by tendo zenji
“Deeply realizing ourselves and the true nature of these mountains and rivers is perhaps the most important and profound thing each of us will ever do with our lives. We should not take it lightly. Our lives and the life of this planet depend on it. —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers
A Pilgrimage with Dōgen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra
I went to the mountains to find my way into the heart of things; to drink deeply from glacier fed waters; to walk with the trees; to gaze out into that wilderness where the mountains march endlessly into the distance fading into blue layers. All routes into the mountains follow rivers and as I made my way into the North Cascades I followed the Skagit River. In the flat, rich loam of the Skagit Valley the river cuts a wide, muddy green, slow path. Right on the edge of the Puget Sound the winds blow constantly off the water and one easily frays into just existing in the midst of the wind working one’s way east.
“Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it. “In the mountains” means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not notice or understand the mountains’ walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
As the flatlands transition into forestland and begin their inevitable rise into the mountains, the river too transforms becoming increasingly blue-green, shallower, rockier and more lively. The hills in the distance resolve themselves from watercolor diffused blue shapes into spiky tree green mounds that poke out above the valleys the rivers have carved through them. Vast patches of desolation, gouged out of these mountain forests reflect humanities needs, needs seemingly without limits. When you are in the midst of the foothills and mountains, following the river path, these scars feel like wounds on your very body. You feel as if humanities appetite knows no limits and must be fed regardless of cost. It is much harder to feel oneness with those who have caused these scars, as it is to feel a connection with the landscape that you are part of. Deeply question our how our actions, directly or indirectly, have led to these wounds.
“All of us can appreciate that we must be responsible for our actions — whether it’s in the context of our work, our family, or our relationships. What is harder to understand is that the simplest of events also affects the environment. To realize “you and I are the same thing” points to our identity with the whole universe. It also underlines the great responsibility that comes with being human.” — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers
The foothills give way to towering edifices with increasing amounts of snow crowning their rocky peaks. Clouds seem to hover above them like silent, ephemeral alien beings. The river now is exuberant, moving vibrantly over rocks, sometimes pooling under shady trees, other times falling in swift rapids. The glacier melt has transformed it into pure blue with flecks of white from its path through the stones of the mountains. The rivers continuous activity is withheld by dams; this landscape has been transformed to power the city and the needs of humans throughout this region. We marvel at the heroic efforts of those who have built these gigantic cement structures out here in the wooded wilderness, while shaking our heads at the imposition inflicted upon the landscape. It is always this dichotomy: what is that imposition in the dead of winter as we heat our homes and read our books in the light they have made possible?
“You may not notice that you study the green mountains, using numerous worlds of phenomena as your standards. Clearly examine the green mountains’ walking and your own walking. Examine walking backward and backward walking, and investigate the fact that walking forward and backward has never stopped since the very moment before form arose, since the time of the King of the Empty Eon.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
Sitting breath after breath in the cool mountain air the sounds of myriad birds, insects, woodland creatures, chuckling brooks, wind shaking the trees blur into undifferentiated aural vibrations. It was hot this summer, even at four thousand feet amongst the trees on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Having scrambled over rocks beyond a narrow rocky trail below Sourdough Mountain I sat and watched the continuous fall of Sourdough Creek from the rocks above. It seems to slow down and become this wavering white streamer undulating in the wind and then snaps into the deep focus of countless drops of water spraying out from the rocks above. Put yourself in the place of a fish in its water home suddenly shooting over that edge and into freefall still fully enveloped in water. Put yourself into all possible views of Sourdough Creek falling down that rocky mountainside.
