Sacred Wildness

· Earth Initiative, Teachings · ,

by John Daido Loori Roshi

The river never speaks, yet it knows how brilliance. When you neither let go nor hold to find its way to the Great Ocean. The mountains have no words, yet the ten thousand things are born here. Where the river finds its way, you can perceive the essence. Where the mountain gives birth to the ten thousand things, you can realize the action. When the mind moves, images appear. Even if the mind does not move, this is not yet true freedom. You must first take off the blinders and set down the pack if you are to enter the sacred space. When you let go, even river rocks and brambles are radiant. When you hold on, even the mani jewel loses its on, you are free to ride the clouds and follow the wind.


Buddha Said, “All Things are ultimately liberated. They have no abode.” To say they have “no abode” means they have no resting place, no permanence. One of the characteristics of all things is that they are in a constant state of becoming. Everything is empty of fixed characteristics. And “empty of fixed characteristics” in itself is freedom or liberation. To say there is no fixed place is just another way of saying that all things are empty. How can that be? What does it mean to be “empty”? Usually when we use that word in our western culture, it implies vacancy, the void. When the word is used in Buddhism it has a different denotation—it means empty of independent being. That is, to be interdependent is precisely the same as to be “empty.” To recognize one’s body and mind as the body and mind of the whole universe, of the mountains and rivers themselves, is to realize the emptiness of all things. It is because things are empty that they can abide in their own dharma state.


“Freedom” And “Liberation” are interesting words. Freedom is defined in the dictionary as being “free from bondage or restraint.” Liberation is understood in Buddhism as implying “no hindrances, a state of perfection and completion.” Gary Snyder, in his book, The Practice of the Wild, studies and plays with the word “wild,” uncovering its many intriguing dimensions and relationships. Drawing from the Oxford English Dictionary, he says that when the word “wild” is used in speaking of animals, it means “not tamed, undomesticated, or unruly”; of plants, “not cultivated”; of land, “uninhabited”; of food crops, “yielded without cultivation”; of societies, “uncivilized, resisting government”; of individuals, “unrestrained, loose”; of behavior, “destructive, cruel” or “art-less, free, and spontaneous.”

Snyder suggests that if we look at “wild- ness” not from a negative point of view, what it’s not, but rather from a positive point of view, we come up with a very different appreciation. In terms of plants, we have “self- propagating and self-maintaining”; of land, “a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact,” or “pristine.” In terms of food crops, the positive definition is “food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth.” Of societies: “societies that grow from within and are maintained by a consensus and custom, rather than by explicit legislation.” Of individuals: “following local customs, style, and etiquette.” Of behavior: “fiercely resisting oppression, confinement, or exploitation. Unconditioned, expressive, physical, and open.” When you look at those definitions, you realize that the word “wild” and the word “free” have a great deal in common. In fact, you can even take it further and say that the words “wild,” “free,” and “nature” are very similar to what we call the “Tao,” or the “Way,” or the “Buddha-nature,” or even “sacredness.”

To realize these mountains and rivers is to realize every koan, to free oneself of birth and death.

We discover during our explorations of the mountains and rivers, that the wilderness can be a tough teacher. A rabbit gets only one chance to run across an open field without first looking up. There is no second chance. That’s the way the wilderness teaches. That’s the way the insentients teach. Gary Snyder says, “For those who would seek directly by entering the primary temple of wilderness, the wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It’s easy to make the mistakes that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking, brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” The wilderness is at once a difficult teacher, and at the same time an open doorway to all in this great earth that we hold sacred. Snyder also says that people of the wild rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for a spiritual rather than economic reason, and definitely not for the purpose of just simply “getting a rush.” The wilderness is filled with rushes; you don’t have to create them.


We Tend To Think Of The Wild, the free, as being somehow far removed. We’ll find it, we think, in the tundra, or deep in the forest, or high on the mountains. But in actual fact, we’re surrounded and interpenetrated by wildness, regardless of where we live, whether in the city or the country. The mice in the pantry, the roaches in the wall, the deer on the turnpike—they each exist in the wilderness. The pigeons, the spiders, the bacteria on our skin, in our bodies—they are all free, wild, uncultivated, and unrestrained. The body itself is wild; certain aspects of us, our reflex actions, are manifestations of no mind, no effort. They just respond according to circumstances.

The mind is also free and wild. This free and wild mind includes two domains, though we tend to see only one side: the monkey mind that we sit with. The other side is very still, quiet, open, and receptive. It is not reflective, analyzing, or judging each thing. It simply sees with the whole body and mind, hearing with the whole body and mind. Non-abiding mind is central to all of Zen practice, including the practice of the wild. The minute you fix and reflect on something, you engage the biocomputer, and it takes you away from the moment. That’s where we spend most of our time: pre- occupied with the past, or preoccupied with the future, while the moment constantly in front of us is barely seen or heard or felt or tasted or touched.

“All things are ultimately liberated. They have no abode.” What kind of state is the state of no abode? How can the Buddha make the statement, “have no abode,” and not be contradicting Master Dogen when he says, “We should realize that although they are liberated, without any bonds, all things are abiding in their own dharma state.” Isn’t that referring to an “abode?” Abodes happen when you separate yourself from things. When you realize the whole phenomenal universe as this body and mind, how can there be an abode? It is because all things are ultimately liberated and have no abode that we can say they abide in their own dharma state. In other words, each thing is just as it is.

Buddha, in saying, “All things are ultimately liberated,” opens up the trail for everyone. How can you miss it? The Way has no edges. Usually when we think of a path, we think of a clear-cut trail that’s been etched out of the wilderness. But the Way that the Buddha opens encompasses the whole thing. It’s not something etched out. There is no “this is on the trail and that is off the trail.” The whole catastrophe is the trail, and the self. It reaches everywhere. But, if it reaches everywhere, how can we call it a Way or a path?

