Mountains and Rivers Sesshin

Point Reyes, August, 2002

The Patriarch Ta-yang Shan-k'ai addressed the assembly: "The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night." The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; and therefore, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must study this virtue of walking in detail. The walk of the mountains is like that of men; so we must not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to stride like humans. This teaching of the Patriarch in fact points out such walking; it has attained the fundamental, and we should give his teaching on "constant walking" a thorough study.*

Considering the text It is amazing to me, sometimes, how much baggage I find myself hauling up a mountain. I try to keep it simple, try to pare it all down to the minimum. But still, it seems, things keep creeping back in. And not just the physical stuff. There's all that mental baggage, too. It was not until after I had returned home from this trip that I began to realize just how much of that there was. Especially the grieving, which I had thought had run its course. But no, it was still there and would not be ignored.

Once, not long after the memorial service for Rosemary, I found myself wondering "if nothing abides, where does this sorrow come from, and who is it that suffers?" It seems there is yet a mountain of grief to climb, along with this pile of rock, dirt, and trees.

If you have doubts about the walking of mountains it means you do not yet know the walking of your own self. It is not that your self does not walk, but that you do not yet know, have not made clear its walking. And those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains.

Considering the text This landscape, with such obvious signs of Earth's movement, is not such a bad place to ponder the mountains' walking. We are separated from the mainland by the San Andreas fault, with Bolinas Bay and other features attesting to the mountains' strides. These thoughts and Dogen's words accompany me on the trail.

When we hear a voice, it is vibrations of the air that carry the sound to us, and it is the changing pitch of those vibrations that carry the meaning. Mountains live in geological time scales which are so vast that we can not really comprehend them. Their speech occupies a similar time scale, and it must surely take a hundred years to utter just one syllable of mountain speech. The pitch is so low we can not even detect it. But sometimes, of course, the mountains' striding snaps into our own time scale. The earth may move several feet in the space of a heartbeat with consequences disastrous for our creations. That, too, is speech and movement that we cannot ignore.

Receiving this offering Dogen lived in a landscape similarly transformed by massive earthquakes. Is it too much to suppose that he had similar thoughts? His subtle words, of course, go far beyond such thoughts, but we have to start from somewhere when entering the mountains. Sometimes I resent all these thought that crowd into my mind, but I begin to realize that, like the pain in my legs while sitting, I need to accept them as my friends. Like the pain, they remind me that I am alive and that I have much for which to be grateful. So I welcome them as phenomena, like the trees and shrubs along the path.

The gentle road we follow is over-arched by ancient trees, and it is, at first, not obvious that we are even approaching a mountain. Walking in silence, right now there is only the sound of our own feet crunching the gravel on the path, the water flowing, and birds singing. But soon we take a trail that branches to the right and crosses the creek. It climbs steeply and before long we find ourselves crossing the shoulder of Mt. Wittenberg.

Sojun Driving through the night before, I had not really expected to be able to arrive in time to join the group for the beginning of the trek. But as I came closer to the meeting place, and it appeared that I would not be too late, I remembered twenty years before. Then when I was preparing to move back to Oregon from my brief stay in Berkeley, we had had a farewell dinner hosted by the woman whose house I had shared. As the dinner drew to a close, I began to get anxious about getting to the next event where Sojun's attendance was expected. I don't recall his words at the time, but the lesson was clear: do this completely before moving on, the next event will have its own time. And in fact, I arrived at the meeting place before most of the others, whose breakfast plans had changed at the last minute.

After a brief rest, we continue on over the shoulder of Mt. Wittenberg towards the coast, stopping for lunch on a high promontory overlooking the ocean and our camp. By now the clouds are pressing in on us. After the previous night's long drive through the hot valley, this is a welcome sight for me. On the freeway I had descended from the Siskiyou Mountains after midnight into Yreka, finding the whole valley choked with smoke from forest fires to the west. But now in the blowing mist above the ocean, that seems very far away, indeed. In the distance, I can just make out a white deer moving through the brush.

SeagullsThinking of "mountains walking," I recall Dogen's Genjokoan, in which he refers to birds flying in the air and fish swimming in the water. Is this walking of mountains like the flight of birds? If so, in what medium is it that mountains walk? While there is a superficial similarity here, it seems more like the story he brings up later in Genjokoan: a monk asks metaphorically about the necessity of practice, "The nature of wind is permanently abiding and there is no place it does not reach. Why, master, do you still use a fan?"** Is this walking of mountains, are these mountains themselves then, like the Dharma wind that reaches everywhere?

The mountains have always been the timeless dwelling place of the great sages; both wise men and sages have made the mountains their abode, their own body and mind. And through these wise men and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise men we suppose have assembled in the mountains, in fact ever since they entered the mountains there is no one who has met a single one of them. For this is nothing but the expression of the life of the mountains: not a single trace of their having entered the mountains remains.

