Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part 1

Tonight I’d like to begin discussing one of Dogen’s famous fascicles from Shobogenzo, Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, sometimes translated as Sound of the Valley Streams, Colors of the Mountains.  It’s one of the essays that has been used as a foundation for thinking about a Buddhist response to our current environmental crisis, but it’s also a beautiful ode to the feeling we get when we encounter the natural world, the feeling of awe and inspiration.

This essay was written in 1240, which is sort of mid-career for Dogen.  Tonight I just want to focus on the first couple of sections.  In the opening, Dogen invokes the spirit of our ancestors, those who have practiced before us, to inspire us to take up the practice:

In the transmission of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment by numberless buddha ancestors, various practices have arisen. Study such examples as ancient practitioners crushing their bones and Huike chopping off his arm. Embody in yourself the dedication of a boy spreading his hair on muddy ground for the Buddha to walk on.  Slipping out of your old skin, not constrained by past views, you manifest immediately what has been dormant for boundless eons. As this  very moment manifests,”I” don’t know,”who” doesn’t know, “you” have no expectations, and “the buddha eye” sees beyond seeing. This experience is beyond the realm of human thinking.

Dogen is one of the most intensely literary of all Buddhist teachers.  Every sentence, almost every word, is ringing with references to Chinese literature, to Buddhist history and teachings.  It can make studying Dogen a bit cumbersome, but it’s also a central part of his power.  In this opening section, Dogen is using a very traditional mode of invoking authority, by invoking the ancient worthies.  He is referring to specific stories of practitioners who made practice their absolutely central concern, practitioners who showed their dedication by, for example, chopping off their arm to show their sincerity.

There are many ways we understand authority.  Today, we tend to put a lot of authority on experts in a given field. Scientists who study an issue are often invoked as authorities.  It wasn’t always this way.  Traditionally, in the west, the bible or torah was the source of authority, or the king or the pope.  In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment shifted the ground of authority in the west away from traditional sources and pointed to reason as the source of authority.  This was the beginning of our modern use of science as a source of authority, although as we know, there is still a strong current in our society that continues to reject science and maintain that the bible is the source of authority.

In Dogen’s time, in East Asia, the main source of authority was the appeal to ancestors.  The idea was very different from where we are today.  Today, we think that whatever’s current and modern is best, and that the ways of the past are backward and best left behind.  This is sort of the founding idea of America, really.  In Dogen’s time, the feeling was that the current society had really lost its way and things now are really bad.  In the past, people really had their heads screwed on straight, so we should look to their stories for inspiration and example. 

So in this opening passage, Dogen is pointing to the ancient worthies, but then basically telling us that we have this exact same capacity, it’s just that it’s dormant.  This capacity may be beyond our intellect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not available to us.

In Song China there was a man who called himself Layman Dongpo. He was originally named Shi of the Su family, and his initiatory name was Zidan, A literary genius, he studied the way of dragons and elephants in the ocean of awakening. He descended deep chasms and soared freely through clouds.

With this opening encouragement out of the way, Dogen now dives into the story that he will explore for the remainder of the essay.  Layman Dongpo was a real historical figure, sometimes known as Su Shih, a great Chinese public intellectual. He was born in 1037 and died in1101.  He was very active in Chinese politics and was widely known as a devout Buddhist.  He wrote more than 2500 poems, most of which are still with us today, and he wrote widely on such diverse topics as engineering and gastronomy.  The imagery used by Dogen here of soaring through clouds and descending into chasms evokes his connection with the natural world and shows his power as a practitioner.

One night when Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he was enlightened upon hearing the sound of the valley stream. He composed the following verse, which he presented to Changzong:

Valley sounds are the long, broad tongue.

Mountain colors are no other than the unconditioned body.

Eighty-four thousand verses are heard through the night.

What can I say about this in the future?

