The entire world studies itself through this person

Photo © David S. Thompson

The entire world studies itself through this person

Today we feature the third of three excerpts from Okumura Roshi’s new book, The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Sansuikyo, edited by Shodo Spring (Wisdom Publications). Okumura Roshi begins by quoting from Dōgen’s Sansuikyo, paragraph seven:

The blue mountains devote themselves to the investigation of walking; the East Mountain studies “moving over the water.”

Here Dogen identifies the subject who does this walking, this studying about mountains and waters. Usually when we read this we think that we are studying Dogen’s teaching about mountains and waters, so the subject is me. Whenever we study Dharma or practice zazen, we think “This person is studying the Dharma,” or “This person is trying to find the meaning of our life.” But Dogen says here that a person’s inquiry is not simply one’s own inquiry: it is mountains studying mountains, and this entire world studying itself through this person’s inquiry.

Planet Earth is a tiny product of the evolution of this universe. We human beings are a tiny and relatively new part of nature on this small planet. And yet, somehow we have an ability to observe the planet, the solar system, other galaxies and even the entire universe, and we try to understand what they are, what is really happening, what is the origin of this movement of the universe. We even think about the meaning of all this movement. This is our attempt to see reality, to understand the meaning of our lives and this world. But we can look from another direction and say that because we are a part of the universe, the entire world is using human beings to see itself. In this sense the entire universe is studying itself through us.

We usually don’t see it this way. We think we study for the sake of this person. When we see our activity from a broader perspective, we can’t be selfish. We can’t use things around us as resources or materials simply to make this person happy. I think this is an important difference.

I sometimes imagine the universe before human beings appeared on this small planet. That was the universe without any observer. No one sees it, thinks of it, understands it, or evaluates it. No one sees color or hears sound. In this case, is there color or sound at all? To me that is a mysterious world. In the history of the universe from the big bang, the universe was without any observer until recently. Things were just happening, without being considered right or wrong, good or bad, well or poorly done. This is an amazing thought to me.

Who is studying? Who is inquiring? In the case of Buddha Dharma, Buddha studies Buddha’s way through our practice. Or Dharma studies Dharma itself through this person, because this person is part of the Dharma. The term “dharmas” means all beings. Capital Dharma means the way all beings are. Dharma just means how we are, but we usually try to get something from it. That is a kind of distortion. According to Dogen, when I sit, it is not Shohaku sitting; zazen is sitting Shohaku. Studying other subjects can be the same.

This study or practice is part of the walking of blue mountains.

The East Mountain studies ‘moving over the water.’ Hence, this study is the mountains’ own study.

Here Dogen refers to Ummon’s saying, which he quotes later:

The mountains, without altering their own body and mind, with their own mountain countenance, have always been circling back to study [themselves].

Dogen says our practice is the mountains’ study. The mountains do not alter their own body and mind—mountains are just mountains, with their own mountain countenance. Mountains are just mountains, and have always been circling back to study themselves.

“Circling back” is a translation of kai to. Kai means to circle around and to is path, road, or street. This is an unusual expression. I don’t think Dogen used this expression in any other writings. According to commentaries, this kai to means “here and there.” “Here” means this present moment and “there” means the eternal Buddha, prior to anything happening, prior to even the kalpa of emptiness. Nikon, this present moment, is here, and eternity is there. In the first sentence of this writing he says that this present moment is one with eternity. That is the meaning of “These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas.” This expression kai to means turning between this present moment and eternity. Mountains turn back and forth between this moment and eternity.

The meaning of this is the same as Dogen’s saying in Tenzokyokun that when you cook you should invite the Buddha from the Buddha Hall and make the Buddha into the vegetables. He said to invite a sixteen-foot Buddha body and make it into one stalk of greens. In other words, any vegetables that we chop or cook are actually Buddha’s body. Also the person who is cooking and the activity of cooking must manifest the sixteen-foot Buddha body. Even though this moment is one with eternity, also we make it one with eternity by cooking in this way.

This particular person is working with particular things. But this particular action can be the practice of turning between this moment and eternity, or between this person and the world. Oneness of this moment and eternity, oneness of the particular and universal, this is what Dogen is always trying to show us. “Moon in a dewdrop” is an expression of the same reality. We are tiny like a drop of dew, but within this momentary drop the entire universe is reflected. In Mahayana teaching, this is expressed as “within a mustard seed, Mt. Sumeru is stored; or within a pore of the skin, the great ocean is stored.”

This is Dogen’s point. The same point is found in much of Japanese culture: eternity expresses itself within impermanence; the infinite manifests itself within the finite. If you read haiku you can recognize this. A famous example is Matsuo Basho’s

“Old pond,
a frog jumps in,
the sound of water.”

Instead of conducting an abstract philosophical discussion, a haiku shows eternity by describing things in one moment.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community


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