Mountains Meeting Mountains: Teaching of Mountains and Rivers, Part I

~ Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi ~


The Prologue

The empty sky vanishes. Mountains are level with the plains. Above, not a tile to cover the head. Below, not an inch of ground upon which to stand.

The Main Case

The great Master Dogen taught, “From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind. And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.”

The Capping Verse

When we truly enter the mountains,
      birds, bugs, beasts and blossoms
radiate supernatural excellence

      and take great delight in our presence.


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John Daido Loori, Roshi
Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” is the heart of the teachings of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Over the years of developing the training here on Tremper Mountain, our way of teaching the dharma has come directly from this text. Dogen is known as an outstanding poet, metaphysician, and one of Japan’s leading spiritual figures. The subject of this chapter—which is part of his masterwork, Shobogenzo: The Tresury of the True Dharma Eye—is nature, the immediate landscape in which we practice. Dogen was a lover of nature. He built his primary monastery, Eiheiji, deep in the mountains, preferring the unspoiled environment of forested hills, crags and roaring streams to the high society of Kyoto. Yet, he was first and foremost a Zen Buddhist master, so the mountains and rivers of Dogen’s writings are not so much the mountains and rivers of poetry, but the mountains and rivers of the true dharma eye, of the realized truth of the universe. In fact, we can say that the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” is not about mountains and rivers, but that the mountains and rivers themselves are the sutra, the true buddhadharma.
In Buddhist lore, mountains and rivers frequently symbolize samsara, the cyclic nature of phenomenal existence and the ups and downs of life, phenomena. But in studying the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” it doesn’t take long to appreciate that Dogen’s mountains and rivers are not just the mountains and rivers of samsara. He challenges us, declaring that because mountains and rivers are samsara, they are nirvana. In other words, samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara.
In the sutra Dogen writes, “From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind.And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized.” Notice that he doesn’t just say “wise ones” or “sages.” He says “wise ones and sages.” “Wise ones” refers to those who do not yet have complete realization; they still lack vision of the Way. “Sages,” on the other hand, refers to those who have attained that vision of the Way. Dogen is saying that these two kinds of practitioners have “made mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind,” and it is through them that the mountains have been actualized. How do you actualize the mountain? To actualize the mountain, you first need to realize it.
Dogen goes on to say, “However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them.” In many of the world’s religions, practitioners retreat to the wilderness for periods of intensive practice. Then why does Dogen say that no one has ever met a single one of the wise ones and sages who have entered the mountains?
When we speak of “entering the mountains” we’re speaking of the non-dual dharma. There is no separation between the sage and the mountain. This is how we should understand the nature of a true “dwelling place.” “Dwelling place” is the equivalent of whole body and mind, the realm that is free of the polarities of motion and rest, man and woman, teacher and student, being and nonbeing—free of all dualities arising from the mistaken distinction of self and other. When you have made the mountains your own body and mind, 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 actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.”
Dogen’s teachings on nonduality are based on the teachings of the Flower Garland Sutra. Among other topics, this voluminous Mahayana text deals with the fourfold dharmadhatu or dharma realms, in the Soto school presented as the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan. Master Dongshan was one of the founders of the Soto school of Zen, which is one of lineages transmitted in the Mountains and Rivers Order. The Five Ranks are a framework to help us understand the interplay between the absolute and the relative. It is also a formulation of different degrees of enlightenment.
The first rank deals with the absolute realm of reality, shunyata or emptiness. According to Buddhism, all things are inherently empty. But we need to be careful about how we appreciate this “emptiness.” The notions of emptiness has been so convoluted in our language that the word has practically lost all of its Buddhist significance. I once took part in a psychology conference called “Sacred Emptiness.” In the program, there weren’t two talks that dealt with emptiness in the same way. Each participant had his or her own definition.
Emptiness is not really an accurate translation of shunyata. We use the word in a way that implies that emptiness is an attribute to be discovered. Conventionally, we say that the world is round. If you look, your perceptions confirm this. There is roundness. Similarly, the implication in the word emptiness is that it is a quality of something. It’s empty. But the emptiness of shunyata is not a thing. It’s meant to oppose all views—including, most importantly, the view of emptiness. It has absolutely, unequivocally no status whatsoever. It is neither existent nor nonexistent. To consider that it is any such thing is utterly deluded. When we say that an object is empty, this means that it is empty of independent existence, or of any inherent characteristics. It is interdependent with everything. From a Mahayana Buddhist perspective, emptiness and interdependence are one and the same thing.
Because all dharmas—all things—are empty, they lack self nature. This means that they do not exclude anything, and they do not hinder anything. Each dharma has the ability to penetrate everywhere without obstructing any other dharma. This is called muge-—no hindrance, no obstruction. This is not only true of mountains and rivers, but of all things, all dharmas, all beings. It is true of you and I.
The prologue begins, “The empty sky vanishes. Mountains are level with the plains. Above, not a tile to cover the head. Below, not an inch of ground upon which to stand.” This is pointing to the first and pivotal transition in practice—the experience of the fundamental unity of reality.
Most Western practitioners are very impatient. Soon after they begin practice they start pressing the teacher to move them along in their training. They want to be assigned koan work, even though they may not be ready. What does it mean to be ready to do koan work? It means to have entered into samadhi, to have experienced the falling away of body and mind, the great death. All passions, desires, and aspirations must be released. All perspectives disappear. Samsara and enlightenment themselves become nonexistent, like a bottomless, clear pool. This is deep samadhi with no awareness of the self. Whether we’re working on the breath, on koans, doing shikantaza, or entering the mountains, whole body and mind intimacy is of supreme importance. The breath, when it’s entered with the whole body and mind, produces samadhi. Mu, the sound of the bell, the flight of the crow, the valley stream, when entered fully, produce the same result. When you rush your practice towards some goal, you pay for it all through koan study. It ends up being intellectual and sloppy. No matter how sophisticated we get, or how many books we read, it is always clear when someone has seen a koan directly or only gained some understanding about it. Intellectual responses don’t reach the truth of a koan. You have to become the koan to see its reality. You have to embody it. In embodying it, you actualize it—you make it actual; you make it real. It’s through the realization of one’s own body and mind that the mountains are actualized. To actualize means to manifest insight in your very existence, in the world.
looking at mountains

