Enkyo Roshi, Year End Retreat at Wisdom House, Litchfield CT

December / January Journal » Dharma Talk
Mountains and Waters Sutra

Roshi Enkyo O'Hara
Photos: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
When we look at what's happening in our environment, in our earth, in ourselves — how can we remain distant?

The last lines of Dogen's Mountains and Waters Sutra are:

An ancient Buddha said "mountains are mountains, waters are waters." These words do not mean mountains are mountains. They mean mountains are mountains. Therefore investigate thoroughly. When you investigate mountains thoroughly this is the work of the mountains. Such mountains and waters of themselves become wise persons and sages

"Such mountains and waters of themselves become wise persons and sages." I think that at no other time in the history of the world has it been so important for humans to really realize their relationship with the natural world. Even 50 years ago people were more connected to the natural world than they are now. I think of things like snowmobiles and different kinds of motorized vehicles that people use to actually go outside into what they call the "natural world." If you happen to follow one, if you go on a hike and you walk along where one of these vehicles has been, it's just destruction, destruction, destruction, and there's no sensitivity about that. I think what's really needed is for each of us to take responsibility; each one of us — not the person next to you but each one of us — to take responsibility for realizing our relationship with the natural world.

Zen, of course, is noted for that. When I think of Zen, if I'm being stereotypical, I think of an old pine tree or a cypress tree, maybe; or a stream of rocks looking as if they're flowing down a hill; or a frog jumping into a pond; a hazy moon; a cloud.

When I first moved to New York 25 years ago, I read an article that said, "New Yorkers think that nature is a cloud." And I didn’t understand that, because I’ve always been a person who has gone outside to nature, and I thought, "What does this mean?" And yet, if you’re here a lot, if you’re in the city, it may be that your only true connection with the natural world is the sky and the clouds—which are really extraordinary here in this town. We’re very blessed, we have beautiful skies — extraordinary skies and clouds. I don’t know how many of you saw the dawn this morning but this room was bright pink! It was extraordinary: the entire eastern sky was filled with rosy light — beautiful! So just to take a moment and see that; maybe reflect, "Why is it rosy? What particles are in the air?" Maybe that wouldn’t be too bad either.

All these images in Zen applying to the natural world are not metaphors for the mind. That would be a really simplistic way to look at it. It would be the way a kind of literary westerner might be tempted to look at the Zen imagery. Because the reference isn't sky is mind, cloud is conditioning — the referent is your personal realization, which is very different.

We have the story of a seeker asking a Zen teacher, "How can I enter the way?" and the teacher says, "Do you hear the sound of the mountain stream?" The seeker says, "Yes, I hear that sound." The teacher says, "Enter there." The stream doesn't "stand" for anything. The stream is roaring, or the stream is trickling as it is in the southwest right now; or gurgling. How does the seeker hear it, study it, receive and maintain it?

Dogen, who wrote the "Mountains and Waters Sutra" wrote a poem he entitled "My Self Portrait." Before I read it, think a minute what you might say if you were writing a self portrait right now.

Cold lake for thousands of yards soaks up the sky color.

Evening quiet, a fish of brocade scales reaches the bottom then goes first this way, then that way

The arrow notch splits

Endless water, surface, water, moonlight, brilliant.

Self portrait: a lake the color of the sky; a fish swims through it, its scales like brocade: elegant interwoven color. It goes this way; then it goes that way. Like the notch in an arrow, this ordinary fish goes through that sky-like lake.

A rather expansive way to realize the self. How could you pollute that lake if you realized that you were the lake? How could you pollute that self if you realized that self was the lake?

You see, by becoming who we are we not only take care of ourselves but we take care of everything — or we could say we not only take care of everything but we take care of ourselves.

It's not that I, this one individual being, am going to go and "do good." That's a guaranteed problem. Whenever we create good we create evil, don't we? But if we are able to take care of ourselves, we will take care of others.

There was a Chinese master by the name of Dongai who wrote a little poem while he was dying. He was on his deathbed — and, you know, in Zen you're supposed to have enough energy at the end to write a little poem before you go (laughter) — so keep that in mind! So this master, Chinese Master Dongai, wrote this on his deathbed:

Earth, river, mountain:

Snowflakes melt in air.

How could I have doubted?

Where's north? south? east? west?

Another self-portrait. As we die, do we want to be stuck so we know which way is north?

Can we melt like the snowflake?

Now, koans are often presented as if they were a method to get you to see something; but I really think they're more presentation of a truth; they're more of an enactment of a truth that students and teacher do together.


Hydrangea, Year End Retreat at Wisdom House, Litchfield CT

The most famous koan I can think of in terms of the natural world Zen is Joshu's Cypress Tree in the Garden (which you may have heard as Oak Tree in the Garden; some translators for whatever reason have translated it that way.)

Joshu was asked by a monk, "What is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the west?"

Joshu says, "The cypress tree in the garden."

