In a recent piece I discussed how being in nature can suture us, heal our sense of separation and alienation from each other and the world around us if we fully immerse ourselves in it. This piece will continue Dogen’s discussion of mountains in “Mountains and Waters Sutra.” I will follow this by a final piece on his discussion of Waters.
In order to benefit from this healing we have to completely “enter the mountain.” As a boy I went into the Sierra Nevada Mountains every summer with my parents starting when I was six or seven years old. Looking back on this, I remember vividly an experience in my fifth or sixth trip in which I finally fully entered the mountains. One July day we began our hike up to the top of 14, 000 foot Mt. Langley just at dawn and traveled for several hours up its pine-forested side. Although the trail was steep, reading the trail signs which occurred at least every quarter of a mile helped me stay focused and gave me a sense of security. I can remember saying to myself when I saw a sign, “8.8 miles left,” “8.6 miles left,” etc. But when we got to timberline, the trees vanished, the trail turned into nothing more than an animal track, and there were no more trail signs. Suddenly, I felt disoriented, exhausted, and I wanted to quit. But my mother was up ahead of me, urging me on. As I followed her slow, steady footsteps I began to let go of thinking about how far we had come or how long we had been on the trail or how far it was to the top, and I settled spontaneously into a “one step, one breath” focus. All my concerns about how difficult it was or whether I could ever get to the top vanished, and I was fully able to be present. When we finally got to the top (and I say “finally” even though I was no longer measuring my progress, but just immersed in walking) my mother excitedly encouraged me to look at the summit register which went back several years to see if there were any other children who had made it to the top. But once I had completely “entered the mountain,” I had absolutely no interest in comparing myself to others. Instead, I was immersed in enjoying the endless sky and the deep quiet as I peered down on the many valleys.
Dogen suggests that the mountain’s true expression is flow. This reminds me of sitting in meditation every morning in San Francisco many years ago with my first teacher. He seemed to sit like a mountain, imperturbable as the traffic rushed by on the busy street outside (a very small mountain, since he was only 4’11”!). And yet when he was not sitting, it seemed that tenderness, generosity, and compassion flowed right out of him.
Continuing with Dogen:
There are mountains hidden in treasures. There are treasures hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. Investigate mountains fully.
Let’s talk about this line by line:
There are mountains hidden in treasures, there are treasures hidden in mountains.
Once after a morning sitting my teacher said to me, “You have a great treasure within you. Do not let anyone take it from you.” One of my own students recently exclaimed, “When I entered the room and saw you I felt your great calmness.” And I replied, “If you felt a great calmness, that calmness is within you at least as much as it is within me.”
There are mountains hidden in swamps.
This is a good reminder that if we can maintain our meditation even when our minds are going over and over and over everything that has happened to us and might happen to us, at some point all of the pollution settles and we experience a deep and joyful clarity.
There are mountains hidden in the sky.
What my teacher used to call Big Mind, accepts and embraces everything that happens, clouds, storms, sleet, hail. Sometimes we may be so overcome by a storm that we forget that it is merely an expression of the sky as the sun is. When we realize this, we can really enjoy our life. Can you find this great stillness right in the middle of a storm?
There are mountains hidden in mountains.
There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.
Your still nature (i.e., Buddha Nature) is hidden from so called “you.” Your conscious mind may never be aware of this deep reservoir of peace. But that’s perfectly okay, because your Big Mind (which is everyone’s big mind) is itself this reservoir. This reminds me of Basho’s poem: “Mt. Fuji veiled in misty rain… How wonderful!”
Investigate mountains fully.
At the end of this stanza Dogen is saying, “Don’t take my word for it when I refer to your mountain stillness. Look into it! Ask yourself what it is. If it’s beyond consciousness, how can you know it? How can you not know it if its your deepest nature? Is it possible to continually live from it? If you ask these questions wholeheartedly, how long will it be before you tap into this reservoir? Another two years of meditation practice, another year, or another moment?”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher