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These mountains and rivers of the present are the manifestation of the Way of the ancient sages. Each abides in its own dharma state, exhaustively fulfilling its virtues. Because they exist before the eon of emptiness, they are living in the present. Because they are the self before the appearance of any differences, they are free and unhindered in their actualization.

In the opening sentence to the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Dogen establishes the fact that mountains and rivers are expressing the teachings of the buddhas and ancient sages, just as a sutra does. In other words, this sutra is not about mountains and rivers; it is the mountains and rivers. Indeed, if we examine this teaching carefully, we’ll see that all phenomena—audible, inaudible, tangible and intangible, conscious and unconscious—are constantly expressing the truth of the universe. A stand of oak saplings, a bed of river rocks, the autumn wind, are all ceaselessly manifesting the Way.

In this paragraph Dogen also says that because the mountains exist before the eon of emptiness—before the appearance of phenomena—they are present here and now. And it is because they live in the present that the self appears and is unhindered in all of its activities.

Master Dayang Shanggai, addressing the assembly, said: “The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.”

Blue mountains walking and a stone woman giving birth are both inconceivable events. In the context of the dharma, inconceivability points to the inherent emptiness or interdependent origination of all phenomena. Nothing is independent. Nothing has an absolute, own being. And yet, in the relative world, things do indeed exist. There’s the child the stone woman gave birth to, there’s you, me and the ten thousand things. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

There is an old Zen phrase that says, “When old man Zhang drinks wine, old man Li gets drunk.” That is, what happens to you, happens to me. You and I are the same thing, yet I am not you and you are not me. What happens to a snapping turtle in the Catskills, happens to a businessman in Singapore. Yet a turtle is a turtle, a businessman is a businessman.

Whether or not we believe in our identity with all things—in our identity with the mountains and rivers—the fact is that it is the truth of our lives. Belief has nothing to do with it. Understanding has nothing to do with it. We have to realize it. And until we do—until we can clearly see this identity functioning in our lives—we will not truly grasp the effect we have on each other and on this great earth.

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Others see water as woods and walls, or as the nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and mental nature. Humans see these as water, and these different ways of seeing bring about the causes and conditions in which water is killed or given life.

How humans see water determines whether it is killed or given life.

Fresh water is perhaps the most critical component of any ecosystem, and in many areas of the globe, it is a dwindling resource. Human water consumption rose six-fold in the past century. That’s double the rate of the already explosive population growth. We are now using more than fifty per cent of all available fresh water, putting incredible pressure on the environment. Additional demands will further jeopardize all ecosystems. So much water has been taken from rivers that some of them dry up completely before they ever reach the ocean.

For almost thirty years I’ve been saying that nothing can stop the river in its journey to the great ocean. When I say that I am thinking of a dam. Put up a dam and the river builds up behind it. It goes over or around the dam. Build the dam higher, and the river rises. No matter how high the structure, the river will get past that dam and find its way to the ocean.

It never occurred to me that billions of people could just suck the rivers dry. But that’s what’s happening all over the world. That’s what will keep happening until we do something to stop it.

The environment is all around us. We can’t pretend that it’s not being affected by our lifestyles. We can’t pretend that we don’t see our part in its destruction. If we, as spiritual practitioners, are not able to answer the call, then who will?