In this column I’m going to examine, in detail, the first half of the koan that 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen quotes in his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”. He wrote, “The green mountains are always walking: a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”
In discussing this koan, Dogen says, “Mountains do not lack the characteristics of mountains.” That is, mountains are mountains because they do the things mountains do, and possess the characteristics that mountains possess. We call it a mountain because it’s tall and it’s made of certain elements.
But Dogen is not just talking about mountains. For Dogen, mountains represent everything. What he says about mountains is true for humans as well. We are full of the characteristics that make us who we are. No one else has our characteristics. Because of this uniqueness, your life is like no other life that has ever existed, or will ever exist. Dogen goes on, “Mountains always abide in ease and always walk.” Like us, they are both profoundly at rest and always walking. That’s what existence is. Existence means you are always profoundly at rest, and you are always in movement.
Then he says, “Examine in detail the characteristics of mountains walking.” He is telling us to study our lives. Do this when sitting in meditation. When he says to study the characteristics of mountains walking, he is telling us to study the particularities of how we live our lives. How many of us would agree that we have characteristics we are not thrilled with, that we think should be different? We feel we could improve aspects of our physical appearance, our psychological makeup, and our habits. But Dogen says no, don’t improve your characteristics. It’s your characteristics that make you a unique aspect of existence. And that existence is profoundly settled and at rest, and it is also in constant motion.
Just study how this is true. Don’t try to evaluate, plan and strive to change your life. Just study it at ever-deeper levels and see how at every moment you are at rest and in motion. Change is going on all the time.
We think mountains don’t walk because it seems that, on the surface, they aren’t doing what human beings do. But they are walking. They, like us, are always coming from stillness to activity, always changing. For us every moment is a moment of activity: the mind’s activity, the body’s activity, the heart’s activity, the soul’s activity. For Dogen, that is how we walk, and that is how mountains walk. So don’t doubt that mountains walk. Dogen concludes by encouraging us to penetrate these words, to study them and understand them deeply.
Suggested practice: Each time you notice yourself criticizing one of your characteristics and wishing you could change, remind yourself that you are always changing, that you don’t need to force change. Relax into rest and allow the change to take place. The mountain will transform in its own time.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fishcher. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.