Monday, April 20, 2015



When trumpeter Louis Armstrong was asked to explain jazz, he said,” If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

          If you have to ask what Zen is, you’ll never know.


In the book Shobogenzo, Master Dogen did not define Zen, but he gave a hint by saying Nature was the thread that holds Buddhism together.

Dogen’s chapter on “Mountains and Waters” is one of his most insightful monologues. It is also one of the most difficult for a Western mind to comprehend. Maybe this is because the Western mind tends to evaluate and analyze rather than to absorb intuitively.

          Perhaps Westerners have been conditioned to interpret everything as a symbol for something else. As one American poet lamented, “When I write about climbing a tree I mean climbing a tree, not getting closer to Heaven.”

          The Japanese term for Shobogenzo’s “Mountains and Waters” is Sansuigyo. It’s a word that means Nature, water, and Buddhism. So Sansuigyo is about the natural world, and it uses mountains and rivers as examples of steadiness and change.

          Dogen starts out by stating, “The mountains and waters of the present are the realization of the words of eternal Buddhas.” That means mountains and waters are what they are—mountains and waters. Nothing more, nothing less.

Constant and eternal is what mountains and waters have always been and that’s what they will always be. Mountains may be bulldozed, rivers may be frozen solid, but such changes don’t make them anything different. Their Buddha nature is consistent.

          You may be an infant of a certain race, and a certain gender. You may be an adult. Whatever you are at any time is what you are at that time.

          But what about the curious statement that says “mountains are constantly walking”? How can a mountain of any shape move anywhere on foot?

          A good question. I’m glad you asked.

          Nothing is utterly and completely static. Whether a human being, or a mountain, or a craftsman’s tool, it may appear to the eye to be motionless, but atom by atom it is changing with time and so is moving.  Although mountains are still, they are constantly altering. It could be said they are walking.

          It could even be said mountains are creeping, or crawling, or flying.

          In whatever way mountains—or humans, or tools—move they do not lose their essential being. To use an old Buddhist term, their isness is maintained.

          A human may die, and humans eventually do, but their isness, spirit, or essence continues to exist. A rock may be hammered into pebbles, but its rock-essence remains. What is commonly called soul doesn’t rise like smoke and go to Heaven or sink to Hell. Nor does it cease to exist. The thing may be gone, but isness is always here, always now. It is constant and eternal.

          So where and when does this isness start? In animals does it begin with conception? In plants does it activate with some other form of fertilization? In mountains does it arise with the Big Bang?

          Again I’m glad you asked. The answer is no to all of the above. There is no beginning, no end. Buddha nature is. It is our face before we were born.

          Dogen said the walking of the mountains is swifter than the wind. But humans in the mountains do not sense it or know that.  In the mountains, walking is the blooming of flowers, the movement of the air, the falling of snow and of rain. People who have no eyes to truly see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, and do not realize this concrete fact.

          Walking is a matter of balance in nature and in oneself.

          Dogen says, “If we doubt the walking of the mountains we also do not yet know our own walking. When we know our own walking, then we will surely know the walking of the mountains.”

          Think about that.

          The Zen poet Gary Snyder wrote, "Dōgen is not concerned with sacred mountains, or pilgrimages, or spirit allies, or wilderness as some special quality. His mountains and streams are the processes of this earth, all of existence, process, essence, action, absence; they roll being and non-being together. They are what we are, we are what they are. For those who would see directly into essential nature, the idea of the sacred is a delusion and an obstruction. It diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes, plain thusness. Roots, stems, and branches are all equally scratchy.

          “So the mountains walk to the kitchen and back to the shop, to the desk, to the stove. The blue mountains march out of the sea, shoulder the sky for a while, and slip back into the waters."


          If we doubt the walking of the mountains we also do not yet know our own walking. When we know our own walking, then we will surely know the walking of the mountains.