In this section of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” Dogen addresses the true spirit of the teacher-student relationship. In the prologue we find clues about the state of consciousness that is transmitted between teacher and student. It says, “The universe is not obscure.” This statement comes from the point of view of having realized the universe. “All of its activity and function lie open and exposed.” There’s nothing hidden. “In the ten directions there are no obstructions.” When we fully realize that all of the barriers we encounter in our lives are self-created, we realize that we can uncreate them. In the whole universe, there are no obstructions. “When right and wrong are intermingled, even the great sages cannot distinguish them.” We begin practice within the realm of this and that, of differentiation. Then after many years of study we come to realize the absolute nature of reality. We personally experience the great emptiness. But that’s only one side. We must proceed further, driven on by the practice, by the koans, by the teacher, and come to see and to realize the manifestation of the absolute in the world of differences. We learn to function in the world from the point of view of realization. That’s the other side. But there are still two sides. We must go deeper, until we realize the ten thousand things as a reflection of this body and mind. Then there is no way to avoid the great heart of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva—the ten thousand hands and eyes of great compassion reaching out, intermingling with all beings.

Still, the practice continues until we arrive at the fourth rank of Master Dongshan. “When right and wrong are intermingled, even the great sages cannot distinguish them. When heaven and earth are interwoven, you are free to ride the clouds and follow the wind. Responding to the imperative freely, one time wielding the sword that kills, and another time manifesting the sword that gives life. The lotus blooms in the raging fire.” All differences merge to a point where it becomes possible to roam freely and act according to the imperative.

Master Dongshan presented a poem to describe the fourth rank:

There is no need to avoid crossed swords.
A good hand like a lotus blooming in a fire
has in itself a heaven soaring spirit.

There is no need to avoid crossed swords. Don’t avoid the difficulties of life. In the 1980s several American Zen communities were embroiled in a series of scandals. Accusations were made, students left, monastics disrobed, and teachers were held in great disrepute in various sanghas. Yet somehow, some of these teachers were like phoenixes—they rose out of the ashes and corrected what needed correcting. They acknowledged the karma they had created with their actions, took responsibility for it, and returned to teaching.




“A good hand is like a lotus blooming in a fire.” The lotus is a symbol of nirvana or enlightenment, and the fire a symbol of samsara or delusion. Rather than seeing samsara and nirvana as two separate things, in this fourth rank of Master Dongshan, they merge. The lotus doesn’t exist outside of the fire; it actually blooms because of the fire. The fire burns, the lotus blooms. It’s because the fire burns that the lotus can bloom. That’s how the lotus derives its nourishment. During oryoki, our formal meal, we chant, “May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus; thus we bow to Buddha.” It is because the water is muddied with decaying, rotting vegetation, that the lotus can bloom. If you were to take that lotus out of the muddy water and transplant it into distilled water, it would be dead in a day. A good practitioner is like a lotus blooming in a fire. When you give life, you give life through and through, always acting according to conditions. When one has realized the emptiness of the self and all things, having forgotten the self, it’s possible to respond according to conditions, whatever those conditions are.

Conditions always arise according with our karma. We all create karma in different ways. A vow is karma. A vow is very powerful. When you make a vow, you create karma, providing the vow is real. When people make marriage vows to each other, they create karma. When we vow to uphold the precepts, we create karma. When we take the vows of a monastic, we create karma, just by virtue of that vow. Whatever the vow is, we create that karma with our expressed intent. But it must be a vow that consumes all of our being, not just the mouthing of a few words or ideas. In order for the vow to be functioning, it needs to be real. It needs to be sincere. To vow means to commit, to practice, and to do.

Dogen says, “Again, since ancient times, wise ones and sages have lived by the river. When they live by the river they catch fish, or they catch humans, or they catch the Way. These are all traditional water styles. Going further, there must be catching the self, catching the hook, being caught by the hook, and being caught by the Way. In ancient times when Chuanzi suddenly left Yaoshan and went to live on the river, he got the sage of the Flowering River. Is this not catching fish? Is this not catching humans? Catching water? Is this not catching himself? That someone could see Chuanzi is because he is Chuanzi; and Chuanzi’s teaching someone is his meeting himself.”

Chuanzi and Yaoshan were two Chinese Zen masters in our lineage. Yaoshan was the teacher of Yunyan and Yunyan was the teacher of Dongshan, who is credited with establishing the Soto lineage. During one of the great persecutions of Buddhism in the Tang dynasty, around the year 845 c.e., Chuanzi left the temple at Yaoshan mountain and went to live along the Flowering River. He said that he was good for nothing but enjoyed the mountains and rivers, so he became a ferryman and continued teaching in disguise.