River Seeing River

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

from Master Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra

The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still,neither cold nor hot, neither being nor non-being, neither delusion nor enlightenment. Solidified, it is harder than diamond: who could break it? Melted, it is softer than milk: who could break it? This being the case we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by the river. We should then study that occasion when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not a study only of the time when humans and gods see the river: there is a study of the river seeing the river. The river practices and verifies the river; hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.

The “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” one of the fascicles of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, is the seed of Zen practice here on Mount Tremper. This section of the sutra has to do with the third of the Five Ranks of Master Tung-shan—a subtle and profound teaching which provides a matrix for, and a way of appreciating, the relative and absolute aspects of reality. The third rank reflects the development of maturity in practice—the functioning of emptiness in everyday life, the emergence of compassion as the activity of the world. Dogen was a great lover of nature, an incredible poet and mystic. He built his monastery deep in the mountains on the Nine-Headed Dragon River. He did much of his work in a hermitage on the cliffs of the mountain. He was intimate with the mountains. But the mountains and rivers Dogen speaks of here are not the mountains and rivers of the poet, the naturalist, the hunter, the woodsman. They are the mountains and rivers of the Dharmadhatu, the Dharma realm.

Mountains and rivers are generally used in Buddhism to denote samsara—the world of delusion, the pain and suffering of the world, the ups and downs of phenomenal existence. What we have here is not a sutra about mountains and rivers in that sense, but the revelation of the mountains and rivers themselves as a sutra, as a teaching. The river Dogen speaks of is the river of the Dharmadhatu, the phenomenal realm, the realm of the ten thousand things. Rivers, like mountains, have always had a special spiritual significance. A lot of spiritual history has unfolded along the banks of the Ganges in India, and on the Yangtse River of China. Much of the Dharma and the teachings of Christianity and Judaism have emerged on the banks of rivers.

Thoreau said of the Merrimack River:

There is an inward voice that in the stream sends forth its spirit to the listening ear, and in calm content it flows on like wisdom, welcome with its own respect, clear in its breast like all these beautiful thoughts. It receives the green and graceful trees. They smile in its peaceful arms.

In Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha, the river plays the key role in Gautama’s awakening. For me, that book was a very powerful teaching. When I returned to it many years after originally studying it in school, I remember how troubled that time of my life was. Somehow, this book had not sunk in when I was younger. But at this later time, the reading of Siddhartha brought me to the Delaware River. Going to the river became a pilgrimage for me, a place to go to receive the river’s spirit, to be nourished. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was moved by what Hesse had to say about Siddhartha and the river. Each time I went to the Delaware, it was like a clear, cool, refreshing drink of water, soothing a fire inside me. I didn’t understand, but I kept going back. I photographed the multiplicity of the river’s faces and forms revealed at different times. I found myself traveling the river, immersing myself in it. This went on for years, and for years the river taught me. Then, finally, I heard it. I heard it speak. I heard what it was saying to Siddhartha, and to Thoreau.

In Hesse’s story, Siddhartha is in great pain and misery. He wanders in the forest, and finally comes to a river—the river that earlier in the book a ferryman had taken him across. In Buddhist imagery that river and that crossing over is the prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom: “Go, go, hurry, cross over to the other side.” We can understand that crossing over in many ways. We can understand the other shore as being none other than this shore. We can also understand that the other shore crosses over to us, as well as that we cross over to the other shore. At this point in the novel Hesse writes of Siddhartha:

With a distorted countenance he stared into the water. He saw his face reflected and spat at it. He took his arm away from the tree trunk and turned a little, so that he could fall headlong and finally go under, bent, with closed eyes towards death. Then, from a remote part of the soul, from the past of his tired life he heard the sound. It was one word, one syllable, which without thinking he spoke instinctively. The ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers, the holy ‘OM,’ which had the meaning of the Perfect One, or perfection. At that moment, when the sound of OM reached Siddhartha’s ears, his thundering soul suddenly awakened, and he recognized the folly of his action.

