In Hesse’s story, Siddhartha is in great pain and misery. He wanders into the forest, and finally comes to a river—the river that a ferryman had taken him across earlier in the book. In Buddhist imagery that river and that crossing over is prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha, prajna paramita. Go, go, hurry, cross over to the other side.” We can understand that crossing over in many ways. We can understand it as us crossing over to the other shore, or as the other shore being none other than this shore. We can also understand it as the shore crossing over to us.
Hesse poignantly describes Siddhartha’s agonized state of mind as he prepares to throw himself into the river, but then something happens:
From a remote part of the soul, from the past of his tired life he heard the sound. It was one word, one syllable, which without thinking he spoke instinctively. The ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers, the holy ‘Om,’ which had the meaning of the Perfect One, or perfection. At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha’s ears, his thundering soul suddenly awakened, and he recognized the folly of his action.
Describing the teachings of the river, Hesse ends his passage with:
He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on mirror, sky blue reflected in them. The river looked at him with a thousand eyes, green, white, crystal, sky blue. How he loved this river! How it enchanted him! How grateful he was to it! In his heart, he heard the newly awoken voice speak. And it said to him, ‘Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.’ Yes, he wanted to learn from it. He wanted to listen to it. It seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets would understand much more, many secrets, old secrets.
Master Dogen addresses the secrets of the river and of all water: “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment.” It is none of these dualities. Physically, water is H20 , composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, two odorless and tasteless gases. You bring them together and you get water. But water is not oxygen, and it is not hydrogen. It is not a gas. It is what D.H. Lawrence calls in one of his poems “the third thing.” It is the same way with absolute and relative, with all the dualities. Reality is not either one or the other; it is always the third thing. The third thing is not strong or weak, not wet or dry, not moving or still, not cold or hot, not being or nonbeing, not delusion or enlightenment. What is the third thing that Dogen speaks of, that the sutra speaks of, that the river speaks of?
Once Master Dongshan was crossing the river with Yunju, who was a successor in his lineage. He asked Yunju, “How deep is the river?” Yunju responded, “Not wet.” Dongshan said, “You clod.” “How would you say it, Master?” asked Yunju. Dongshan said, “Not dry.” Does that reveal the third thing? Is that neither wet nor dry?
“Harder than diamond, softer than milk.” “Harder than diamond” expresses the unchanging suchness of all things, the thusness of all things. Just this moment! “Softer than milk” refers to the conditioned suchness of things. With these two phrases—harder than diamond, softer than milk—Dogen presents the absolute and the conditioned aspects of reality.
Then Dogen says: “We should then study that occasion, when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not a study only of the time when humans and gods see the river: there is a study of the river seeing the river. “The river practices and verifies the river; hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self.” We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.”
What is the path on which the self meets the self, and the other meets the other? It is the practice of the river seeing the river, seeing itself. Dogen expresses it slightly differently in another one of his writings, “Genjokoan.” He says, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. And to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” When you study the self, you begin to realize that the self is a self-created idea. We create it moment to moment. We create it like we create all the ten thousand things, by our interdependency and our co-origination with the whole universe. What happens when the self is forgotten? What remains? The whole phenomenal universe remains. The whole dharmadhatu remains. “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things” is the same as seeing the ten thousand things as our own body and mind.
Master Dongshan said, “Everywhere I look, I meet myself. It is at once me, and yet I am not it.” Both of these truths exist simultaneously, but somehow that doesn’t compute. Our brains can’t deal with it. The two things seem mutually exclusive. That’s why practice is so vital. You need to see it for yourself, and see that words don’t reach it. There is no way this reality can be conveyed by words, any more than the taste of the crystal clear water can be conveyed in any other way than by tasting it.
The prologue says, “Morning dew on the tips of the ten thousand grasses reveals the truth of all the myriad forms of this great earth.” Each thing, each tip of grass, each dewdrop, each and every thing throughout the whole phenomenal universe contains the totality of the universe. That’s the truth of the myriad forms of this great earth.