“The nature of the mountains is completely different when we separate ourselves from them as observers, and when we are the mountains with the whole body and mind.” — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers
Moving along the forest roads where for mile after mile you seldom see another person any sense of separateness begins to fade away. The need is just no longer as necessary and simply absorbing all of the sensory stimulation is becomes sufficient. The butterflies and dragonflies that float alongside or perhaps hitch a ride on your handlebars are your fellow travelers. The sky in its multitude of conditions is better than any painting and it is always there and it is always your world. The closer you get to the bare essentials the less there is that stands in the way. There is no silence in the woods but there can be a deficit of the sounds of humanity and the distractions of perceived distinctions. Is that the knocking of a woodpecker or a raven clacking its beak? Sitting here in these woods it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
“Thus, the views of all beings are not the same. Question this matter now. Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing? Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit. Accordingly, endeavors in practice-realization of the way are not limited to one or two kinds. The thoroughly actualized realm has one thousand kinds and ten thousand ways.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
How is that we came to this place where nature is this place that we have to travel into to rejuvenate ourselves as if “nature” is this thing “out there” that is pure and completely distinct from us. If we can come to see that there are myriad views of everything and that all of them do not ‘add up’ to reality but merely point towards it, can we not also come to see that our cities and suburbs are not separate from nature. And yet, and yet… Why is it so much easier to forget yourself amidst the sounds of the roaring river, the calling birds, the tapping of rain on your tent, the quaking aspens that, in a light breeze, sound so much like a gentle spring rain? John Daido Loori reminds us: “Because so many of us nowadays are city dwellers, it is easy to romanticize nature at a distance. Sitting in an apartment somewhere in Midtown as we plan a summer adventure to Yellowstone Park, it is important to remember that wild nature is also in our backyard.”
Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit.
“It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not merely in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the world of phenomena. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
As I made my way south it became increasingly dry, the effects of years of drought draining the lakes, burning the landscape. Is it hubris to question whether our actions have had an impact here? There is no doubt that our activities have raised the temperature on average and even that small change has driven animals into new territories, alpine flowers further up the mountains, glaciers to retreat, oceans to warm and become more acidic. Deep in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains you find many lakes used as reservoirs for the endless cities below. Year upon year these reservoirs have given more water than they have received and like the ring in a bathtub, they are marked by rings descending down into the mudflats that surround the bare amounts of remaining water. Looking at these bodies of waters, each a universe of universes there can be no doubt of the impact of our needs. Our needs drained these lakes.
“On the other hand, from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived on water. When they live on water, they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. These were all ancient ways of being on water, following wind and streams. Furthermore, there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra
I was on the edge of one of these lake reservoirs near the end of my journey in the mountains filling up my water bottles when a recreation company employee asked me about my trip. We got to talking about Yosemite and he told me about his time working there and of his encounters with the bear population. He continued to talk to me about an injury he sustained and how that changed his prospects and what he was working towards now and his hopes and dreams. I just stood there listening, marveling that here I am, a complete stranger, a traveler from thousands of miles away and he was telling me these intimate, personal details of his life. This wasn’t the first time this happened on this trip and while I’m sure it’s not the entirety of the matter, I feel confidant that encountering anyone who will listen, really listen is so rare that people will genuinely open up. Spending this kind of time in the mountains demands presence opens your ears to the sounds all around and you spend a lot more time listening than talking. Practice.
“Descending the mountain is by far the most demanding aspect of our practice — much more difficult than realizing the emptiness of phenomena.” — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers
It was Labor Day Weekend when I reached Lake Isabella the furthest south I would travel in the mountains. The landscape was all dusty browns and tans, dry with hearty twisted shrubs poking up from the barren terrain. Lake Isabella was a dusty, jewel of blue amidst theses tans, but like so many of the lakes I’d encountered in California it was shockingly low. The first night I was in this campground there was very few other people, but on Friday families began to stream in for the holiday weekend. That evening the barest sliver of a moon rose between two scrub-like trees as I washed my dishes from dinner. The next day I rode down from the Sierra-Nevada Mountains into the scorching San Joaquin valley to Bakersfield where I’d catch a train back north. The road out of the mountains followed a river that drained out of Lake Isabella, a line of green life cutting an increasingly deep valley in this arid, sunburnt landscape. I was on the valley walls for a spell but eventually was on the main road. Cars streamed up the other side as people headed to the various campgrounds away from the cities. I came into Bakersfield via suburbs that seemed just dropped onto the desert and then into clearly depressed parts of town that were all check cashing shops and fast food. I had to wander miles to find a grocery store where I could purchase food for the long train trip. While I was waiting in the train station police entered the woman’s restroom and forcibly dragged a person out in handcuffs. Twenty-four hours later I was back in the Pacific Northwest, the train just rounding Chambers Bay, the sun descending toward the water, lighting the fluffy clouds from below and suffusing the sky with a magical glow.
“It is becoming more and more evident that this earth will not tolerate our apathy much longer. But even if we succeed in wiping ourselves off the face of the earth, the planet will eventually renew itself. Given enough time, it will heal. The question is whether we will be part of that healing.” —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers