Zen master Eihei Dogen, in his 13th century essay, “Mountain and Rivers Sutra”, says, “Green mountains thoroughly practice walking and eastern mountains thoroughly practice traveling on water.”
Have you ever noticed that animals can’t live an unreal life? We humans can wake up one day and realize that we’ve been living an unreal life for the last 30 years. This often happens when people begin Zen practice or when they hear the wisdom of Buddha’s teachings. Dogen says that mountains thoroughly practice being exactly what they are. Part of our problem is that we don’t thoroughly practice; in other words, we don’t thoroughly live our lives. But mountains do.
Anyone who has attended a full Zen retreat knows how wonderful it is to live a Zen life punctuated by the sound of a bell guiding our daily routine. It’s like floating through time, and if you are steeped in Zen literature, phrases from the teachings may suddenly come to mind and brighten your view. Dogen started out this essay with the phrase “mountains are mountains” in mind. So here he is thinking about another phrase, “Eastern mountains are walking on water.”
We feel slightly off balance when Dogen talks like this. Our fixed idea is that mountains don’t walk; mountains don’t travel on water. That’s absurd. But here he goes on like mountains walking on water is just a matter of fact. If you really examine mountains you’ll see that his words are true. Mountains do travel on water. They travel on clouds, they travel on streams and they travel on snowmelt. Every leaf of every plant on every mountain is water. Water causes constant motion, constant decay and renewal. This is the mountains’ thorough practice.
Dogen says, “Keeping its own form without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices.” This brings us back to the feeling of mountains, to the practice of sitting in zazen through everything that arises, in the same way that a mountain is steadfast thorough all weathers. As our sitting practice deepens, we sit steadfast through all conditions: happiness, sadness, joy, hope, despair, grief and doubt. We just sit still and discover that we have the power to do so through all conditions —like a mountain does. We endure as a mountain endures. Dogen says that’s how mountains always practice everywhere.
But what about mountains travelling over water?
Here Dogen asks us to deepen our understanding, to broaden our view. He says, “When your understanding is shallow you will doubt the phrase ‘green mountains are always walking’. When your understanding is immature you are shocked by the words ‘flowing mountains’. Without fully understanding the words ‘flowing mountains’ you drown in small views and narrow understandings.” Dogen invites us to let go of limiting beliefs, and view our lives through a new and deeper lens.
Suggested practice: Reflect on how your conditioned beliefs limit freedom of thought. Imagine how your freedom would deepen if you dropped those beliefs, and simply observed the world as-it-is.
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 Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.