In his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”
When you meditate, you sit still, feel your breath and enter the immediacy of being fully alive, right here, right now. Thoughts will come and go. It could be about something you have forgotten to do, or a thought about a problem or project in your life. Whatever it is, it comes and it goes. It’s the same as breathing — it just comes and goes like a melody in the heart. In meditation, we eventually realize that all our concepts, all our beliefs are just that, concepts and beliefs. We don’t have to attach to them; we don’t have to believe in them.
We think the mountains are solid. We think our concepts are solid. They’re not. They exist in this moment, and then they are gone. When we realize this, we know that mountains are walking. There is no such thing as something solid; everything is moving all the time.
“A stone woman gives birth to a child at night.” This is the mysterious birth before the universe formed. It is the birth that never ends and never begins. All of reality is like this. These Zen sayings express what Dogen is trying to express in “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”. In emptiness and in awareness, everything comes and goes; everything is born and dies. A stone woman, by any definition, cannot give birth. But in this sentence, she gives birth at night. This is Dogen’s way of saying that true birth, the birth that makes all birth possible, is always going on beyond the world we can see.
We need our usual ideas about who we are and what we think this world is for practical purposes. We need to communicate with each other to manage daily life, but if that’s all we have, if we don’t see that all things come and go, we will suffer and we will make others suffer.
We all know we are going to die, and we all struggle for understanding and meaning in human life. We look for meaning in order to make peace with life. That’s why there are religions. Religion is a struggle to give meaning to life and death.
“The green mountains are always walking. A stone woman gives birth to a child at night.” These phrases — “The green mountains are constantly walking” and “The stone woman gives birth to child at night” — express everything that Dogen is trying to convey about the reality of human life.
Suggested practice: Memorize one of these phrases. Say it to yourself over and over for the next two weeks as you sit, walk, work, eat and fall asleep. Breathe with it and stay with it. You might feel something in your living as a result of staying with the phrase. You might feel your place in this constant motion.
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.