Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I’d like to attempt a simplified commentary on a complex subject. The subject is the talk by Master Dogen titled Keisei Sanshoku, or “The Contour of a Mountain, the Ripple of a Stream.”

Dogen’s talk focuses on the experiencing of one’s Buddha-nature. This experiencing—also known as kensho and satori—involves much preparation to bring one to a high spiritual level. To put that metaphorically, preparation that brings one to the brink of a precipitous cliff.

That word “spiritual,” and its root “spirit,” has nothing to do with any god, or the character of sacredness, or something beyond human comprehension, as is common in Western thought and religions. When a Zen person speaks of spirit it’s a reference to a non-tangible aspect of existence.

If you can’t describe, weigh, measure, or slice something, that something is spirit.


“Maybe,” because as I just said, spirit can’t be adequately described in universal terms that everyone can understand or even agree on.

To keep things uncomplicated think of spirit as non-material. Think of it as the essential nature or essence of a human, or a bird, or a stone.

To speak figuratively, all humans are born with a spark for experiencing enlightenment, but society hammers that spark mercilessly. In many people the spark is beaten down so severely it’s almost extinguished. Zen is the path to fanning the spark until it bursts into a flame.

The flame is kensho. Enlightenment.

When a person is spiritually ready for kensho to occur, it is often activated by an outside happening. It may be a word spoken by a master or a teacher. It may be the sound of a rippling stream. It may be the shape of a mountain.

The title I’ve given this talk is “Mountains and Streams,” and those words bring back an unrelated memory. When I was in the Navy’s Special Training School, each morning every sailor on the base had to assemble on the parade ground while the orders of the day, as well as a checklist of Navy regulations, were read over a public address system.

The reader was a Chief Petty Officer, named Berman. He was semi-literate. The poor guy tripped over almost any word that had more than one syllable. His greatest obstacle was the word “contributions,” as in, “You can have Cancer Society contributions deducted from your paycheck.” He would fumble with the word, then blurt it out as “contribulations.” Everyone tried not to laugh but never succeeded.

What does that have to do with Zen? Probably nothing, unless you want to read some hidden meaning into the story. What triggered the memory was that the daily announcements were referred to as Rocks and Shoals, things that were to be looked out for.

Getting back to Dogen, he was known for his use of figures of speech. In his day (around 1250) metaphors and similes were common tools of Zen masters and teachers, and were understandable to most people because they dealt with concepts of those times. However, when they’re read today they can be puzzling. They can also be misleading if you try to fit them to a culture and time different from those in which they were spoken.

For example, Dogen wrote of a Chinese Zen man named Shisen who was a “veritable dragon in the sea of letters…trained under dragon elephants in the sea of Buddhism.”

If you spend a lot of time trying to interpret all the allusions you’ll lose yourself needlessly in details. If you grasp the point of “dragons” and “elephants in the sea,” that’s fine. If you don’t grab it clearly, don’t worry. Let the words roll off your back, and go on with your Zen practice. It’s essential.

One day Shisen was making his way through a forested mountainside, and he heard the rippling sound made by a rushing stream. That sound caused him to awake spiritually. He was enlightened. He was awakened. He had kensho. He saw his face before he was born.

To mark the event Shisen composed a poem. In it he wrote that the stream’s rippling is the eloquent tongue of the Buddha, and the mountain’s contour is the body of the Buddha.

Shisen’s awakening was brought about by his heightened awareness, which was brought about his long sessions of meditation. His mind was emptied of all judgements, all opinions, all limitations. He was free and open. His spirituality was ready, and his hearing the sound of the stream was like being whacked alongside the head with a two by four.

Dogen asks, what do you hear when you listen to the ripple of a stream. Do you hear half a phrase, or do you hear a single phrase?

Or do you hear every atom of your body and of the entire universe?

Some followers of Zen might think a mountain is a symbol of stability, and a stream represents unsteadiness. They applaud themselves and think they’ve got it.

So Dogen rattles their cage by adding, “That which flows is the mountain; that which does not flow is the stream.”

When Zen master Kyogen was in training he studied hard, and he read the sutras, diligently. One day his master, named Daii, asked him to explain the words, “before father and mother were born.”

Kyogen tried several times, fumbling with words the way Navy Chief Berman did, but Kyogen couldn’t explain. He searched through all of his books and commentaries for help, but was unable to come up with an answer. Finally he burned his entire collection of writings and gave up trying to gain enlightenment. Instead he became a food server in the monastery.

I doubt whether Chief Berman resigned himself to dishing up mashed potatoes in the mess hall.

After several frustrating years Kyogen went back to Daii and asked for help in understanding “before father and mother were born.”

The master refused to elaborate, saying that if he did Kyogen would later resent him.

Kyogen was disappointed, and went away to become a hermit.

Some years later Kyogen was vigorously sweeping the path to his hut, and his broom sent a stone flying. The stone hit a bamboo, making a clunk sound.

That was Kyogen’s ripple of a stream, his contour of a mountain. It was the external happening that triggered his awakening.

He bowed in the direction of his Daii’s monastery and said, “Master, all those years ago if you had said something to me in explanation I would not had this experience. I would have thought I knew the answer.”

Like Shisen, who wrote the verse about the stream’s ripple and the mountain’s contour, Kyogen composed a poem to commemorate his enlightenment.

“At one blow, all I had learned with my head is forgotten.
“Truly, I myself am no longer the one in control.
“Breaking out in a smile, I make my way along the old path,
“Neither looking down in moments of despair
“Nor leaving behind, here and there, traces of where I have been.
“Only a dignified manner remains, which lies beyond anything heard or seen.
“Those everywhere who have realized the Way,
“All in one, say it is the moment supreme.”

D.T. Suzuki mentions (in Sengai, the Zen of Ink and Water) there are three forms of knowledge. They are illusory knowledge, relative knowledge, and absolute knowledge.

Illusory knowledge refers to what you think you know. For an example, teenagers think they know more than their parents.

Relative knowledge is what you pick up from studying, from reading, and from teachers.

Absolute knowledge comes only when you put to rest the other two. Oh, they aren’t worthless. Illusory knowledge and relative knowledge are like paths to the transcendental wisdom that can’t be gained from a teacher.

Absolute knowledge comes from the sound of a stream, the shape of a mountain.


Post a Comment

<< Home