Hesse goes on for several pages describing the further teachings of the river, and then writes:

I will remain by this river, thought Siddhartha. It is the same river which I crossed on my way to town. A friendly ferryman took me across. I will go to him. My path once led from his hut to a new life which is now old and dead. He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on mirror, sky blue reflected in them. The river looked at him with a thousand eyes, green, white, crystal, sky blue. How he loved this river! How it enchanted him! How grateful he was to it! In his heart, he heard the newly awoken voice speak. And it said to him,‘Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.’ Yes, he wanted to learn from it. He wanted to listen to it. It seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets, would understand much more, many secrets, old secrets.

Master Dogen addresses the secrets of the river and of all water: “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor non-being,” neither delusion nor enlightenment. It is none of the dualities. Water is H20, composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, two odorless and tasteless gases. You bring them together and you get water. But water is not oxygen, and it is not hydrogen. It is not a gas. It is what D.H. Lawrence calls in one of his poems “the third thing.” It is the same way with absolute and relative, with all the dualities. It is not either one or the other; it is always the third thing. The third thing is not strong or weak, not wet or dry, not moving or still, not cold or hot, not being or not-being, not delusion or enlightenment. What is the third thing that Dogen speaks of, that the sutra speaks of, that the river speaks of?

Master Tung-shan is one of the founders of the Soto school of Zen that is part of the tradition of Zen Mountain Monastery. Once when he was crossing the river with Yünchü, who was his successor in the lineage, he asked Yün-chü, “How deep is the river?” Yünchü responded, “Not wet.” Tung-shan said, “You clod.” “How would you say it, Master?” asked Yün-chü. Tung-shan said, “Not dry.” Does that reveal the third thing? Is that neither wet nor dry?

“Harder than diamond, softer than milk.” “Harder than diamond” expresses the unchanging Suchness of all things, the Thusness of all things. Just this moment! “Softer than milk” refers to the conditioned Suchness of things. Dogen talks in another part of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” about the stone woman giving birth to a child in the night. The stone woman is a barren woman and, of course, it is impossible for such a woman to give birth to a child. Dogen goes on to say that this event is “incomprehensible.” This refers to the incomprehensibility of something that is without any fixed characteristics whatsoever, without any existence, yet being able to give rise to conditioned existence, to the multiplicity of things. That this is nevertheless true is the basis of the interdependence of the whole universe, what we call the Diamond Net of Indra—totally interpenetrated mutual causality and co-origination. There is no way that you can affect one aspect of this net without affecting the totality of it. With these two phrases “harder than diamond, softer than milk,” Dogen presents the conditioned and the absolute aspects of reality.

Photo by Mike_tn

Photo by Mike_tn

Then Dogen says:

We should then study the occasion when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not only a study of the time when humans or gods see the river. There is a study of the river seeing the river. The river practices and verifies the river. Hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.

What is the path on which the self meets the self, and the other meets the other? It is the practice of the river seeing the river, seeing itself. Dogen expresses it slightly differently in another one of his writings, “Genjokoan.” He says, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. And to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” When you study the self, you begin to realize that it is a self-created idea. We create it moment to moment. We create it like we create all the ten thousand things, by our interdependency and our co-origination. What happens when the self is forgotten? What remains? The whole phenomenal universe remains. The whole Dharmadhatu remains. That’s what it means, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” That is, we see the ten thousand things as our own body and mind. In one of his poems Master Tung-shan talks about the old grandmother looking in the mirror seeing her reflection. “Everywhere I look, I meet myself. It is at once me, and yet I am not it.” You and I are the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me. Both of those facts exist simultaneously, but somehow that doesn’t compute. Our brains can’t deal with it. The two things seem mutually exclusive. That’s why practice is so vital. You need to see it for yourself, and see that words don’t reach it. There is no way this reality can be conveyed by words, any more than the taste of the crystal clear water can be conveyed in any other way than by tasting it.

“The morning dew on the tips of the ten thousand grasses reveals the truth of all the myriad forms of this great earth.” Each thing, each tip of grass, each dewdrop, each and every thing throughout the whole phenomenal universe contains the totality of the universe. That’s the truth of the myriad forms of this great earth.

