Dogen goes on to say, “However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them.” In many of the world’s religions, practitioners retreat to the wilderness for periods of intensive practice. Then why does Dogen say that no one has ever met a single one of the wise ones and sages who have entered the mountains?

When we speak of “entering the mountains” we’re speaking of the non-dual dharma. There is no separation between the sage and the mountain. This is how we should understand the nature of a true “dwelling place.” “Dwelling place” is the equivalent of whole body and mind, the realm that is free of the polarities of motion and rest, man and woman, teacher and student, being and nonbeing—free of all dualities arising from the mistaken distinction of self and other. When you have made the mountains your own body and mind, there is no meeting them. Since the mountains and sages are one reality, that the sages have entered the mountains means that there is no one to meet and nothing to be met. “There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.”

Dogen’s teachings on nonduality are based on the teachings of the Flower Garland Sutra. Among other topics, this voluminous Mahayana text deals with the fourfold dharmadhatu or dharma realms, in the Soto school presented as the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan. Master Dongshan was one of the founders of the Soto school of Zen, which is one of lineages transmitted in the Mountains and Rivers Order. The Five Ranks are a framework to help us understand the interplay between the absolute and the relative. It is also a formulation of different degrees of enlightenment.

The first rank deals with the absolute realm of reality, shunyata or emptiness. According to Buddhism, all things are inherently empty. But we need to be careful about how we appreciate this “emptiness.” The notions of emptiness has been so convoluted in our language that the word has practically lost all of its Buddhist significance. I once took part in a psychology conference called “Sacred Emptiness.” In the program, there weren’t two talks that dealt with emptiness in the same way. Each participant had his or her own definition.

Emptiness is not really an accurate translation of shunyata. We use the word in a way that implies that emptiness is an attribute to be discovered. Conventionally, we say that the world is round. If you look, your perceptions confirm this. There is roundness. Similarly, the implication in the word emptiness is that it is a quality of something. It’s empty. But the emptiness of shunyata is not a thing. It’s meant to oppose all views—including, most importantly, the view of emptiness. It has absolutely, unequivocally no status whatsoever. It is neither existent nor nonexistent. To consider that it is any such thing is utterly deluded. When we say that an object is empty, this means that it is empty of independent existence, or of any inherent characteristics. It is interdependent with everything. From a Mahayana Buddhist perspective, emptiness and interdependence are one and the same thing.

Because all dharmas—all things—are empty, they lack self nature. This means that they do not exclude anything, and they do not hinder anything. Each dharma has the ability to penetrate everywhere without obstructing any other dharma. This is called muge-—no hindrance, no obstruction. This is not only true of mountains and rivers, but of all things, all dharmas, all beings. It is true of you and I.


looking at mountains


The prologue begins, “The empty sky vanishes. Mountains are level with the plains. Above, not a tile to cover the head. Below, not an inch of ground upon which to stand.” This is pointing to the first and pivotal transition in practice—the experience of the fundamental unity of reality.

Most Western practitioners are very impatient. Soon after they begin practice they start pressing the teacher to move them along in their training. They want to be assigned koan work, even though they may not be ready. What does it mean to be ready to do koan work? It means to have entered into samadhi, to have experienced the falling away of body and mind, the great death. All passions, desires, and aspirations must be released. All perspectives disappear. Samsara and enlightenment themselves become nonexistent, like a bottomless, clear pool. This is deep samadhi with no awareness of the self. Whether we’re working on the breath, on koans, doing shikantaza, or entering the mountains, whole body and mind intimacy is of supreme importance. The breath, when it’s entered with the whole body and mind, produces samadhi. Mu, the sound of the bell, the flight of the crow, the valley stream, when entered fully, produce the same result. When you rush your practice towards some goal, you pay for it all through koan study. It ends up being intellectual and sloppy. No matter how sophisticated we get, or how many books we read, it is always clear when someone has seen a koan directly or only gained some understanding about it. Intellectual responses don’t reach the truth of a koan. You have to become the koan to see its reality. You have to embody it. In embodying it, you actualize it—you make it actual; you make it real. It’s through the realization of one’s own body and mind that the mountains are actualized. To actualize means to manifest insight in your very existence, in the world.