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