Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part V

Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen, “How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?” Changsha said, “How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?”

Saying that the self returns to the self is not contradicted by saying that the self is mountains, rivers, and the great earth.  Langye Huijue, Great Master Guangzhao, was a dharma descendant of Nanyue. Once Zhixuan, a lecturer on scriptures, asked Langye, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Langye responded, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Now we know. Mountains, rivers, and the great earth, which are originally unconditioned, should not be mistaken for mountains, rivers, and the great earth. The sutra master had never heard this, so he did not understand mountains, rivers, and the great earth as just mountains, rivers, and the great earth.

Know that without mountain colors and valley sounds, [Shakyamuni Buddhas] taking up the flower and [Huike’s] attaining the marrow would not have taken place. Because of tiie power of valley sounds and mountain colors, the Buddha with the great earth and sentient beings simultaneously attains the way, and countless buddhas become enlightened upon seeing the morning star. Such skin bags are earlier sages whose aspiration for seeking dharma is profound. People today should be inspired by predecessors like these. Authentic study, free of concern for fame and gain, should be based on such aspiration.

Tonight we are continuing our study of Dogen’s ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors’.  In this section, Dogen is playing with the use of mountains and rivers as a metaphor for emptiness.  It’s a seemingly confusing passage, but I think it’s not that difficult really, although it’s a bit easier to focus on the overall meaning rather than a word-by-word interpretation.

On the one hand, we have actual mountains and rivers: we have the actual Sandia mountains, made of granite and water and trees and snakes; we have the actual Rio Grande, made of water and sandy banks and fish and birds.  Of course, when we look closely at either the Sandias or the Rio Grande, we can see that both are always changing – the sandy banks change after a flood, the water is always changing, and even the granite of the Sandias is slowly eroding.  But we’re not confused, we don’t usually say that the Rio Grande literally consists of everything in the universe.  We know what the Rio Grande is, we know what the Sandias are.

But on the other hand, we know, from studying Dogen, that the Sandias and the Rio Grande really do include everything – without the water evaporating from the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t have snowed in the Rio Grande headwaters and there wouldn’t be water in the river; without the sun, the water wouldn’t have evaporated; the late afternoon sunlight on the Sandias is red because of the scattering by particles in the atmosphere, and the Sandias themselves depend on the falling of rain and the moving of water in the rivers for their formation.  It goes on and on – it really is true that the Sandias and the Rio Grande are interdependent.  They are part of one seamless unity.  They are an instance of emptiness.  It’s really true.

In this passage, we see the teachers shifting back and forth between these two ways of seeing the mountains and rivers.  There really are mountains and rivers and the Earth, and they really are empty.  If we aren’t careful we can get stuck on one side or the other.  Before we come to practice, this all seems like gibberish – there are mountains and there are rivers, conventionally understood.  But after we practice for a while, we might get stuck in thinking that it’s all just one thing, but I think this passage is pointing toward another interpretation of the Middle Way – mountains and rivers really are just the same conventional mountains and rivers we have always known, but they are also empty.  Our practice is to simply rest in this truth, sometimes called the ‘two truths’.

In the last paragraph, Dogen refers to some traditional stories to tell us that it’s because of these truths that the Buddha was able to attain awakening and transmit the teaching to Mahakasyapa and that Huike was able to receive the teaching from Bodhidharma.

He shifts gears now and in the next passage, exhorting us to practice with sincerity, not for fame and gain.  This is a classic teaching from Dogen.

In this remote nation in recent days those who genuinely seek buddha dharma are rare—it is not that there are none. Many people leave their households, appearing free from worldly matters, but in fact they use the buddha way to seek fame and gain. What a pity! How sad that they waste their time in unilluminated trades! When will they break away and attain the way? If they meet a true teacher, how will they recognize the true dragon?

Rujing, my late master, Old Buddha, called such people “pitiful fellows.” Because of unwholesome causes in previous lives, they do not seek dharma for the sake of dharma. In this life, they are suspicious of the true dragon when they see it, and are put off by genuine dharma when they encounter it. As their body, mind, flesh, and bones are not ready to follow dharma, they are unable to receive it.

