A student asked Master Dongshan, “You always instruct us to follow the way of the birds. What is it to follow the way of the birds?” Dongshan answered, “You don’t meet anyone.” Isn’t this Zhaozhou’s cypress tree?—his answer to “What is the meaning of the ancestor’s coming from the West?”

Dogen says in the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” “The countenance of the mountains is completely different when we are in the world gazing off at the mountains and when we are in the mountains meeting the mountains.” The nature of the breath is completely different when we have separated ourselves from it as an observer, and when we are the breath with the whole body and mind. This is whole body and mind intimacy. When you’re really intimate with something, it no longer exists and you no longer exist. The word relationship has no meaning at all in this case. There’s no way to talk about it, to judge it, to analyze it or categorize it. It fills the whole universe. Dogen said, “To hear sound with the whole body and mind, to see form with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.” To understand intimately doesn’t mean to acquire information. It is another way of expressing enlightenment itself.

Intimacy is the dwelling place of the great sages. Realization is intimacy. Once you make that quantum leap of realization, then your way of perceiving yourself and the universe is very different. Yet nothing has changed. Everything is precisely as it was before, but your way of seeing and appreciating is quite different. Your way of living includes a new imperative that begins to guide your actions. Without knowing, things change. That’s why realization cannot be contrived. It always reveals itself.

Why is realizing the mountains as one’s own body and mind such a pivotal and transforming occasion? Needless to say, when we say “mountains” we’re not just referring to mountains, but rather to all form—all things, all beings sentient and insentient, and neither sentient nor insentient. To realize all form as one’s own body and mind is to dwell in a different world. It is to be a universe that is unborn and inextinguishable, universe that has no beginning or end. You have no beginning or end. Then how will you care for the mountains and rivers, for your own body and mind, the body and mind of the universe?

Whether you realize it or not, the intimacy that Dogen points to is the life of each one of us. When you realize it, you empower yourself and you actualize that realization in your life. But whether you realize it or not, it is always present. As the capping verse says:


When we truly enter the mountains,
birds, bugs, beasts and blossoms
radiate supernatural excellence
and take great delight in our presence.


mountains in snow


To truly enter the mountains is to truly realize self and other as one thing, self and breath as one reality. But realizing unity is only an aspect of the whole picture. It’s step one, the beginning of clarity. In your zazen, it doesn’t matter what is the focus of your practice, as far as realization is concerned. That quantum leap of consciousness is always about whole body and mind unity with whatever you are practicing. That’s what Dogen means when he says, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To forget the self is to realize this very body and mind as the body and mind of the universe.

Each time you let go of a thought and bring yourself back to the moment—whatever that moment is for you—each time you are fully present. In every moment of genuine practice you bring yourself a step closer to total unity with the breath, with the koan, with your life.

The only limits that exist are the ones we set for ourselves. Take off the blinders, release the chain, push down the walls of the cage and advance a step forward. When you’ve taken that step, acknowledge it, let it go, and advance another step. And when you finally arrive at enlightenment, acknowledge it, let it go and take a step forward. That is, always had been, and will be the ceaseless practice of all the buddhas and ancestors. By doing this, you actualize their very being, their very life. You give life to the Buddha

John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.