Photo by Josh Klute


Not knowing immediately opens into endless possibilities. When you know, you’re very limited. As Suzuki Roshi says, the beginner’s mind has countless possibilities. The mind of the expert is very small. It shows an unwillingness to really hear anything. The commentary says, “At that moment, Master Xiu Mountain disintegrated and in his place, a student appeared—as did limitless possibilities.” Finally Xiushan could hear what Dizang had to say.

“Dizang moved quickly,” knowing that he needed to strike while the iron was hot. Immediately, he said, “What is it you’re calling mountains, rivers and the earth?” A simple question. He could have asked that question at the beginning of the dialogue, but it would have fallen on deaf ears. At this point, in the midst of the expression of great doubt, “I don’t know,” Xiushan was ready. If you don’t have the mind of inquiry, the mind to probe the depths of your own consciousness and the nature of the universe, you’ll waste your time, you’ll waste your life. “What is it you’re calling mountains, rivers and the earth?” Indeed, indeed. It’s that. It’s me. It’s neither. It’s both. If it’s not any of those, what is it?

How will you protect mountains, rivers and the great earth if you don’t know what they are? How will you save yourself if you don’t know who you are? Who or what are you saving? Who are the sentient beings that we chant about in the Four Bodhisattva Vows? What does it mean to save? With that question, in that state of consciousness, the whole of reality can flash through your mind in an instant. What are you left with? “Xiushan thereupon attained enlightenment.” The final line of the commentary raises the question, “But say, what did he realize?”

The Capping Verse: The sky covers it, the earth supports it. Pervading the universe, it’s without boundaries. What is being indicated in these lines? What is this koan pointing to? What did Xiushan realize? Arriving at the mysterious subtlety, who distinguishes turning inward or turning outward? Is it here? Is it there? Where is it? What is it?

Living where we do—in these beautiful mountains and rivers—carries with it a responsibility. Nobody else is going to worry about what is happening here. Nobody’s even going to notice. If we don’t take care of this place, no one else will. The people in California have their own problems. Minnesota has its own problems. We live here in a beautiful part of the world, along one of the most gorgeous rivers on the face of the earth—the Hudson. Yet it was once so polluted, it didn’t even freeze in the winter. Nothing could live in it. But now it’s been brought back to life, thanks to the courageous efforts of people like Pete Seeger who cared enough to do something about it.

That’s the power of people once they’re conscious. Raising consciousness is one of the most important things we can do. This earth is incredibly precious. The more we understand it, the more we understand who we are, what our life is. That’s when we realize the intimacy that exists between us and the ten thousand things. What happens to the river, what happens to a lake, what happens to people on the other side of the world, happens to each and every one of us. It’s no small thing to realize this truth. And it’s no small thing to act on that realization

Koans of the Way of Reality is a collection of koans complied at Zen Mountain Monasery over the last twenty-five years. It includes both koans that appear in the traditional collections as well as pieces taken from other sources and treated as koans because of their relevance for modern Western practitioners.

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.