One spring day, after practicing for thirty years, Lingyun, who would later become Zen Master Zhiqin, walked into the mountains. While resting he saw peach blossoms in full bloom in a distant village and was suddenly awakened. He wrote this poem, which he presented to Guishan:
For thirty years I have looked for a sword master.
Many times leaves fell, new ones sprouted. One glimpse of peach blossoms—
now no more doubts, just this.
Guishan said, “One who enters with ripened conditions will never leave.” He approved Lingyun in this way.
We are continuing our close reading of Dogen’s wonderful ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors’ this evening. And in this section, Dogen presents another awakening story about how an external sound or sight, especially in a pristine natural setting, can bring forth awakening. Little is known about Lingyun beyond his teachings, but Dogen wrote extensively about them, and especially about this story.
We don’t know why Lingyun went into the mountains, but it appears that this was after he had been practicing for a long time. Perhaps, like in our other stories last week, his teacher saw that he needed to change the context of his practice. As Guishan comments later, something had ripened in his practice so that he was ready for this experience. It’s certainly not hard to imagine the sight of peach blossoms as an occasion for awakening.
His poem suggests some degree of frustration or difficulty. The imagery of leaves falling and new ones sprouting suggests that Lingyun somehow couldn’t keep up with his own karma, his own habits of mind and body. Just when he would maybe clear something up, gain some intuition, something else would come along that would, at least seemingly, set him back. But once he saw the peach blossoms, there was no more doubt.
Dogen wrote about exactly this point in one of his waka poems: “Petals of the peach blossom / Unfolding in the spring breeze / Sweeping aside all doubts / Amid the distraction of / leaves and branches.
What are the ripened conditions that his teacher, Guishan, refers to? This is the ripening of karma, the coming to fruition of the cumulutive acts of our minds and bodies. An understanding of karma is one of the most important things we can develop as practitioners. It is not some arcane principle, it is a very direct and important way that we can cultivate happiness in ourselves and others.
The modern Tibetan teacher Geshe Tashi Tsering wrote a very succinct summary of karma: “Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining whether we engage with virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. Just as iron is powerlessly drawn to a magnet, our minds are powerlessly drawn to the object of our intentions. . .
How do we accumulate karmic seeds? Every physical and verbal action is preceded by mental activity. Goodwill motivates a kind gesture; ill will motivates nasty words. Ill will is the intention to cause mental, emotional or physical harm. Thus, before and during a bad action, ill will is present in our mind. The presence of ill will before and during this act has an impact and influence on the mind due to which a certain potential is left behind. This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors, including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention and whether the physical and verbal action is completed.
Seeds will remain in the mind until they ripen or are destroyed. Seeds left by negative mental events and actions can be destroyed by the four opponent or antidotal powers. The most important of these four powers are regret for the negative act and a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future. Seeds left by positive mental events and actions can be destroyed by anger.”
Now these seeds are a potential, they haven’t really had an effect until they ripen. For karmic seeds to ripen, the right circumstances must be there. Sometimes this plays out in a negative way when we put ourselves in the same situations over and over again. It’s kind of a karmic loop that keeps planting the seeds.
But Guishan is referring to a happier occasion for the ripening of karma. In this case, it was Lingyun’s 30 years of practice and then departing for the mountains and then the chance seeing of the peach blossoms. The 30 years of sincere practice planted some very strong, very positive seeds, seeds of awareness, mindfulness, compassion. But they couldn’t ripen in the monastery. Instead, Lingyun had to go out into the mountains and the occasion of seeing the peach blossoms brought all of those positive seeds to fruition. But make no mistake – he had to be ready for that moment, his whole 30 years of practice made him ready. And Guishan is saying that once you’re ready for this transcendent awakening, it just takes the tiniest nudge to bring you there. Gradual cultivation, sudden awakening.
Who does not enter with ripened causes? Who enters and then goes away? This awakening is not limited to Lingyun. If mountain colors were not the unconditioned body, how could this awakening have occurred? This is how he inherited dharma from Guishan.
This passage speaks to the principle of original awakening, the idea that we all possess the seeds of awakening, the seeds of goodness, within us from the start. In other words, we couldn’t have even been born without having ripened causes. It was the ripened causes that allowed our parents to meet and for us to take this human form when we did. This awakening is our birthright – who doesn’t have it? Who can escape it?
This wasn’t just Lingyun’s experience, it’s all of ours. The unconditioned body is the dharmakaya, the basic principle of wakefulness that permeates everything; the ground of reality is this awakening, the dharmakaya. It’s the cause for ripening our karmic seeds. It’s a beautiful image – the mountain colors themselves, the valley sounds, the natural world around us, these provide the fundamental occasion for our awakening, not because we are special or because we deserve it, it’s just because we have been born here, on this planet. It’s what we get by being born on this beautiful planet Earth. But like Lingyun, we must make our best effort, we have to do our part, to manifest the awakening that is all around us, to embody it, and bring it from the realm of potentiality to the realm of actuality. This is Dogen’s great teaching of practice-enlightenment.
This idea of the natural world as the fundamental ground of our awakening and as our birthright is so inspiring, and John Muir’s writings evokes this in his great “Mountains of California”, especially his imagery of the wind reaching everywhere. It reminds me of Dogen:
“The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty. However restricted the scope of other forest influences, that of the winds is universal. The snow bends and trims the upper forests every winter, the lightning strikes a single tree here and there, while avalanches mow down thousands at a swoop as a gardener trims out a bed of flowers. But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean; the winds blessing the forests, the forests the winds, with ineffable beauty and harmony as the sure result.”
–Taisan Joe Galewsky