening ‘within the world.’ Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth.” …
“Thus, the accumulated virtues [of the mountain] represent its name and form, its very lifeblood. There is a mountain walk and a mountain flow, and there is a time when the mountain gives birth to a mountain child. The mountains become the buddhas and ancestors, and it is for this reason that the buddhas and ancestors have thus appeared.”

The Capping Verse

Everywhere-—
      in each tree, rock, bird and beast
      I meet myself.
It is at once me,

      and I am not it.


Throughout the history of civilization, people all over the world have regarded mountains as sacred places. Native Americans conducted rituals right here in these Catskill mountains. In Japan, there are numerous temples scattered among many sacred mountains.
The religious ascent is to the mountains. The Jains go to Mount Girnar; the Saddhus to Mount Kailash. Spanish monks hike up the precipice of Mount Montserrat; Greek Orthodox priests scale Mount Athos. The Buddha ascended Vulture Peak, Jesus gave his sermon on the Mount, and Moses received the commandments on Mount Sinai. Mohammed received the Qur’an in a cave on Mount Hira. Chinese Buddhists seek self-realization on the slopes of Wutai. In Zen, many Chinese masters we read about in koan collections are known by the name of the mountain on which they taught. In fact, we could say that every accomplished Zen master is the very mountain itself.
What is the magic and attraction of the mountains? Clearly there is something special in them or about them, because the same regard for mountains appears in various cultures throughout time.
It is no accident that we find ourselves here on Mount Tremper and that the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” has become the teaching of the Way for us. We are physically and physiologically integrated with the mountain just by living here. We make our coffee and tea with the juice that flows out of the springs and rivers of these hills. We grow our food in what was once—hundreds of millions of years ago—solid rock. Now it is our garden. We return our waste to it. We’re in equilibrium with this land, as are all the creatures that live here. The mountain becomes part of us. We give to it; it gives to us. There is a lot of energy in that giving and receiving, a lot of power. Over the last twenty-six years I’ve watched this mountain, powerful as it was the first day we found it, increase its power with the zazen that we do each day, each month, each year. What is this mountain then? What are its contours, location and time? Where exactly is it?
Once I took a friend on a tour of the Monastery grounds and as we reached Hanshan meadow with its wide open view of Mount Tremper he exclaimed, “Oh, there’s the mountain!” I said, “That’s not the mountain.” “Then where is it?” my friend asked. I replied, “You’re standing on it.” Actually, even to say “standing on” is extra.
This mountain has many faces. I’ve seen its ferocious side. I’ve seen it roaring, thunderheads and bolts of lightning flashing over it, trees crashing to the ground, the river getting up on its hind legs and walking over land, taking rocks and trees with it, animals scurrying for safety, the earth trembling. At other times, she’s warm and placid, loving, nurturing, and protecting. What is the true nature of this mountain, then? What is the true nature of your self?
“Master Dayang Shanggai addressed the assembly: ‘The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.’” Master Dayang’s statement about blue mountains is a statement concerning the relationship between absolute and relative, form and emptiness.
The prologue says, “Inexhaustible are its mysteries.” This is one of them—the stone woman giving birth to a child in the night. How is that possible? “In order to realize its myriad forms and creations, one must love it utterly.” I use the word “love” to indicate true intimacy, no separation, not two.
“Inexhaustible are its mysteries.” You are also one of those mysteries. “In order to realize its myriad forms and creations, one must love it utterly.” In other words, you must love yourself. “One must love it utterly, study its essential spirit diligently and never cease contemplating it. Outside of this, there is nothing else.” Outside of you, there is nothing else.
Vigeland sculpture of family

Photo by Ana Malin

“The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.” Stone woman is a metaphor for conditions void of inherent nature. A stone woman is a barren woman, so a barren woman that gives birth is inconceivable. This inconceivability is conditions void of any inherent nature. Inconceivability is the interdependent origination of the ten thousand things. All things are totally interdependent. They cannot exist without each other. Visible forms, vision, and cognition have that interdependent origination. All phenomena are so conditioned. They have no independent nature, no absolute, own being. They have no self; no independent existence. This is the barren woman. And yet in terms of conditional relationships, things do indeed exist: the child she gave birth to, you, me and the ten thousand things.