Photo by Dan Colcer

A student asked Master Dongshan, “You always instruct us to follow the way of the birds. What is it to follow the way of the birds?” Dongshan answered, “You don’t meet anyone.” Isn’t this Zhaozhou’s cypress tree?—his answer to “What is the meaning of the ancestor’s coming from the West?”

Dogen says in the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” “The countenance of the mountains is completely different when we are in the world gazing off at the mountains and when we are in the mountains meeting the mountains.” The nature of the breath is completely different when we have separated ourselves from it as an observer, and when we are the breath with the whole body and mind. This is whole body and mind intimacy. When you’re really intimate with something, it no longer exists and you no longer exist. The word relationship has no meaning at all in this case. There’s no way to talk about it, to judge it, to analyze it or categorize it. It fills the whole universe. Dogen said, “To hear sound with the whole body and mind, to see form with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.” To understand intimately doesn’t mean to acquire information. It is another way of expressing enlightenment itself.
Intimacy is the dwelling place of the great sages. Realization is intimacy. Once you make that quantum leap of realization, then your way of perceiving yourself and the universe is very different. Yet nothing has changed. Everything is precisely as it was before, but your way of seeing and appreciating is quite different. Your way of living includes a new imperative that begins to guide your actions. Without knowing, things change. That’s why realization cannot be contrived. It always reveals itself.
Why is realizing the mountains as one’s own body and mind such a pivotal and transforming occasion? Needless to say, when we say “mountains” we’re not just referring to mountains, but rather to 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 different world. It is to be a universe that is unborn and inextinguishable, 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?
Whether you realize it or not, the intimacy that Dogen points to is the life of each one of us. When you realize it, you empower yourself and you actualize that realization in your life. But whether you realize it or not, it is always present. As the capping verse says:

When we truly enter the mountains,
           birds, bugs, beasts and blossoms
radiate supernatural excellence

           and take great delight in our presence.

mountains in snow

Photo by Dan Colcer

To truly enter the mountains is to truly realize self and other as one thing, self and breath as one reality. But realizing unity is only an aspect of the whole picture. It’s step one, the beginning of clarity. In your zazen, it doesn’t matter what is the focus of your practice, as far as realization is concerned. That quantum leap of consciousness is always about whole body and mind unity with whatever you are practicing. That’s what Dogen means when he says, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To forget the self is to realize this very body and mind as the body and mind of the universe.

Each time you let go of a thought and bring yourself back to the moment—whatever that moment is for you—each time you are fully present. In every moment of genuine practice you bring yourself a step closer to total unity with the breath, with the koan, with your life.
The only limits that exist are the ones we set for ourselves. Take off the blinders, release the chain, push down the walls of the cage and advance a step forward. When you’ve taken that step, acknowledge it, let it go, and advance another step. And when you finally arrive at enlightenment, acknowledge it, let it go and take a step forward. That is, always had been, and will be the ceaseless practice of all the buddhas and ancestors. By doing this, you actualize their very being, their very life. You give life to the Buddha.
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