The master of Xiushan joined with Fayan, Wudong and the master of Jinshan, to travel beyond the lake region (of east central China). Coming to Zhang province, they were blocked by rain, snow and swollen valley streams. They put up at Dizang temple west of the city. There they encircled the brazier and ignored master Dizang. Dizang wanted to test them, so he also drew near the fire and said, “There’s something I would ask about; may I?” Xiushan said, “If there’s some matter, please ask.” Dizang said, “Are the mountains, rivers and earth identical or separate from you elders?” Xiushan said, “Separate.” Dizang held up two fingers; Xiushan hurriedly said, “Identical! Identical!” Dizang held up two fingers, and then left. Fayan said, “What was the meaning of the abbot holding up two fingers?” Xiushan said, “He did that arbitrarily.” Fayan said, “Don’t crudely insult him.” Xiushan said, “Are there any elephant tusks in a rat’s mouth?”

The next day they took leave and departed; first they went to the house. Fayan said, “You brothers go ahead; I’ll stay with Dizang—he may have some strong point. If not, I’ll come to find you.” After Fayan had studied there for a long time, the other three, including Xiushan, also came back to Dizang.

In this koan Xiushan returned alone to Dizang. When he expressed his doubt to the master, the latter said, “It’s not bad that you travel to many mountains and rivers.” In order to understand Dizang’s statement we need first to understand how “mountains and rivers” are used in Zen literature. They are, of course, the physical mountains and rivers as we know them. But they’re also considered the ups and downs of life. In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Dogen uses them to refer to form and emptiness. So what is Dizang saying when he says, “It’s not bad that you travel to many mountains and rivers”?

I myself spend quite a bit of time traveling back and forth between the Adirondacks and the Catskill mountains. When I go to the Adirondacks, I marvel at how beautiful it is there. And every time I return here to the Catskills, I again marvel at how beautiful this place is, this place that we call home. In some ways the two areas are similar, yet they also have different terrains, so going back and forth between them shifts my way of seeing, my way of experiencing and feeling things. I think that’s an important aspect of pilgrimages—a change of environment to allow us to see life in a fresh way.

The Adirondacks, as you probably know, was the first park in the world to be designated as a forest preserve. This, in and of itself, is extraordinary. Thanks to a number of farsighted people back at the turn of the 19th century—many of them artists, some of them very powerful business people—the Adirondack Park was protected to remain “forever wild.” This first incident then set a precedent that led to the National Park Service, and it sparked the emergence of wilderness preserves in Europe and other parts of the world.

You would think then, that because the Adirondacks is a state preserve, it is free from development. Not so. On one of my trips I found out that the fellow who operates a moonlight cruise business on Raquette Lake has been trying to open up the old route that the steamboat used over a hundred years ago between Blue Mountain, Eagle, Ottawana and Raquette Lakes. He bought hundreds of acres of land and is pushing to open up the channels again, which would effectively get rid of the ponds, falls, etc. that have formed over time. And all of this just so that he can expand his moonlight cruise business. If he’s successful, he will effectively change the face of one of the most beautiful lakes in the Adirondacks. What should we do about it?

This seems like a trivial event, the kind of thing that happens all the time all over the world. But this is exactly the kind of thing we need to consider in our practice. Our practice is not just about the backwards step, zazen. It’s also about taking the forward step of right action. One of the ways of practicing the precepts, the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism, is to do something. Do something for someone else. Do something for the earth. Do something for the world. It doesn’t matter how small it is or how seemingly insignificant it is. It’s important that we do it, that we take that step.