Twenty-First Century Bodhisattvas

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi

Featured in Mountain Record 27.4, Summer 2009


photo by Ray DeBruyn 

Thirteenth-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen is one of the most remarkable religious figures and teachers in the history of Zen. Although relatively unknown during his lifetime, he is now highly regarded as a great philosopher, mystic, and poet in Japan and the West.

The teachings of Dogen have come down to us from the years he spent at Kenninji in Kyoto and later at Eiheiji temple in the remote mountains of Echizen. Most notable among his works is the masterpiece Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, a collection of ninety-five discourses on various aspects of the dharma, among them Sansuikyo: The Mountains and Rivers Sutra. When Dogen began working on this sutra in the year 1240, he was at the pinnacle of his literary and teaching powers. In fact, many consider this fascicle to be the most eloquent of his writings.

It is impossible to study the Mountains and Rivers Sutra and not be moved by the poetry and creativity of Dogen’s words. His way with language is so unusual that among scholars it has earned the appellation “Dogenese.” He communicates not only with ordinary language, but also with what he calls “intimate words,” mitsugo. Mitsu means “secret” or “mystical.” It is something not apparent to the senses or intellect, which means it requires direct, immediate, and complete perception. Go means “words,” so mitsugo is “secret talk,” or “secret words.” It is expression that is communicated directly, but without sound. That is, they are “words without words.” Because of their nature, mitsugo are said to be “turning words” that are grasped in a moment of insight, rather than through linear, sequential thought.

Like mitsugo, koans or “public cases” are exchanges that open us up to the possibility of looking at a question directly and intimately. Because they cannot be addressed intellectually, koans cut through the layers of conditioning we have accumulated since birth. In this way, they help us to directly grasp our inherent nature so that we can then live our lives out of that which has been realized.

In this sutra Dogen uses metaphors, mitsugo, traditional koans, and the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan to take up, once again, a theme he had begun exploring in a previous fascicle called Keiseisanshiki: The Sound of the Stream and the Form of the Mountain. In Sound of the Stream, Dogen first equates the mountains and rivers with the body of the Buddha, while in the Mountains and Rivers Sutra he focuses specifically on the meaning of mountains and rivers as the teachings and speech of the Buddha. He points out in his opening lines that the environment that surrounds us right here and now is the expression of the ancient buddhas—is, in fact, a sutra, the word of the Buddha. The mountains and rivers themselves are a teaching that reflects the truth of the buddhadharma.

Another central theme of this fascicle is the teaching of nonduality: the realization of no separation between self and other, between self and the rest of the universe.

Through an exhaustive study of the Mountains and Rivers Sutra it becomes clear that Dogen’s profound insight into the Buddhist teachings is unparalleled in the history of Zen. His understanding of the concept of nonduality and the way that it can inform our everyday actions is of utmost relevance for twenty-first century Zen practitioners and the issues and concerns we are facing, particularly with regard to the environment. Dogen, living as he did in medieval Japan, was certainly not speaking about ecology, global warming, pollution or deforestation. Yet his teachings, when clearly realized, have the potential to guide us in the direction of clear, compassionate activity, whether it’s in the realm of environmental activism, social action, or simply in our interactions with each other.

To engage in this kind of study is not an easy matter. The dharma cannot be grasped by linear, sequential thought. It can only be realized in the realm of intimacy, the realm of nonduality. It is there that it needs to function freely so we can respond appropriately to the imperative of our own time and place.