Dogen's Mountains and Waters Sutra 2
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 7, 2011
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
We are continuing to read Dogen's Sansui Kyo: Mountains and Waters Sutra. This time I will be reading from the Stanford version of the text, if you want to refer to it.
"Mountains and waters" means not mechanistic, vulnerable, physical mountains and waters, but the starkness and the presence of the actual physical world, not as an object, but as luminous, boundless appearance that stands at the joining point of subject and object of perception and religious feeling. That is what Dogen means when he says, "Mountains and rivers."
In other words, he is not talking about the world out there that is just laying there as if it were inert. He is talking about a living thing that comes into existence when we apprehend it. He is talking about the point where our perception of the world and our inner life meet. At that point, at that depth, it is religious. It's a deeper feeling than just, "I'm over here, and the world is over there, and I am doing something about it." This is more like a meeting, a real encounter.
"Mountains and rivers," for Dogen, stands for the is-ness of being - the magic, the impossibility of being, which appears and disappears at the same moment. How ever we explain this, or comprehend it, we are always going to be off, even in the moment of explaining and comprehending. [But] even though our explanation is off, it doesn't matter, because we are demonstrating it by our being. We are it.
So we will go on further with the text:
We do not know what measure of dharma realms would be necessary to clarify the blue mountains.
In other words, the "blue mountains" are beyond all of our different ways of understanding things. So we study mountains, and we try to understand them, but it seems to be beyond all of our approaches to understanding.
Clearly examine the green mountain's walking and your own walking.
This is a clue that Dogen is saying, "The way in which I am talking about mountains now is also the way in which you exist. Everything that I am saying about mountains is also about you. Mountains and you implicate each other. In fact, what we call mountains, and what we perceive as mountains, don't exist without the human brain and the human eye. The human brain and human eye don't exist unless there are mountains. This world that we live in - the earth and its mountains - are requirements for us to be what we are. We should examine this."
Then he says:
Examine walking backward and backward walking, and investigate the fact that walking forward and backward has never stopped since the very moment before form arose, since the time of the King of the Empty Eon.
This "walking backward" has a very specific meaning in Dogen and Zen lore. One of Dogen's famous sayings is, "Take the backward step," found in the Fukanzazengi. It has to do with meditation practice, as it says in one poem: "Trace the stream back to its source." Trace consciousness to the root where there is no inside or outside. Consciousness is, "I am over here as the subject, you are all out there as objects, and I roll along with my life." But if I trace my mind back further, to a place closer and nearer, where I am no longer separating myself from objects, the mind turns around. With the backward step, you see the unity and the emptiness of separation.
Walking forward does not cease; walking backward does not cease. Walking forward does not obstruct walking backward. Walking backward does not obstruct walking forward. This is called the mountain flow and the flowing mountain.
What is radical about what Dogen is saying here is that there is no outside of walking forward and walking backward. In other words, there is no eternity; there is no beginning; there is no end - just this backward and forward walking, which is happening simultaneously without beginning or end, without any outside of it or inside of it. This is called the mountains' flow.
What is stunning - and why, I think, we have a hard time reading this text - is because you don't realize, until you try to examine it, how much we have ideas in our minds of eternity and time, inside and outside, beginning and ending. All those kinds of ideas are the foundation of our world view, of our just getting through the day. It would be a remarkable thing if we could live without, and not be caught by, those concepts. That is what Dogen is talking about here. He is not saying that the mountains were created at some point and will end at some point. It is not that being came to be and will cease to be. It is that being itself is this ongoing-ness, and this ongoing-ness is all that there is, all there ever has been, and all there ever will be. It springs forth from nothingness on every occasion. It is an endless springing forth and endless playing out of the implications of springing forth and springing back, moment after moment, forever and forever. That is all our lives are and all they have ever been. If we could only give ourselves to that, we could let go of our resistance to being what we are and living and dying our life.
Green mountains thoroughly practice walking, and eastern mountains thoroughly practice traveling on water. Accordingly, these activities are a mountain's practice.
So, everything in the world is practicing. The world is not just laying there like a patient on a table. The world is actively engaging us, and we are actively engaging it through walking, flowing, traveling on water.
Accordingly, these activities are a mountain's practice. Keeping its own form, without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices in every place.
So mountains have a body and a mind. The physical world is not just physical. The physical world is a world in consciousness. It is consciousness. The idea we have that consciousness is one thing and physical matter is another thing is, for Dogen, a completely erroneous idea. He would say that only somebody outside the Way would think such a thing.
So the mountain always practices in every place, keeping its own form, without changing body and mind, even though, of course, this "without changing body and mind" means constant change. There is nothing that does not change. There is only change. It is as if everything in the world is alive and is expressing and is exerting its life just by being - as are we.
Do not slander by saying a green mountain cannot walk and an eastern mountain cannot travel on water. When your understanding is shallow, you doubt the phrase Green Mountains are always walking.
