On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

October 21, 2001

The Mountain and River Sutras

Dogen (1200-1253)

Mountains are the home of the great sages throughout the past and present. Saints and sages live together deep in the mountains; mountains are their body mind. Saints and sages actualize mountains. Looking at the mountains from this world, and looking at them while standing on them are completely different.

The present mountains and rivers actualize the Way of the ancient Buddhas. Both mountains and rivers maintain their true form and actualize their real virtue. They transcend time and therefore are active in the eternal present. Mountains possess the virtue of being high and wide, yet the movement of clouds and the blowing of wind are free and not restricted by the mountain.

The mountain possesses complete virtue with nothing lacking; therefore, it is always safely rooted, yet constantly moving. Simply because the movement of a mountain is not like the movement of a human being, do not doubt that it exists. If anyone doubts the movement of the mountain, it is because they do not understand their own movement. People move and take steps, but they are unable to understand it. When we understand our own movement, we can understand the movement of the mountain.

Since our understanding is inadequate we are amazed to hear the expression “flowing mountains.” Enlightened vision is actualized in the mountains, grasses, trees, earth, stone, fences, and walls. Do not have any doubt about it.

Dogen (1200-1253)

Excerpted from “The Mountain and River Sutras” from the Shobegenzo Vol II; translated by Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens (1977)

In Song dynasty China there was a great writer who studied Buddhism, reaching the profound depths and the lofty heights. Once when he went to Mount Lu, he became enlightened upon hearing the sound of a valley stream flowing in the night. He composed a verse on this occasion, which he presented to a Zen master:

The sound of the valley stream is the Universal Tongue,
The colors of the mountains are all the Pure Body.
Another day how can I recite
The eighty-four thousand verses of last night?

Zen master Reiun worked on the Way for thirty years. Once when he was traveling in the mountains, as he took a rest at the foot of a mountain he gazed at a village in the distance. It was spring at the time. Seeing the peach blossoms in full bloom, he suddenly was enlightened. He composed a verse which he presented to Isan:

For thirty years I’ve been looking for a swordsman;
How many times have the leaves fallen
And the branches grown anew?
After once having seen the peach blossoms
I never have doubts any more.


The Teaching of Trees

One evening a teacher of the Martial Ways said to his students, “I regret that I am all you have for a teacher. These Ways are difficult enough to learn, and if you rely only on me you will not learn nearly enough. For to truly learn you must go, not to one who has learned these arts as I have, but to one who has known them from the beginning. Even the highest of humans are mere apprentices in this regard.”

His students, as students are apt to do, managed to look both puzzled and expectant at once.

“My own teacher was a tree. From my esteemed teacher I learned most of what I know about the Ways. Even today, I have barely scratched the surface of this tree teaching. It is my teacher’s teaching that I attempt to pass on to you with but partial success. The fault is not your own, for I am not quite eloquent enough. My words, and even my actions get in the way.

“Listen. My father, a Warrior from the West went to see the Old Man of the Mountain to learn about his Way. He followed a stream up the mountain, but he turned back after going only part of the distance. It is said that the old sage watched his retreat with silent approval. Flowing water became his teacher for the rest of his life. He learned much but still he couldn’t pass it on to me.

“It is said that my grandfather learned from the clouds. His technique was lofty, subtle, hard to define. They say he could not be touched. He was like a mist who in the end vanished like a summer cloud.

“I feel that I may know some of what my father and grandfather learned from their teachers, and yet I cannot be sure. For each of us must follow a slightly separate path. I spent many years in the forest with my teacher who never once deviated from the Way. This tree teaching has served me quite well. Here, then, is a small part of what my teacher taught me:

“A tree is heavy at the root, light at the top. Its leaves sense the slightest movement of the wind and invariably move before the trunk can be swayed. Its branches bend before they break. When they do break, Life Force is immediately transferred to the remaining limbs.

“When a tree sways it appears to move back and forth, but it is actually revolving in circles; its limbs cannot be taunted or provoked into movement, only in response to movement do they move.

“A tree becomes dormant in order to become vital. This is the very key to our art- Action arising from Stillness. While the manifestations of its Force are evident, the root is kept hidden from plain view.

“A tree is tall and noble, mysteriously alive, upright in bearing and continually growing and renewing until death, which is then met without a care.”

All of this taught in a silence
More eloquent than a thousand words.
Each day I honor my teacher
When I walk slowly through
The dark coolness of the forest.
So, learn what you can from others.
But to truly learn you must Return
To the wordless Teaching of the Self-Evident;
The trees, the streams, the sky;
Teachers abound if you would 
Become their lessons.

Then the students, as students are apt to do, looked as if they understood while their teacher rose and disappeared into the evening forest for the night.

– taken from Life in the Rolling Mirror

In these writings we are drawn to the principles inherent in nature. How enticing to learn from nature directly. To observe in such a way, one could never exhaust the teachings that surround us daily. This kind of learning requires a kind of “turn around” in our conditioned way of learning. Instead of merely relying or giving back the content we have been told or read, here we become much more actively involved. As Confucious would say:

If I hold up one corner
And you do not come back
To me with the other three,
I do not continue the lesson.

    – Confucious

How rare to find these teachers that never say too much. The clouds, the trees, the stream, the mountain all have their messages, spoken in a direct language that we can barely hear now. If we could hear these messages we would know more clearly how to move through the world in harmony with a light that could tangibly change the world.

Listening to the Wind,
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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