Because the lineage of the ancestral school started long ago, the aspiration for enlightenment has become a distant dream. How pitiful that people do not know about or see treasure even though they were born on a mountain of treasure!  Where can they find dharma treasure?

As soon as you arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, even if you transmigrate in the six realms and four forms of birth, transmigration itself will be your vow for enlightenment. Although you may have wasted time so far, you should vow immediately, before this present life ends:

Together with all sentient beings, may I hear the true dharma from this birth throughout future births. When I hear the true dharma, I will not doubt or distrust it. When I encounter the true dharma, I will relinquish ordinary affairs and uphold the buddha dharma. Thus, may I realize the way together with the great earth

and all sentient beings.

This vow is the ground for genuine aspiration. Do not slacken in this determination.

This last section is pretty easy to understand – Dogen is encouraging us not to be suspicious of the ‘true dragon’, a real teacher or the real teaching.  He is also telling us that it’s not too late – even if you’ve been wandering around in samsara, that very wandering can be your vow of awakening.  Then he encourages us to take a very clear vow.

I remember reading this passage during my years at Zen Center, when I was really thinking a lot about ordaining, and I sort of gasped when I read this vow, because I strongly felt that I had in fact already taken this vow.  There was something about it that really grabbed me, and even though it took me a few more years before I ordained, there’s something about this passage that continues to inspire me.

I will leave you again with the inspiring words of John Muir, who has a few things to say about how we can come to see that we are, as Dogen said, born on a mountain of treasure, but do not see it or know it:

Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty.

So please continue to join us as we sit among the clouds on mountain-tops and at the bottom of the sea among the dulse and coral.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


Beyond Doing and Not-Doing

The late Zen teacher Myo-On Maurine Stuart had a saying that I read years ago and that has stuck with me: “The thing that you can do or not do won’t do.” I think there is something helpful here for us to consider.


First I just want to point out that if we look at our Women Ancestors chant, we will find Stuart toward the end of that list. She made a significant contribution to bringing the Zen tradition to the U.S. She was an artist; an accomplished concert pianist. And significantly in our historically patriarchal tradition, she was a woman. I often like to remind myself that we in the modern world have some things to offer this ancient tradition that is giving us so much – like feminism for instance, and science, and democracy. It’s good to remember, so we don’t think we should be medieval Japanese, or merely subject to some fixed tradition. That is not Zen.

So, what is she talking about here? From a conventional standpoint, her statement is nonsense. Worse, it could be read as a sort of zen provocation, to be responded to with a clever retort. This happens.

But I think she gets at the feeling we start to arrive into, when “shit gets real” as the saying goes. When things get hard, really hard for us, we are forced sometimes to go beyond our limited ideas of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. When we begin to open into that feeling of helplessness, we simultaneously find ourselves drawn to appeal to some greater power. We can call this power zazen.

Twelve Step programs talk about this. The first three steps describe realizing the problem of suffering, recognizing the insufficiency of controlling everything, and turning to a higher power of one’s understanding. I find the parallels with our own tradition inspiring.

In our way we take refuge in the higher powers of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha is things as it is – fundamentally complex (and fundamentally good) beyond comprehension or control. Dharma is our heart/mind responding to conditions with uprightness. And Sangha is coming together like this to support each other, and face the challenges of being an enlightening being in an enlightening society. All of these capacities (if we are truly honest) are beyond us, as we inevitably experience ourselves in a contracted, alienated way.

Sitting on our own is important. I suggest everyone sit every day, including me. Taigen just celebrated 40 years of sitting everyday, but he’s like us. He sometimes is scheduled, and sometimes he fits it in when he can. Remember, you can do zazen for a minute, for just one breath. But 30 minutes is good too. Sitting alone is good; but just sitting alone without sitting with others on some sort of regular basis I have come to genuinely think might be worse than useless (and I’ve heard ancestors say this is in fact so). Practicing alone can reinforce some problematic tendencies, if done to excess or without guidance, and we remain cut off and prone to our mind’s predilection to avoid and deny the harder stuff. We can’t do it alone.