You and I are the same thing, yet I am not you and you are not me. We coexist and interpenetrate; we have a mutual causality. We are interlinked like a giant web throughout time and space. What happens to you, happens to me—yet I’m not you and you’re not me.
The “night” of “gives birth to a child in the night” is the time of no differentiation, of absoluteness, where there are no forms. The darkness is complete, the emptiness all-encompassing. In it, there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena. No world of sight, no world of consciousness.
Phenomena and differentiation reappear with the light. Differentiation is where we begin our practice. We come into training steeped in the world of duality, tossed by this and that event or object. After years of practice, after taking the backward step and turning deep into ourselves, we discover the unity of all things. Then, like a fly on fly-paper we begin to stick to emptiness, just like many Buddhist practitioners have stuck to it through the centuries. The absolute basis of reality is an easy place to get stuck. But if you study with a teacher who is alive and kicking, he or she will expend effort to loosen the bonds so that you can again see the world of differentiation, but from a totally different perspective. We must see that the truth is in neither the absolute nor the relative.
In the second of his Five Ranks, Dongshan says, “The old grandmother, having just awakened, comes upon an ancient mirror. That which is clearly reflected in front of her face is none other than her whole likeness. Don’t lose sight of your face again and go chasing your shadow.” The second rank is the emergence out of the absolute basis of reality. In the absolute realm there is no knowing. There is no consciousness. The moment you realize it, consciousness has already moved. It’s after the fact. It is on the cusp of that awakening that everywhere you go you meet yourself. You return into the world of differentiation, back to the other side of darkness. Most of koan study is dedicated to investigating these two realms in order to appreciate the third rank of Dongshan, which goes beyond the absolute and relative.
In the second rank we deal with phenomena of the relative world. In the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” this is referred to as mountains walking. It’s the continual flux of all things. Nothing is fixed. Everything is in a constant state of becoming. You, me, everything we see, think, feel, experience, everything in the whole universe is in a ceasless state of flux. Nothing is static. This impermanence is the cause of much of our suffering because we tend to cling to things. When we grasp, the thing we’re holding on to changes and we change. Yesterday already happened—it doesn’t exist. Tomorrow hasn’t happened yet—it doesn’t exist. This moment and the next moment are different, so what is the use of clinging?
Dogen says, “Because the blue mountains are walking they are constant. Their walk is swifter than the wind; yet those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be ‘in the mountains’ is a flower opening ‘within the world.’ Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth.”
“Because the blue mountains are walking they are constant.” They are constant or endless, a continuum that encompasses the whole universe, past, present and future. It’s not just now. Or rather, it is just now, but this now contains past, present and future.
“To be ‘in the mountains’ is a flower opening ‘within the world.’” Another way of saying this is “opening within the world flower.” Isn’t that interdependent origination? “Opening within the world flower” means that mountains and the world are the same. Nothing exists outside the mountains. In fact, we say “in the mountains” or “outside the mountains,” but “in the mountains” doesn’t mean there is someone in them literally. It’s not like going for a hike in the mountains. It’s speaking of the mountains themselves as those in the mountains. “Those outside the mountains” means that the mountains themselves are called “outside the mountains.” It reaches everywhere. Everywhere I go, I meet it.
looking at mountains

Photo by Dan Colcer

“Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth.” We can understand this passage in a couple of different ways. Both those inside and outside of the mountains are not aware of the mountains walking because they are the mountains. There is no reference system that remains. It’s the mountain of the dharmadhatu, the mountain of the realm of reality. It’s the eye that cannot see itself. It’s the sword that cannot cut itself. There is no realizing, no knowing. The other way to comprehend this line is that “those without eyes to see the mountains” lack the dharma eye to see. They lack true understanding of the mountains. They know nothing of the unity of their own body and the mountain.

Then Dogen says, “Thus, the accumulated virtues of the mountain represent its name and form, its very lifeblood. There is a mountain walk and a mountain flow, and there is a time when the mountain gives birth to a mountain child. The mountains become the buddhas and ancestors, and it is for this reason that the buddhas and ancestors have thus appeared.” The accumulated virtues of the mountain are the mountains walking, the mountains flowing, mountains riding the clouds. The virtues of mountains are their teachings. The word “lifeblood” has been translated differently by different people, but it can be referred to as lineage or tradition, as well as true aspect or essential reality.
“There is a time when the mountain gives birth to a mountain child.” Mountains give birth to all dharmas. They give birth to buddhas; they give birth to the white clouds. “And it is for this reason that the buddhas and ancestors have thus appeared.”
All of our practice and training can be seen in terms of the Five Ranks. We have monastic practice and we have lay practice. They are interdependent. They have a mutual causality. Practice in the world and on the mountain can’t exist without the other. The same applies to the teacher and student relationship. They cannot be separated. They nourish and support each other.
Having clearly seen the first rank of Dongshan, we move into the second rank—the coming out of the absolute basis of reality to manifest in the world of the ten thousand things. But at this point we also know that things are intrinsically empty, that they can only exist through interdependent origination. That’s why mountains walk and flow. That’s why the stone woman gives birth to a child in the night, or the mountain gives birth to a mountain child.
The capping verse:

Everywhere-—
     in each tree, rock, bird and beast
     I meet myself.
It is at once me,

     and I am not it.

You and I are the same thing, but I’m not you and you’re not me. It’s no use trying to understand this. It’s no use believing it. You have to realize it with the whole body and mind. When you do, that realization transforms your way of perceiving yourself and the universe. And that is no small thing.
mountain tarn and peaks

Photo by Alfredo & Sonia Kojima
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