This poem is the focus of the essay that follows.  The main idea here is that the Buddha’s teachings are embodied in the natural world.  The ‘long broad tongue’ is that of the Buddha, evoking his verbal expression of the teachings.  The metaphor is that the sounds we hear in a mountain valley are exactly the voice of the Buddha.  And the colors of the mountains are the absolute truth, the unconditioned body of the Buddha.  The ‘eighty-four thousand verses’ are the sutras, the teachings of the Buddha.

Clearly, Dongpo had a powerful, ecstatic experience of the natural world.  What was the content of this experience?  I think his poem tells us.

I am sure you have all spent some time in the mountains, and it’s not hard to remember the sound of the valleys.  If you think about it, a valley doesn’t have a single sound in the way that a bird or a frog has a distinct sound; instead, the sound of a valley is made up of many different components: the tricking of water in a stream, the wind passing through the trees and making the leaves rustle and the branches creak, all of the animal sounds – crickets, birds, frogs.  All of these things, and more, come together to create the sound of a valley.  This is a pretty good understanding of emptiness – what we call ‘valley sounds’ are made up of a myriad of interconnected sounds that generate the distinct sense of spaciousness and dynamic activity that we associate with the sound of valley.  There is no single thing we can identify as the sound of a valley.

So to say that the valley sounds are the sounds of the Buddha teaching the dharma is not a big leap.  To the extent that the Buddha taught about interdependence, recognizing valley sounds as embodying this teaching is pretty good.  The same line of reasoning holds for recognizing the color of the mountains as emptiness:  from afar, we may see the mountains as a mottled gray-green, but we  know that this color comes from the rocks, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the quality of light.  Mountain colors are indeed empty of inherent existence.

You can imagine that Dongpo was spending the night in a mountain hermitage, maybe devoting himself to a night of meditation, and it’s not hard to imagine him having this insight, not as an intellectual idea, but as a real, felt experience.  This is a pretty good example of the kind of awakening experience we can access.  Many of you have probably had a similar experience in the mountains or in other wilderness settings.

 I think this story resonates with our current feelings about the natural world, that the natural world expresses something profound and true and good.  And we feel that it would be better if our society as a whole could pay attention to this.

 This feeling about the natural world has not always been the norm.  In the Buddha’s time, the natural world was not seen as benevolent or peaceful or healing.  In ancient India, and in the European tradition until quite recently, the natural world was considered dangerous and ugly.  The mountains are where the witches lived, where the snakes and tigers lived.  The Buddha did not speak about the natural world as a place of healing.  The original sutras mostly invoke the natural world as an example of a place of danger.  It was only after Buddhism moved to China and absorbed Taoist influences that this new idea of the natural world was adopted.

 In the west, the natural world was, and to a great extent remains, a place to be subdued and brought under our control for our own financial gain.  But of course there is a strong tradition in the west of experiencing the natural world in the way that Dongpo describes.  Perhaps no one better exemplifies this than the great John Muir.  In his classic ‘Mountains of California’, his description of a Sierran meadow sounds evokes a similar feeling as that of Dongpo:

 With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake, feeling yourself contained in one of Nature’s most sacred chambers, withdrawn from the sterner influences of the mountains, secure from all intrusion, secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm, terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar. The resiny pines are types of health and steadfastness; the robins feeding on the sod belong to the same species you have known since childhood; and surely these daisies, larkspurs, and goldenrods are the very friend-flowers of the old home garden. Bees hum as in a harvest noon, butterflies waver above the flowers, and like them you lave in the vital sunshine, too richly and homogenously joy-filled to be capable of partial thought. You are all eye, sifted through and through with light and beauty.

 So much of John Muir’s writing is like this – that the natural world is at once sacred and familiar.  Its joys are as easily accessed as going for a hike, if only our eyes are opened to the light and beauty around us.

As we continue to explore this fascicle, I’d like to continue exploring the parallels between Dogen’s understanding of the natural world as a locus of awakening and our modern, often contradictory views about the natural world.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


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