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?
Seeing this verse, Changzong approved his understanding. Changzong, also called Zen Master Zhaojiao, was a dharma heir of Huanglong, Zen Master Huinan, who was a dharma heir of Chuyuan, Zen Master Ciming. Another time when Dongpo met with Liaoyuan, Zen Master Foyin, Liaoyuan transmitted the buddha precepts to him with a dharma robe, which Dongpo later wore when practicing. Dongpo presented Liaoyuan with a jeweled belt. People talked about this exchange as something extraordinary.
Here Dogen is showing us a bit of how teachers worked with lay students in this era. Apparently, Dongpo worked with multiple teachers and even before he had this breakthrough, he had received some kind of lay transmission from Zen Master Foyin, and he even received an okesa and a jeweled belt. Clearly, Dongpo was an extraordinary practitioner.
The valley sounds of Dongpo would refresh practitioners of later generations. How sad for those who miss the dharma of the manifested buddha body! How are mountain colors seen and valley sounds heard otherwise? Are mountain colors and valley sounds one phrase or half a phrase? Are they eighty-four thousand verses of scripture? You may regret that mountains and waters conceal sounds and colors, but you may also rejoice that the moment of enlightenment emerges through mountains and waters.
This insight of Dongpo is something that even today, 800 years down the road, we are studying and can take inspiration from. The ‘manifested Buddha body’ is also known as the Nirmana-kaya – it’s the physical form that a Buddha assumes in this world in order to teach people effectively. The Nirmana-kaya is the medium through which dharma teaching occurs. We normally think of this as the form of a person, but I think here Dogen is taking a broader view of the Nirmana-kaya. In this case, the valley sounds and mountain colors are themselves the medium that teaches the dharma, and Dogen is lamenting those who can’t see that. Dogen is then asking: if you don’t experience mountain sounds and valley colors as the Nirmana-kaya, the body of Buddha, are you really even experiencing them at all? Is the experience of mountain colors and valley sounds a complete experience, or is it only part of the way to awakening? He asks, are they indeed the teachings of the Buddha? Finally here, Dogen tells us that yes, it may be difficult to see how the mountains and waters are expressing the Dharma, but as he often points out, even if we don’t get it with our intellect, it is still true, and we still benefit from it, regardless. So even that faith is an occasion for rejoicing.
The tongue of the Buddha does not take a break. The colors are beyond coming and going. Are the sounds and colors intimate when they are apparent, or are they intimate when they are obscured? Are they one whole expression or half an expression? During past springs and autumns, Dongpo had not seen or heard the mountains and waters. He saw and heard them for the first time that night.
The mountain colors and valley sounds are continuous in their expression of the Dharma, even if we aren’t paying attention. The question of intimacy and obscurity reminds me of another Zen story:
In China, there was a teacher named Dizang (J.: Rakan) who had a student named Fayan (J.: Hogen). Dizang saw Fayan all dressed in his traveling clothes, with his straw sandals and his staff, and a pack on his back, and Dizang said, “Where are you going?” Fayan answered, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
This passage is getting at an important point: Dongpo’s realization was not an intellectual idea about emptiness and mountains and valleys. It was a moment of experiencing valley sounds and mountain colors, not thinking, “Oh boy, this is great! I love sitting here and listening to the valley sounds. I bet this is what the Buddha meant when he talked about emptiness!”
Which is more intimate, which something is clearly seen and available to our intellect to evaluate, or maybe when something is partially obscured and that we can only intuit? In the latter case our intellect may not have much to hold onto, but maybe we experience it in a deeper way.
Bodhisattvas who study the way, open your minds to mountains flowing and to water not flowing, Dongpo had this awakening soon after he heard Changzong talk about insentient beings speaking dharma. Although Dongpo did not leap when he heard Changzong’s words, towering billows flew into the sky upon his hearing the sounds of the valley. Was it the valley sounds or the tide of awakening that jolted Dongpo?
The idea that insentient beings can communicate, that they can even speak the Dharma, was a popular idea in China during this time. The idea was that all things, plants, animals, rocks, have Buddha nature or are even a manifestation of the Buddha’s mind. In this view, nothing is alien or other in the world. Everything is part of the same mental entity. An attentive listener, like Dongpo, can hear this language of insentient beings. Dongpo had heard this teaching from Changzong, but that wasn’t enough to wake him up. There was something in that moment of meditating in the mountains, some combination of Dognpo’s own inherent wakefulness and the sounds of the valley that came together to generate a transcendent insight.
I suspect that Changzong’s voices of insentient beings speaking dharma are resounding even now, still blended with the sounds of the night’s stream. Who can fathom this water? Is it a bucketful or does it fill whole oceans? In the end let me ask you: Was it Dongpo who was awakened or the mountains and waters that were awakened? Who today sees right away with a clear eye the long, broad tongue and the unconditioned body of the Buddha?
What a beautiful expression – of course the insentient beings are still speaking the dharma today, it’s in the sound of the Rio Grande, it’s in the sound of the cars driving by, in the sounds of the geese flying overhead. Are we able to hear the teaching of insentient beings?
Our old friend John Muir could definitely hear the teaching of the insentient beings in Yosemite, and I will leave you with his words from Tuolumne Meadows:
“The foreground was . . . aflame with autumn colors, brown and purple and gold, ripe in the mellow sunshine; contrasting brightly with the deep, cobalt blue of the sky, and the black and gray, and pure, spiritual white of the rocks and glaciers. Down through the midst, the young Tuolumne was seen pouring from its crystal fountains, now resting in glassy pools as if changing back again into ice, now leaping in white cascades as if turning to snow; gliding right and left between granite bosses, then sweeping on through the smooth, meadowy levels of the valley, swaying pensively from side to side with calm, stately gestures past dipping willows and sedges, and around groves of arrowy pine; and throughout its whole eventful course, whether flowing fast or slow, singing loud or low, ever filling the landscape with spiritual animation, and manifesting the grandeur of its sources in every movement and tone.”
–Taisan Joe Galewsky