“The sounds of the river valley sing the eighty-four thousand hymns of Suchness. Have you heard them?” The songs don’t just say OM. They sing the eighty-four thousand hymns, the eighty-four thousand gathas, the teachings, the sermon of rock and water. “Pervading throughout these sounds and forms is a trail far from words and ideas. Have you found it? If you wish to enter it, simply look and listen.” But look with the whole body and mind. See with the whole body and mind. Listen and hear with the whole body and mind, and then you’ll understand them intimately. That’s the entry. If you go chasing it, you won’t find it. “To carry the self forward and realize the ten thousand things is delusion,” as Master Dogen said. “That the ten thousand things advance and realize the self is enlightenment.” You see? The other shore arrives.

What does it mean that “the river practices and verifies the river”? It means that you practice and verify yourself, and in so doing, it is the practice and verification of all Buddhas, past, present and future. Supposedly Buddha predicted that there will be a time when Buddhism will disappear from the face of the earth. He defined that time as a time in which there would be no masters alive, no sutras, nobody sitting zazen, no realized beings. He characterized it as a time of great darkness, supposedly sometime in the future.

Photo by Rakesh JV

Photo by Rakesh JV

Let’s say that that time of great darkness has appeared. Let’s say it goes on for five hundred years. In such a case one would have to wonder about the mind-to-mind transmission. Even now there are historical gaps in the mind-to-mind transmission. From the point of view of the lineage, we chant the lineage list as though it were a continuum. In Chinese culture there was a great need for ancestral continuity. If there was no legitimate ancestor, they would take a likely name and splice it in, and everybody was happy. Nowadays historians sometimes find out that these names are not the proper successors. And the scholars say. “Aha! Mind-to-mind transmission doesn’t exist. This teacher died and a hundred years later this other teacher, who supposedly got mind-to-mind transmission from him, was just born. There was no mind-to-mind transmission.” That’s why they’re scholars! From the point of view of the Dharma, if mind-to-mind transmission disappeared from the face of the earth for a million years, one person doing zazen, realizing the true self, would have the same realization of the Buddhas of the past, and the gap of a million years would be filled in an instant, mind-to-mind.

It is as if electricity disappeared from the face of the earth and someone, a billion years from now, created a generator, started turning it, and coiled a wire and attached it to the generator; the more they turned the hotter the wire would get until finally it glowed and light appeared. It would be the same light now produced by lightbulbs, the same electricity. All they would have to do is to produce the electricity. In the case of the Buddhadharma, all that needs to be done is to realize it. What do you realize? What you realize is that Buddha mind has always been there. You do not attain it, you were born with it. Zen did not come to America from Japan; it was always here, and will always be here. But like the lightbulb, electricity itself is not enough. You need to plug in the bulb to see the light. In the Dharma you plug in people; the Buddhadharma shines through humans, through Buddhas. Only Buddhas can realize Buddha. Dogen says that when we realize Buddha, “we must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must then move back and forth along, and spring off from, this living path on which one studies and fully comprehends other.”

One of the characteristics of the Third Rank of Tung-shan is maturity of practice, emptiness functioning as the basis of daily activity. This functioning is none other than the ten thousand hands and eyes of great compassion—Kannon Bodhisattva. She always manifests according to circumstances. In her manifesting there is no sense of separateness. The realization of seeing our own face everywhere we look becomes action. Not just seeing or knowing our own faces, our true selves, but acting on the basis of this knowledge. This is called the action of nonaction. Compassion is not the same as doing good, or being nice. Compassion functions freely, with no hesitation, no limitation. It happens with no effort, the way you grow your hair, the way your heart beats, the way you breathe, the way your blood circulates, or the way you do all the ten thousand other things you do moment to moment. It does not take any conscious effort. Someone falls, you pick them up. There is no sense of doer, or what is being done. There is no separation.

If you want your practice to manifest in the world, if you want to help heal this great earth of ours which is groaning in sickness, you need to realize what we’ve been talking about. All you need to do to realize it is listen, and through the hum of the distant highway, you can hear the thing itself, the voice of the river. Can you hear it? That’s it… Is that the third thing?


John Daido Loori, Roshi (1931-2009) was the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Daido Roshi was a lineage holder in the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen.

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