In my last piece I talked about nature. In my next two, I want to continue this discussion using the Mountains and Waters Sutra by Dogen as my reference point. This is Dogen’s only piece which he calls a sutra. His choice of words is audacious because the term “sutra” is generally limited to sacred teachings which come out of ancient Indian Buddhism. I think it reflects how deeply connected Dogen felt to the natural world, as well as what an impact it had on his own meditation practice and life.
“Sutra” etymologically is related to the Latin “suture.” Buddhist scriptures, called sutras, help us sew together our sense of dividedness, isolation, and alienation from the world around us. And study after study shows that the best way to do this is to immerse ourselves in nature.
Here’s one of Dogen’s passages toward the beginning of this sutra:
These mountains and waters of the present are expressions of the ancient Buddhas. All phenomena realize completeness. Because they exist before the eon of emptiness, they are living in the present. Because they are the self before the appearance of any sign, they are liberated. These mountains and waters of the present are expressions of the ancient Buddhas. All phenomena realize completeness.
Many of us get exhausted from clinging to things we love and pushing away things we hate, and nature shows us that at a deeper level we are continually joined with all life.
Because they exist before the eon of emptiness, they are living in the present.
Mountains, water, clouds, rocks exist before the appearance of any thought that divides us from them. They can help us be present here and now.
Because they are the self before the appearance of any sign, they are free and unhindered in their activities.
Mountains and water can only appear because of us. We can only appear because there is earth, water, and mountains. Before we have any thought about them, they are alive!
Because mountains are big and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached from the mountains; the power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.
Like big and broad mountains, we can go beyond the limitations of our small regretting, reviewing, rehearsing self. We can embrace life in all of its confusion and contradictions. When we do this, we are like the ancient Taoist sages, who also wrote about riding the clouds and soaring in the wind.
The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night. Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.
Dogen is reminding us that all life is alive and in flux. The place I go to in the Caribbean every year has a mountain right behind it. If my mind is clear and open, every time I look at the mountain it has changed. The shadows, the amount of green, the reflection of the sun, the sky surrounding it—all features that are delightful signs of its life and movement. But if I am in my head I miss all of this.
What about “The stone woman bears a child by night?” Stone seems dense, colorless and even dead, but next time you are outside look at the first rock you see carefully. Stop and pick it up and notice how it bubbles with possibility, how it teems with life.
Many spiritual practitioners struggle with depression. Dogen is saying that even with stone-like inertia you can bear a child. The ancient Egyptians show in their hieroglyphics that the best antidote to depression is traveling and dancing. Three thousand years later, western psychologists also believe that one of the best ways to deal with depression is engaging in activity regardless of how you feel.
If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know or understand your own walking. If you know your own walking, you know the mountains walking. Also examine walking backward and backward walking and investigate that walking forward and backward never stopped since before form arose.
Instead of thinking of yourself as a “stubborn person”, “anxious person” or “depressed person” just walk, just travel, just dance. Nothing can be healthier than that.
Also examine walking backward and backward walking and investigate that walking forward and backward never stopped since before form arose.
Here he is alluding to meditation as in his well known “Take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
Whatever you are concerned about, in meditation trace it to the root where there is no inside or outside. Consciousness says, “I am here, you’re all out there.”
Trace this thought to a place closer and nearer than this division until you have completely sutured; then you are no longer separating yourself from the world around you. Little by little the stitches vanish and you return to your original wholeness.
A few years ago I was guiding someone who I will call Nancy to deal with the sadness that came up each time she did a meditation retreat. Through practice she was able to get closer to it until it was no longer just her sadness. She realized both that it was molecular, belonging to everyone and that it was continually changing, continually walking. And lo and behold, while it was still there, it became no longer problematic.
Whatever you are concerned about, trace it to the root and as Jane Hirshfield suggested in my last blog, “the unwanted becomes wanted.” As Dogen says, “If you follow the river all the way back to its source, there are clouds. If you follow the clouds all the way back to their source, there is the river.” This is the place where observer and observed meet.
Here’s one final passage from Mountains and Waters Sutra:
Clearly examine the green mountains’ walking and your own walking. This is called the mountains’ flow and the flowing mountain. The mountain always practices in every place. Mountains belong to people who love them.
Everything about mountains is also about you. Mountains and you are moving together, dancing together. Mountains don’t exist without us and we don’t exist without mountains. Pretty wonderful!
This is called the mountains’ flow and the flowing mountain
An endless springing forth and endless giving ourselves away moment after moment, forever.
The mountain always practices in every place
Everything in the world is alive and is expressing itself, expressing its life just by being.
Mountains belong to people who love them
I learned to love mountains at a young age because I enjoyed hiking with my parents every summer in the Sierras. But we shouldn’t romanticize mountains or nature. They are completely beyond the control of humans.
Once I did a solo overnight meditation retreat in the Wind Rivers. A huge storm came up. I got soaked to the bone and I wanted to run back to camp. But I stayed with it. If you stay with something you may learn that if you can merge with one thing, you can merge with everything.
Furthermore, when we are deeply in love with something whether it be mountains or a friend or a child, there’s the stillness of the mountain emanating from us, so we do not love them any less when they “misbehave.”
Nature is wild. Not “crazed,” but simply “what is,” beyond any sense of wanted or unwanted.
As Lao Tzu says,
“The world is sacred. / It can’t be improved. / If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. / If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher