A Zen’s-Eye View: Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers without Zen practice

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In the last A Zen’s Eye View column (“A Zen’s-Eye View: Taoists find logic by listening to mountain and rivers”) I spoke of how a Song dynasty poet, following a night of meditation, experienced the mountains as being beyond the ordinary mountains that he usually saw. After he awakened from the dream of his conditioning, the mountains didn’t look different, and yet everything was completely different.

You may have a feeling for what this is like. It’s as if the physical world — sounds, forms and feelings — evoke a presence that is beyond the two-dimensional presence we give our ordinary daily lives. We feel like we have been here before and yet there is something here that was always here but we never noticed. It’s like we had been dreaming up to this moment and now we are finally and fully awake.

In the essay that I’m discussing in this column, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, Dogen, a 13th century Zen master and author, is thinking about another ancient Chinese saying.

“When I first began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. As I trained, mountains were not mountains; rivers were not rivers. Now that I am established in the way, mountains are once more mountains and rivers are once more rivers.”

These words represent three different ways we feel about our lives. In the first instance we see mountains and rivers and other people only through lens of our projection, our separation and alienation. Everybody is like this. We see things in an oppositional relationship where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Life seems hard. Others are a threat. Time and money are scarce. We have to struggle get by.

That’s the first “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers,” in which we are limited by our view. But at some point we wake up to the realization that there must be another way of living this life. This is where Zen practice begins.

Through practice we realize that everything is impermanent. This doesn’t just mean that over time things change; it means that things are changing in every moment. We can’t hold on to anything, not even ourselves. The person we imagined ourselves to be has changed. We can’t grasp thought or make breath stay. On one hand this can be terrifying. If there is nothing to grasp; everything will be lost.

On other hand, impermanence means that suffering will pass. When we realize this, mountains are not mountains; rivers are not rivers. Impermanence is no longer an idea; it’s just the way things are. At this point, we settle into life as it is. Practice, as something special, disappears. There is only life, only mountains and rivers in their pristine beauty. Now we can fully accept the condition of our lives and realize that the particulars, family, job and possessions are only vehicles for how we live out our deepest spiritual values.

Suggested practice: Consider how each of your daily activities can be an expression of your deepest spiritual values. Bring this to mind as you move through your day.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fishcher. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.