We continue our study tonight of Dogen’s Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors. In the previous sections, Dogen introduced us to Layman Dongpo, who expressed his awakening in a beautiful poem about his experience meditating late one night:
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?
Dogen went on to talk about this poem and its meaning. In tonight’s section, Dogen moves on to talk about another student and their awakening experience.
Xiangyan Zhixian studied at the assembly of Guishan Lingyou, Zen Master Dayuan, on Mount Gui, Guishan said, “You are bright and knowledgeable. Say something about yourself before your parents were born, but don’t use words learned from commentaries,”
This is quite a challenge coming from a senior teacher – he’s asking the student to respond directly in the moment, not to rely on the texts that he may have read.
Xiangyan tried and tried but could not say anything. He pored through many books he had collected over the years but could not come up with anything. Deeply ashamed, he burned the books and said, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger. I will be just a cooking monk, not expecting to understand buddha dharma in this lifetime.” A cooking monk means one who supports the assembly by cooking rice, an equivalent of a kitchen assistant in our country. He followed this vow for years.
Xiangyan tried to find something to say, but he couldn’t find anything in the texts, and he couldn’t find anything within himself, so he of course got rather frustrated at this! The expression “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger” is a famous Zen expression and it’s meaning is clear – the dharma that we read about in the texts may be beautiful and inspiring, but ultimately, it’s not going feed our spiritual hunger. Instead of trying to eat a painting of a rice cake, we need to eat a real rice cake, experience the dharma directly, in order to be satisfied. It’s not that we don’t need paintings of rice cakes – indeed, in another essay, Dogen argues that the distinction between painted rice cakes and real rice cakes is immaterial – such painted rice cakes, the written teachings, the opportunity to learn from others, these are all true and important things. But unless they are grounded in our own experience, they are ultimately not going to help us.
So Xiangyan sort of decides to step back from all of this – maybe he’s being overly dramatic by saying that he’ll never understand the dharma in this lifetime – but he’s not dropping out of practice. Instead, he’s going to focus on serving the community and not worrying so much about his own attainment. This is an excellent example for us. Indeed, this is what a bodhisattva does. They serve the community without regard for their own attainment. Xiangyan is doing exactly what most teachers would recommend.
One day Xiangyan said to Guishan, “My mind is undifferentiated; I cannot speak. Can you speak for me. Master?”Guishan said,”l wouldn’t mind explaining it to you, but if I did, you would resent me in the future.”
You get the sense that Xiangyan was not quite at peace with his decision to back away from Guishan’s question. We don’t know how much time has passed here, but it’s clear that Xiangyan is still wrestling with Guishan’s original question. Guishan’s response is excellent – he’s being very direct. He could just explain it to Xiangyan, but that wouldn’t really help him very much. Xiangyan will need to keep wrestling with this question longer.
Sometime later, Xiangyan went to the memorial site of Nanyang Huizhong, National Teacher Dazheng, at Mount Wudang, and built himself a hut. For company, he planted some bamboo.
It sounds like some years have gone by, and maybe Xiangyan is no longer working in the kitchen and has instead gone to live on his own and just quietly continue his practice.
One day, while he was sweeping the path, a pebble flew up and struck a bamboo. At the unexpected sound, Xiangyan had thorough awakening. After bathing and cleansing himself, he faced Mount Gui, offered incense, prostrated himself, and said, “Master, if you had spoken for me at that time, this could not have happened. Your kindness is deeper than my parents’.”
In other words, he gets it. This sound of the pebble hitting the bamboo is just like the sound of the valley streams. It points to emptiness, to interdependence, and this experience is what inspires Xiangyan. He acknowledges the importance of Guishan’s teaching, his insistence that Xiangyan find this out for himself. Sometimes the best teaching is just to encourage someone to find their own way.
Then he wrote a poem:
One stroke dissolves knowledge.
Struggle no longer needed.
I will follow the ancient path
not lapsing into quietude.
Noble conduct beyond sound and form—
no trace anywhere.
Those who have mastered the way
may call this an unsurpassable activity.
He presented this poem to Guishan, who said, “This fellow has gone through.”
This poem is analogous to Dongpo’s poem about the sound of the valley streams. Here he is pointing to how the direct experience of hearing the pebble hitting the bamboo cuts through all of his ideas and thoughts about the teaching. It’s a direct experience. Now that he has had this experience, he commits himself to just continuing the practice. That’s what we do. We may have moments of transcendent insight, but then we return to the workplace and just continue our activity, transformed by our insight, but recognizing that the best way to express this inspiration is just to continue to live, to work, and to practice.
The great mountaineer and educator, Willi Unsoeld, who was on the first American team to climb Mount Everest and went on to help found the Evergreen State College in Washington, focused on experiencing the sacred in nature, the importance of risk in education and getting personal experience rather than relying on the experience of others. About this need for direct experience, and what we do with it, he said:
Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of man might be realized.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, very relevant for our study of this text. When we hear the sound of the valley streams and see the color of the mountains, our job is not to just retreat to the mountains, to the practice of quietude but instead it is to return to the city, refreshed and inspired, and able to continue in our bodhisattva activity.