So, going beyond the thing that you can do or not do is in fact the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha. It may not look like how you think it should look. This is why we listen to the ancestors when they caution us to avoid setting up standards of our own. Which may seem to contradict the teaching that we must go beyond Buddha. These conundrums point us toward a place of surrendering the illusion of total control, which I feel is close to the heart of our zazen practice.


Covered in Acceptance

Continuing in our investigation of Dogen’s “Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas”[Gyobutsu Iigi], I wish to concentrate on this passage:

“…an old Buddha [Hongzhi Zhengjao] said, “Reach over to grasp what’s there, and bring its workings right here.”

            When you take on sustaining this, all things, bodies, actions, and buddhas become intimate with you. These actions, things, bodies, and buddhas are simply immersed [covered] in acceptance. Because they are simply immersed in acceptance, through acceptance they are simply dropped off [released].”

This I think is an exceptionally rich and beautiful passage, that encapsulates a certain essence of Dogen’s teaching.

Dogen quotes an influential Soto ancestor from a century or so earlier, Hongzhi. He’s long been a favorite of mine, a real source of inspiration that I discovered almost 20 years ago in a wonderful translation by Taigen Dan Leighton – who many years later would of course become my teacher. I recommend everyone seek Hongzhi out – bring his workings right here! He is perhaps most famous in our tradition for his koan compilation, The Book of Serenity.

I love this phrase from Hongzhi. Once again, we have this potential contrast from a cliché idea of so-called meditation, where we sit placidly, even blankly, letting our worldly or personal concerns, or even our personality, sort of evaporate or something. Good luck with that! Actually, to some degree that may occur. But whatever that is it perhaps is not actually Buddhism. That is not the heart of Zen.

We often remain caught in our world between this idea of “doing” and “not doing”. On the other side of the meditation divide, many people – fewer lately perhaps, but still, a lot of people – think that sitting still is some kind of drag on the Gross National Product. We have those who think that meditation is a tool for achieving some special state that will insulate them from problems, and we have others who think that if they stop doing things for one second, their universe may implode. Maybe you know people like this. Maybe some of them have shown up on your cushion at some point this evening.

Hongzhi’s quote points to this kind of not-doing doing. It is an active, vital process, zazen. We allow problems to find us, and we sit there with them. We allow their workings to manifest, and we investigate. Not just with our rational mind, but with our whole body and our whole heart. Hongzhi indicates how active buddhas manifest, and function. It’s not psychoanalysis; but he alludes to how it’s maybe not not psychoanalysis, either. Zazen can be an envisioning practice; we can utilize our creative and intuitive capacities to better understand others, the world, and ourselves in order to be happier, healthier, and more efficacious in our vow to be of use and of help.

Dogen then points out what the quality of this effort begins, in time, to look like. It is sustained. It took me many years to begin to develop a more sustainable practice. When I was younger, I recognized the importance of sustainability, at all levels. For instance I was very interested in sustainable agriculture, the kind of thing Wes Jackson has been investigating in Kansas for decades. But I am not a farmer. I’m an artist, and Zen person. So what is sustainable effort for us, we urban house-holding practitioners? It is a living question, that we are checking out together. Our tradition in fact teaches that sustainability is actually much more important than having some special experience on your cushion. I think showing up weekly as many of us are doing is a great foundation, hopefully seasoned with a bit of daily practice and an occasional intensive. It is vital I feel to recognize and embrace that we aren’t monastics, so our practice can’t look like it did in Buddha’s time, or even Dogen’s. It’s going to have a different sustainable vision.

So Dogen says that when you find this sustainable quality, you will find that your life is immersed in acceptance. How lovely is that? That’s what we’re really seeking. Peace of mind with ourselves and things as they are. Serenity. It is possible. This is the direction of every religious or spiritual path, and every human life. We desire sustainable sanity, acceptance, and patience with ourselves and others.

