Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mountains and rivers

Or, "Why Bother With Practice?"

The same saying, three different ways...
(1)Before learning the Dharma, the mountains appear as mountains. When one begins to study Dharma the Mountains seem to disappear. After accepting the Dharma, the mountains again appear as mountains.

(2) When I began, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers; when I penetrated deeply, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers; and when I had finished, mountains were again mountains and rivers again rivers.

(3) Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. During Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. After Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

Personally, my order of preference for stylistic merit is #3, #2, #1, and for conveyance of meaning #1, #2, and #3 (so I guess #2 is the best overall IMHO). Not that this is a critical point, but I suppose one could also really make it ugly by substituting clumsy phrases like "emptiness, noself, and dependent co-arising" in for "Zen" or "Dharma". But the reason I bring this saying up at all is that I think it fits really nicely with a recent post I made quoting from the late Catholic monk Brother Wayne Teasdale, because he seems to be saying the same thing (to repeat the quote for those not reading the entries in chronological order with my own emphasis and commentary in brackets added):

"Many times throughout my years of meditation, in coming out of a session with a group, my perception of others is dramatically altered. I notice something completely extraordinary. Rather than perceiving these people as completely separate from me, as I normally do {'When I began, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers'}, I feel that difference disappear; I realize that no differences exist between and among us, that we are united in a deeper, ineffable reality {'when I penetrated deeply, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers'}. Although I perceive us as distinct, all sense of separation is gone {'and when I had finished, mountains were again mountains and rivers again rivers'}.

"Another way to express this perception is to say that distance is overcome. There is no real sense of distance between these people and me. Much of the separation that seems to exist is cultural and psychological, determined by our socialization. Time and space fold into unity, and I experience others -- and, I hope, they me -- in a timeless, spaceless now, an immediacy of the real ground of love from which we are always coming forth and to which we are returning. It is an incredible beautiful, organic, peaceful state."

--A Monk in the World (pp. 38)

I think this also brings up a point about confusion over Buddha-nature. This is relevant to the quoted Buddhist proverb when we consider that just as the first and last lines of the saying about mountains and rivers seem the same, they are not. In the first line we see the world from a mundane view, and in the last we see the same world from an enlightened view. Seeing our Buddha-nature from intellectual assent to a teaching or as philosphically pleasing or consistent proposition isn't the same as really perceiving Buddha-nature. In the proverb, when the person first sees trees and mountains, the person sees them incompletely from a limited perspective, as separate and discontinuous fixed objects. Only later does the person really see the mountains and the rivers. So too, thanks in part to our diligence in practice, will we eventually allow ourselves to really perceive Buddha-nature (note the selective use of the lack of a possessive pronoun throughout for that term).

To expand a little, one means of expressing teaching about Buddha-nature is to say we all have access to it/are unified with it, but not everyone actualizes/realizes it. Some people then think, 'Oh, so I'm a Buddha, great, then I don't need to practice, because there is nothing to attain.' Which, in a way, I believe, is correct. There is nothing to attain. The problem is that while it is true we already are/possess/have access to Buddha-nature, that there is nothing to attain, we still do strive to attain the things* we crave, the things that validate the tiny ego of the selfish mind. So while it would be nice if people really did grasp the need for/directly experience non-attainment in actualizing/realizing Buddha-nature just by hearing that they are Buddhas, our ingrained tendencies and unrealistic views about ourselves unfortunately require some weeding of our hearts and minds (the middle line of the proverb about the mountains and the rivers is not inconsequential). So then the cultivation spoken of in Buddhism isn't to try to "get" or "grow" the seeds of Bodhi, but to keep out the weeds so that what is already always growing in our hearts can bloom. Hence my recent citation in another recent post of the saying "The Way doesn't need cultivation. Just don't pollute it" (Ch'an ancestor Mazu).

*this isn't saying that any desire or striving is bad or harmful, it is referring only to those impermanent circumstances (health, wealth, etc) which we think will 'complete us' and give us lasting happiness or joy; Buddhism teaches that that which offers such peace we already possess and that it is beyond the whim of circumstance


  1. Brilliant post. I love that proverb. I've never heard it before. I agree that even though I realize that I am a Buddha that I must still practice to maintain such balance and peace.

    I like to think of it as finding a Buddha in a big room filed with garbage. You can just lift the Buddha up out of the garbage and selfishly take it home or you can find the Buddha and continue to work on cleaning up the mess around your Buddha so that others can find their Buddha-nature as well.

  2. Well, it's like they say, the lotus blooms in the muck. :o)


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