Buddha’s statement, “They have no abode,” should not be taken as an abode of no abode, a resting place. People inevitably make a nest here. This is precisely what happens when we attach to non-attachment, when we cling to emptiness. We create two things: the thing held on to and oneself. There’s no intimacy there.

An ancient Zen saying goes, “In the beginning, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Then after much study and reflection and going very deeply into oneself, one finds that mountains are many things, and rivers are many things, reaching everywhere, encompassing the whole universe. And then, many years later, the mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” We should understand that “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers” as seen by the novice, and “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers” as seen by the sage, depict different ways of seeing. The novice doesn’t see the sage’s mountains and rivers, but the sage’s view definitely includes the novice’s mountains and rivers.

The “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” of Master Dogen is not a sutra about mountains and rivers, but the expression of the mountains and rivers themselves as the sutra, as the teaching, as the Buddha, as this very body and mind.

When people look at water, they see it only as flowing, without rest. This flow takes many forms and our way of seeing is just the one-sided human view. Water flows over the earth. It flows across the sky. It flows up, it flows down. It flows around bends, into deep abysses. It mounts up to form clouds, it descends to form pools.


The Teachings Of The insentient deal with intimacy, not with words. The teaching is not communicated by words, and yet it is intelligent. And how it communicates! Consider how impossible it is to walk through the forest without telegraphing your presence. Your movements are felt and relayed by all the birds and beasts. The crow tells it to the jay, and the jay expresses it to the kingfisher and the duck and the deer. Sitting in my camp, when neighboring campers walk back and forth, I am aware of their whereabouts, listening to the forest. As soon as they enter the woods on the far side, within seconds the message that they are on their way is passed through the little patch of woods. And all the animals understand it, even my very domesticated dog. Immediately he perks up and looks in the direction of the sounds. He waits for a visual sighting or a scent before starting his racket, barking and carrying on. Isn’t that communication? Isn’t that intelligence?

When you stop cultivation, even for a very short period of time, the wildness returns. That wildness is akin to the buddha nature. Civilization has a way of making wildness seem very negative. Yet, all things return to the wild: people, mountains, rivers, gardens, apples, the family cat. It doesn’t take long. To be truly free, to be truly liberated and wild, is to be prepared to accept things as they are, abiding in their own dharma state. Sometimes it’s painful. And yet, it’s also joyful and open. Always impermanent, never fixed. Unbounded, yet bountiful.

Keep in mind that in a fixed universe, there can be no freedom. So, in a sense, we can say that mountains are the entire dharma realm. In those words we include everything. Rivers are the entire dharma realm. They permeate the ten directions. The self is the entire dharma realm. When Master Dogen speaks of mountains and rivers, they’re not the mountains and rivers of the poet or the naturalist. They’re not the mountains and rivers of nirvana or samsara. They’re the mountains and rivers of the true dharma.

Photo by David Burke

Photo by David Burke

To realize the great river is to realize the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is to realize the Precepts. To realize these mountains and rivers is to realize every koan, to free oneself of birth and death. This is true not only when we realize mountains and rivers, but when we realize a single drop of water. In it are countless universes. Do you understand? In a single drop of water the entire dharma realm, the whole phenomenal universe exists. Isn’t it incredible? You are the entire dharma realm: not just a drop of water, or mountains and rivers, or wise ones and sages. That being the case, what separates heaven from hell? What separates anger from wisdom, greed from compassion? Surface and edge, inside and outside, flowing and not flowing, walking and not walking? What is the cause of that separation? A thought. A single thought and heaven and earth are a million miles apart. How can we avoid the thought? How can we avoid thinking? One great master said, “By thinking non-thinking.” When there’s not a single thought, then what? What do you do next? Get rid of it. “Not a single thought” is another thought; throw it away.

In the multitude of forms and the myriad appearances, there is not a single thing. Unless you’ve separated yourself from the myriad things. When there is intimacy, when there is no separation, there is no thing. Mountains and rivers are not seen in a mirror. In other words, they are not seen through a reflection, but directly. How do you see directly? What happens when you see directly?

We spend a lot of time in our zazen working on the internal dialogue that separates us from things. We then take it and work on it in the midst of activity: in our work practice, in our body practice, in the arts of Zen. It’s the same way we understand the functioning of the mind: on one side, stillness; on the other side, activity.

In Zen, we start from the premise of original perfection. Each one of us is perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Then on top of that, through a lifetime of conditioning, we pile on all sorts of definitions and habitual behaviors. We pick up all kinds of baggage and create all kinds of blinders. What our Zen practice is about is simply returning to the ground of being. It’s always been there. You’re born with it, you’ll die with it—whether you realize it or not. You can use it, if you realize it.

The process of realization is basically a process of clearing away the extra and getting to that place that’s the heart, light, and spirit of each one of us. What you see at that point is the freedom that was always there, the nature that was always there, just wanting to come to the surface, just wanting to express itself.

The ancient wolf caves on Tremper Mountain
Have long been empty.
Yet wolf howls echo in the river valley with
each winter’s full moon.
Some say they are the sounds of the wind
on the cliffs, or coy-dogs.
Others say, clearly this is the sound of the
mountain wolf.
Have you heard them?

If you want to hear them, you have to listen with the eye and see with the ear. Only then will you really understand. Only then will you really hear the teachings of the insentient. Only then will you hear the sermon of rock and water, the teachings of mountains and rivers.

John Daido Loori Roshi (1931-2009) was the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery for over thirty years.

From Teachings of the Earth. Copyright © 1999 by Dharma Communications. Reprinted by arrangement with The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.

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