An ancient master said, “Monks, do not have deluded notions. Heaven is heaven, earth is earth. Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. Monks are monks and lay practitioners are lay practitioners.” And yet another master said, “Thirty years ago, before I had studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. And then later, when I had more intimate knowledge, I came to see mountains not as mountains and rivers not as rivers. But now that I have attained the substance, I again see mountains just as mountains, and rivers just as rivers.”
Dogen says, “The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains.” This “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers” doesn’t mean what ordinary people think it means. This is the mountain of the nature of all dharmas, the river of all dharmas, the ten thousand things, the whole phenomenal universe. It doesn’t belong to either yin or yang. It pervades all time and space, from the beginningless beginning, before the kalpa of emptiness, to the endless end. In other words, it’s the body and mind of the ten thousand things—and it’s just a mountain. Therefore we should thoroughly study these mountains. “When we thoroughly study the mountains, this is the mountain training.” When Dogen says “thoroughly study the mountains,” he means to take these mountains and rivers as a koan of our lives. He uses the word “study” in a sense of complete devotion to and practice of the dharma. It can be understood as training in the mountains or as training of the mountains. On this mountain, it’s the training of the mountains and rivers.
The mountains and rivers are a sutra, a teaching, a proclamation of the true dharma. Whether we look at these mountains and rivers with the eyes of a biologist, a geologist, a hydrologist, a sage, a deer, as the mountain itself, as the river itself, they constantly proclaim the dharma. The river sings the eighty-four thousand verses. The mountain reveals the form of the true dharma, the virtue of harmony. Dogen says, “Just by thoroughly studying these mountains, this is the mountain training. These mountains and rivers themselves spontaneously become wise ones and sages.” To realize the mountain is to be the mountain. That’s the mountain as a wise one and a sage. To study the mountains is to study the wise ones and sages. To study the mountain, to realize the mountain, to enter the mountain—these are not three separate activities. They are one reality.
The states of consciousness that are revealed in “Mountains are mountains” and in “The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains” can be traced through the life of the great Master Deshan as it is described among the koans that appear in the traditional koan collections.
Deshan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra who lived in northern China. He was an expert lecturer held in very high esteem, even though he was a very young man. One day he heard about the special transmission outside the scriptures that was going on in the south of China, and he said, “These people are heretics. I’ll go south and disprove all of them.” He packed the copy of his Diamond Sutra and his lecture notes and started the journey south. As he was traveling, he encountered on the road an old woman who was selling rice cakes. He asked for a cup of tea and some rice cakes and she said, “First tell me what you’re carrying in that big pack of yours.” That big pack is symbolic of all the stuff we carry with us—our credentials, our identity, the way we understand ourselves, our accolades, our importance, our separateness. All that is stuffed in a big pack of our ego as we trudge through life. Instead of making it lighter as we go along, we keep stuffing things into it. And when people come into Zen training, they immediately start looking for more stuff to put into the pack. They create a compartment which they label “Zen.” The pack now fills with books, sayings, special experiences of insight, profound exchanges with teachers. All of this is more and more stuff for the pack, when the whole point of practice is to not only empty the content of the pack, but to let the pack itself go. That’s a hard thing to do when you’ve spent a lifetime filling it.
Deshan’s pack was filled with his Diamond Sutra notes, with his identity as a scholar. “What have you got in that pack?” asked the old woman. “Oh, those are my notes on the Diamond Sutra,” he replied smugly. “Do you know a lot about the Diamond Sutra?” “Yes, I’m an expert in it.” The old woman said, “I’ll tell you what. Let me ask you a question about the Diamond Sutra. If you can answer it, I’ll give you a cup of tea. If you can’t answer it, I won’t even serve you.” Deshan said, “Go ahead, ask.” The old woman said, “In that sutra it says, ‘Past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, future mind cannot be grasped.’ Is that true?” “Oh, yes, it’s true.” The old woman continued, “If that’s true, with which mind will you accept this tea?” Deshan couldn’t believe this question. He just stared at her dumbfounded. He had no answer.