The final twist Dogen puts on this is once again another key to his teaching. He employs the phrase “dropping off”, which we’ve touched on before. It was that phrase that led Dogen to his deepest awakening into the true nature of zen. I think “releasing” or released is a helpful alternate translation. When we settle into a deeper sense of ourselves, we accept and love ourselves, and that begins to extend to others; there is an aspect of release. We are able to let go of our compulsive need to control everything, which causes so much suffering for ourselves and others.

At some level, in some context, we can all be control freaks, we are all addictive, we can all be compulsive, OCD if you will, even without a diagnosis. We have to see this. We have to bring the workings of our grasping, our dysfunctions, in really close, get intimate with them. Paradoxically, it is only through this intimacy that we can then accept, and then release these patterns of grasping, and in that releasing, find a deeper inner calm and peace. Covered in and protected by acceptance, we can let go…and let God, as the saying goes – which we can call Tao, Buddha, or even Dharma or Sangha. In turn or all at once.

Peace has to become our greatest priority; peace arising out of real insight and real acceptance. This is what Dogen I think is talking about here. This is our zazen practice.


Gyobutsu Iigi, continued…

Gyobutsu Iigi, continued

Well, we are slowly working our way through this 14 page text. After 2 talks now, we are inching onto the third page. This is maybe a good Soto Zen pace.

This next section is really quite thorny. But Dogen does introduce here one of the central if not the central teaching in our ancestral way, and that is the idea of “practice-enlightenment.” I wish to just concentrate on introducing this, especially as it might be a new idea to some of us.

From Dogen’s perspective, most Buddhist or religious teaching that he had encountered before meeting his true heart teacher suffered fundamentally from some dualistic idea, no matter how subtle or how obvious. For instance, if you think Buddha exists solely outside of you at some remove, this is a problem. If you think you have attained Buddha, and no longer feel as if you are on a path investigating “the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha,” this likewise can be a problem.

I think as Buddhism and many other yogic traditions are being introduced into our materialistic paradigm, they are finding themselves prone to certain misunderstandings more or less particular to our time and place. Though he’s hardly the only one to point it out, Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was especially eloquent and adamant in his warnings that “spiritual materialism” is the greatest threat Dharma faces in the modern world. He understood our tendency to superficially grasp things, and to perhaps move along when faced with deeper challenges to our self-idea. We don’t get to the heart of our grasping, our deep and abiding stuckness in limited conceptions of the self, from which stems so much suffering for ourselves and others.

So I think we can look out and see that there is this flowering of interest in meditation, “mindfulness”, yoga, and the like. And all of this can’t help but to be a good thing. But there are pitfalls on the path, and I can from personal experience relate that encountering good clear teaching is not so common.

So this teaching of “practice-enlightenment” is good medicine. I think it is in fact essential. Dogen certainly said as much. I find I am often reflecting on the question of what is essential on our path. Today, driving down 12th St, just by the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center in fact, I had the thought “sitting quietly upright (zazen) is essential; the teaching of the emptiness of all dharmas is essential; taking refuge is essential; and practice-enlightenment is essential.” I could add other things (precepts, the okesa, etc), but maybe they stem from these, I don’t know; I’d maybe have to think about that one some more.

So I think we all completely and fully already understand this point, because we are all here and not for the first time. We just sat for 35 minutes (our first night extending our time a bit, by request), and we fully experienced the vital process of going beyond any idea of what zazen might be, and just investigated what was occurring on our cushion in the moment. My first Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, used to preface many responses to questions with “you already understand!” I think this is so true; but sometimes we ask because we need to hear it from another mouth.

We deeply understand that coming together and sitting and bowing and reciting sutras and carving out some space to honor awakeness is in itself a good, noble, wholesome business. It is the path, and the goal. We know that if it were to supposedly occur somewhere else, sometime else, that this is would simply be another dualistic problem in itself, when in fact we come to sit to wholly resolve those dualisms in our surrendering to presence.