Master Dogen’s Lesson On Emptiness

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

“The blue mountains are constantly walking.” wrote the Japanese master Eihei Dogen.  Dogen brought Ch’an Buddhism to Japan in the early 1200’s from China.  He travel to China many times.  Dogen is quoting the Ch’an master Furong, a teacher in my own linage.  Dogen was probably envisioning those mountains of Asia whose trails he had walked over the years who’s peaks are in the 3 – 9 thousand foot range, hazy blue or blue green, mostly tree covered, maybe the steep jumbled mountains of coastal South China and where Dogen may have lived and practiced.  His records indicated he walked many thousands of miles. He said, “if you doubt mountains walking you do not know your own walking.”

Dogen is not concerned with sacred mountains or pilgrimages or spirits or wilderness as some mystical quality.  His mountains and streams are the process of this earth, all of existence, process, essence, action, absence;  they roll being and nonbeing together.  Yet another expression of what is called ‘form and emptiness.’  They are what we are, we are what they are when we say each form we see is yet another expression of the university.  It is about understanding how Buddhist thought expresses the dual and non-dual nature of the world around us.  For those who would see directly into this essential nature, the idea of it being sacred is an obstruction:  it diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes:  plain thusness.  Roots, steams, and branches are all equally scratchy.  No hierarchy, no equality.  No esoteric, no gifted kids and slow achievers.  No wild and tame, no bound or free, no natural and artificial.  Each totally its own frail self.  Frail because all we can know is impermanent, even though interconnected and interdependent.

This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature.  The water is wet kind of thing.  So the blue mountains walk to the kitchen and back to the shop, to the desk, to the stove.  We sit on the park bench and let the wind and rain drench us.  The blue mountains walk out to put another coin in the parking meter, and go on down to the 7-Eleven.  The blue mountains march out of the sea, shoulder the sky for a while, and slip back into the waters.

This kind of language is what often makes zen-speak difficult to understand.  The human ability to walk is characteristic of our natural expression, the water to be wet is apart of its unique character, a mountain’s mineral substance and “bigness” makes it mountain-like.  Yet, all these universal expressions come from the same source of material-making.  This common reality is what makes all things interconnected.  So when we say the mountain is walking, we are really saying a mountain and a human person is together expressing how the universe is.   It only makes sense if we see beyond their independent forms.  Mountains walking is another way of expressing non-dual or the emptiness of things.

Nothing remains the same for long.  EVERYTHING is in constant renewal or modification.  Sameness is an illusion.  Everything is dependent on everything else.  Everything is interconnected.  I can not say this enough.  When we sit we have the opportunity to experience this reality.  Your mind of illusory thoughts that you are separate from mountains and rivers as well as other beings is to be put down when you sit zazen.  Then you too will walk with the mountains.  I ask you, what is the true nature of a mountain?

Things are never as simple as our sense-consciousness presents to our mind to interpret.  Our eye only sees form and our ear only records sound for example.  It is up to our six-sense, the mind, to process this input using those filters we have created over years of living our experiences.  And during that time our mind creates what it comes to consider the self.  This self the mind creates is independent from all other forms it encounters.  But this is an illusion.  If all things our interdependent and interconnected, then all things have mutual attributes.  Consider the images the satellites have given us of the earth.  From far away it looks like a blue ball with white fluffy clouds.  We see no detail of all the things that makes up our world.  When we go out even further we no longer even see the earth.  The universe you see can be visualized in our minds-eye as a complete single form.  This single expression is what we mean by empty.  All individual characteristic of each individual form is “merged” into one universal expression.  So mountains walking is another way of expressing this completeness.

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