And the monk says, "Teacher, please don't use an object for your answer."

Joshu says, "I'm not using an object."

The monk says, "What is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the west?"

Joshu says, "The cypress tree in the garden.

In code, there are many, many koans where someone asks a teacher, "What is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the west?" It refers to Bodhidharma, the person who is said to have brought the teachings to China. But the question really is, "What's the meaning of Zen?" or "What's truth?" It's not really about Bodhidharma; it's What's the meaning? What is the meaning of this — all of this?

What else does this show? What is the meaning? is a question that indicates that this seeker, this sincere seeker, is still very far away from what he seeks. "Me" and "the meaning"; "me" and "Zen"; "me" and "enlightenment"; "me" and "the mountain"; "me" and "the Hudson River".

What's the meaning of "global warming"? What's the meaning of the destruction of the waters of North America? What's the meaning of all this plastic being consumed?

There's "me" and "the industrialists" or "me" and "the capitalists" or "me" and "the farmers"; "me" and "the powerful interests." I'm not separate from any of those. I benefit daily in my lifestyle, modest as it is.

The monk is separating himself from the truth just as we separate ourselves from the problems of the earth.

"Don't use an object to teach me!"

"I'm not using an object to teach you. I'm not using that cypress tree to teach you."

When you experience the whole world as the cypress tree — when you experience the whole world as the whole world, the Hudson River as the Hudson River — you don't need to understand it.

We can point to anything and see the absolute. A cockroach, a rat — I saw the fattest rat the other day at the gardens over there in Red Hook near the composts — I never saw a rat so fat! You know, we have this idea: rat. bad. — can't think of "rat" as this pudgy little animal! It's so interesting how stuck we are in our opinions of things, you know ...little old fat rat! Anything is an experience of the absolute if we can see it that way.


Vines, Year End Retreat at Wisdom House, Litchfield CT

The Japanese haiku poet wrote:

Moving deep into mist — the chrysanthemum

Those autumn flowers receding in the mist don't stand for anything. They are; they simply are.

Another poet wrote:

Nameless — the weed quickening by the stream.

A weed so inconspicuous that it didn't have a name in 15th century Japan; it was just "nameless weed," waving, quickening by the stream. Wanshi [Chinese: Hongzhi Zhengjue; Japanese: Wanshi Zenji; 1091 – 1157] wrote about Joshu's Cypress Tree:

The cypress tree in the yard, the windblown flag on the pole, it's like one flower bespeaking a boundless spring; like one drop telling of the water in the ocean. Ancient Buddhas born periodically go far beyond the ordinary current, not falling into words and thought. How can you understand verbally? (Book of Serenity, Case 47

"Like one drop telling of the water of the ocean."

"Like one drop, telling of the water of the ocean."

Dogen wrote about this koan too; he said:

The cypress tree is not an old shrine. As it is not an old shrine, it is totally immersed.

How often we turn the natural world into an old shrine, our idea of things. We forget to be awake to the aliveness around us: the wind, the dawn, the dusk — that wonderful time just before dark — how often do we just allow ourselves to be there? Even in our offices, you know, you can look out the window for a moment. It's not as if you have to drop everything and go and stand at the window in a holy way; but you can be, for one moment, alive, and re-immerse yourself in the absolute.

Later, a monk took this same koan up again. He asked, "Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature?"

And Joshu said, "Yes, it does."

The monk said, "Well, when does it become Buddha?"

You know, when you hear these things you should remember that "Buddha" means "the one who wakes up." Don't get all caught up in some kind of idolatry — this is "the one who wakes up." So, "when does it become Buddha?"

Joshu says, "When sky falls."

The monk says, "Well, when does that happen?"

Joshu says, "When the cypress tree becomes Buddha."

Sound circular, but it's not really. He answers him every time; he catches him. (Claps) Every single time he's answering the question.

"Does?"
"Yes, it does."
"When?"
"When the sky falls."
"When does the sky fall? When does that happen?"
"When the cypress tree becomes Buddha."

Every time the cypress tree becomes Buddha the sky falls. What sky falls? How can the sky fall? What drops away? What happens when the sky falls? Is there more sky? There is no sky and earth. There's just this. This is the line, and that above is sky and that below is earth.

When we look at what's happening in our environment, in our earth, in ourselves — how can we remain distant? How can we not investigate? Can we do one thing purely and wholeheartedly in our lives? Can we change something in the natural world or in the people that we work with? Can we do one thing — fully? Experiencing yourself as a mountain walking, experiencing yourself as a fountain bubbling, as the earth and waters coughing and spitting: the only way we can heal is this. Immersing ourselves in what is, we change, and we change everything around us.

Let us not waste a moment. Time is very short. Our lives are very short — like a snowflake. Nothing.

Note: This is the fourth and last of Roshi's talks on this sutra. You can hear her giving these talks and others in Roshi's podcasts.


Maple Leaf, Year End Retreat at Wisdom House, Litchfield CT

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