At the campsite, we pitch our tents, and while others explore the area, I climb into my tent and sleep until zazen, service and dinner beginning at 5:00 PM.

Sitting on the beachI had been apprehensive about sitting outside, and using a sleeping bag and pad for zafu and zabuton, but those concerns evaporate as quickly as my pad becomes soaked with dew. And later, sitting on the beach as the light grows dim, I feel remarkably exhilarated, even shedding the coat that I had worn, expecting a bitterly cold wind to chill me to the core. Instead, a warm breeze provides a soothing embrace. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this practice, these people, this opportunity, my eyes filling with tears. Sorrow, grief, remorse, gratitude, and joy all seem so intense now. After all these years delusion and attachment seem greater than ever. There is so little understanding, the path seems ever more obscure. I'm not even sure if I am the one attached, or is it the emotion that attaches to me? And I wonder if I will ever get beyond the First Noble Truth. Kate Wolf's wise words echo in my mind and offer comfort: "love has made a circle that holds us all inside, where strangers are as family and loneliness can't hide ..."*** All these emotions crowd in and sometimes I can barely distinguish one from another. Love and hate -- are they really much different? Or are they like the other thoughts, just more mental phenomena to greet and accept?

Saturday, after the morning sitting and breakfast, another white deer bounds over the ridge behind our camp. During the lecture period, we read Dogen's sutra aloud, each person reading a paragraph in turn. Afterwards, Sojun responds to questions. Someone asks how we are to understand "ownership" when Dogen says "Although we say that mountains belong to the country, actually they belong to those who love them. ... And when sages and wise men live in the mountains, because the mountains belong to them, trees and rocks flourish and abound, and the birds and beasts have a supernatural excellence." In this context, ownership is to be understood very broadly, he says. Picking a blade of dry grass to illustrate his point, he says that while he may be holding the grass, he does not really "own" it in an exclusionary sense. He holds this dead leaf, but all I can see is Sakyamuni holding up a flower, and once again I dissolve in tears.

Later we discuss what to do for the next day's lecture. Sojun suggests three options: everyone can bring a poem, or we could create a poem, each person adding a line as we go around the circle. There is so much interest in these that we never hear the third option.

Walking on the beach later in the day I find myself recalling, as so often happens, the lines from The Walrus and the Carpenter,

They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away," They said, "it would be grand!"
"If seven maids with seven mops swept for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said, "That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter, and shed a bitter tear.

Thus, combined with all the suffering and the compassion which surrounds me and seems so palpable, came my poem,

Bitter tears,
Tears of joy
This ocean
And comforts us.

Sunday morning, as I cleaned out the cooking pots from breakfast, I put the leftovers in plastic bags and carried them to the garbage bins. Unfortunately, it hadn't occurred to me that the cooked cereal was still quite warm, and before I reached the bins, the bottom of the bag fell out, all of it landing splat! in the middle of the path. Normally, that would have been a stressful occurrence, but at the time, I just laughed out loud!

I couldn't recall a period of zazen as hard as the last one that morning had been. But at the same time, I couldn't recall ever having had the same sense of accepting things as they are. I could not have asked for more. And hiking out that afternoon, I began to realize how much I had gained in many ways, not the least of which was a greater confidence in understanding Dogen's writing and a new perspective on the Cold Mountain poems. While I had treasured these for many years, and understood the various levels of meaning in an academic way, suddenly I could accept the meaning in a new way, as though I were actually in the mountains.

Despite all of this, I was glad to return to Oregon. Driving north, I stopped after midnight for a nap in a rest area just over the border. The first person to whom I spoke the next morning was a gas station attendant in Reedsport. At the end of our transaction he said "thank you" with such a sincere tone of voice, and with a manner that seemed symbolic of the best reasons I feel so much at home here, that I wanted to jump out and give him a hug! A little farther along, I stopped to eat in Florence. Sitting at a table in a small restaurant I found tears streaming down my face, just so happy to be here, wherever that "here" may be. I don't understand this sense of place, and why I'm so attached to it, and others don't seem to have any particular attachment at all. Is it even really a form of attachment? I don't really understand just what that "here" really means. I wonder, then, why did Dogen return to Japan instead of staying in China?

The master replied "You only know that the nature of wind is permanently abiding, but you do not yet know the true meaning of 'There is no place it does not reach'."

* Quotations from the Carl Bielefeldt translation of Dogen Zenji's Mountains and Rivers Sutra, fascicle 29 of the Shobogenzo. A more recent version is available from the Soto Zen Text Project.

** From Paul Jaffe's translation of Hakuun Yasutani's commentary Flowers Fall, Shambala, 1996.

*** Kate Wolf, "Give Yourself To Love," 1982 BMI

Photos by Ken Knabb.