Common sense asks, "What do you mean the mountains are walking? Mountains are just laying there. They are the most solid thing in the world. The ideas that mountains are in movement, and that mountains are practicing, and that mountains have a body and mind, are absurd." He says, "Yes, if you have shallow understanding, you might look at it that way." [Laughter]
When your learning is immature, you would be shocked by the words "flowing mountains."
If you have a conventional view of the world like that, woe unto you. How can you ever wake up and fully live if you don't realize that the world is in motion; you are in motion; everything is in motion; everything is implicated with everything else; everything is constantly moving and changing, coming and going?
Without understanding even the words "flowing water" [and he is being funny here], you drown in small views and narrow understanding.
If you have problems with the idea of flowing mountains, and you think that water flows and mountains don't, you don't really know what it means that water is flowing. Basically it is the same thing as mountains flowing. You think that the relative physical dimension of water flowing is the whole story. No. It is only part of the story.
Yet, the characteristics of mountains manifest their form and life force. There is walking, there is flowing, and there is a moment when a mountain gives birth to a mountain child. Because mountains are Buddha ancestors, buddha ancestors appear in this way.
In other words, you may not understand this. You may have small views and shallow understanding. You may literally be drowning in your shallow views and shallow understanding; but it doesn't make any difference, because no matter what you think, this is going on. This is happening, and it is happening where you are - in you, as you, anyway.
Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks or walls,even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures' splendor, this is not returning to the source.
If you are a geologist and see all the minerals and see a little deeper now - not just seeing the stuff on the top like the grasses and trees, but now you can see underneath the topsoil, and can see all the rocks and minerals that make up the mountain - if you can see that, this is not it either. That is not the measure of what the mountains are.
Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.
Well now we must be getting closer, right? No. Even if you see mountains as metaphors of Buddhism, this is not so great either. All these things are fine, but that is not what Dogen is talking about.
Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas' wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views.
"These are all wonderful insights and understandings of mountains," Dogen is saying. "But this is still not what I am talking about." These are all conditioned views, partial views, limiting views that ultimately end in tears, because every limiting view is opposed by another limiting view. Then you eventually have conflict, confusion, and trouble.
This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.
This is the Zen way of saying a very limited view. You could picture somebody looking through a bamboo pipe at a small corner of the sky, and saying, "Look, how big the sky is!" Yes, you are seeing something that is really there, and that is good, but it is not really the whole sky. All these views that he has just recited are just looking through a bamboo pipe at the sky.
Turning circumstances and turning mind is rejected by the great sage. [The Buddha]
These are phrases that are often used in Zen: "turning circumstances" and "turning the mind." He is saying that even this kind of Zen way of practice is limited. What the great sage - the Buddha - was talking about was more than this.
Speaking of mind and speaking of essence is not agreeable to Buddha ancestors. Confined words and phrases do not lead to liberation.
In other words, understanding the nature of mind and the nature of the world is still not it. As I was saying in my introduction, any sensible, graspable explanation, in whatever sophisticated language, however inclusive of lots of information, and with lots of good viewpoints, will not lead to liberation.
There is something free from all of these views.
And now at last he is going to tell us what it is! After all that, what is it that he is talking about? And here it is:
Green mountains are always walking, and Eastern mountains travel on water. Study this in detail.
To me that amounts to two things. First of all, the immediacy of concepts and words as, themselves, experiences. When you hear a word or a concept, you think that the word or concept stands for something else. "Green mountains walking" would refer to mountains that are over there; green refers to a color; and walking refers to something we do when we put our feet one in front of the other. "Green mountains walking" is a concept that refers to something else. So now in this moment, when I think this way, I have leapt over my experience of these concepts as an experience, [and defaulted back] to what they refer to.
So he is talking about language. If you could exist so deeply inside of language - meaning your own thoughts, your own feelings that you describe to yourself, this is what Dogen is talking about. If you could be so intimate with those thoughts and feelings, and you weren't leaping past them to something you thought that they referred to, or something you wanted to manipulate or change, and you were actually just there, fully there, that would be to be fully engaged with your life.
He is talking about the immediacy of concepts as experience, and he is also talking about the immediacy of experience that is beyond concepts - the kind of experience that can't be explained or discussed in any way in which we could accurately get at it.
So, he is talking about radical immediacy, without any separation between this and that, without any linearity in time, but a fully entering into our lives in any moment. It would be like sitting with a phrase in zazen and just entering into it. It becomes your life. You are no longer thinking about it or pondering it. You just completely fuse with it. It becomes immediate for you. He is talking about the immediacy of thoughts and concepts on the one hand, and also the immediacy of experience. Somewhere in here he says, "Raising a fist." It's like that. In other words, all the explanations and all the philosophy are fine, but what really is important is living - the immediacy of living. Raising a fist is an action of living in this moment, the action of language and the action of experiencing our life.
In other words, all that he is saying about mountains - walking and flowing, and everything having no separation and no ending and no beginning, and their ongoing-ness - is available to us in every moment of our being, if we could fully enter it. That is an active entrance. It is an act of living.