Talk given by Carl Bielefeldt at Tassajara July 21, 1999
audio of this talk (eliminated blank period in middle)
Carl Bielefeldt cuke page
Carl Bielefeldt was an early student of Suzuki’s who went on to become a pre-eminent Buddhist scholar and professor at Stanford University. On July 21st, 1999, he gave a talk at Tassajara on what is often called the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, one of the fascicles of Soto Zen founder Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Carl said, “the Mountains and Waters Sutra is a text written in 1240 by the founder of the monastic order that created, ultimately, Tassajara - that is to say Soto Zen.”
Greatly abridged version of this talk first, followed by
“When I was a graduate student at Berkeley back in the early 70s, studying with Suzuki Roshi, I was looking for a topic to write about for my master’s thesis and Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Why don't you do The Mountains and Waters Sutra?’ He said, "I love this text and I would love to have an English translation of it and then give a series of lectures on it.’ Working with Suzuki Roshi to translate this Mountains and Waters Sutra at Tassajara that last summer he was down here was much nicer than digging the latrines for the hill cabins which I had done the summer before.”
Not long after Suzuki died, Richard Baker gave Gary Snyder the translation that Carl had done with Suzuki’s help. Snyder had been working since the fifties on a long poem titled Mountains and Rivers Without End. Snyder told Carl years later that reading his translation had set him back ten years in his work on that poem, “Because what was in that thing was so problematic and so juicy for his topic of Mountains and Rivers Without End that he set to brooding about it.
“It talks about nature and the natural world and I think many of us have a feeling that one of the things that Buddhism can offer us is a different take on nature - a healthier take on nature than many of the ones that seem to have been on our heritage in the Western tradition. But when we look around at Buddhist scriptures for a validation of that sense we have of Buddhism, it's not easy to find. You do not find many Buddhist scriptures that talk about what we would call the broad category of nature - but Dogen does.
“In the Mountains and Waters Sutra we have a rare case of a Zen Master talking about nature and that's attractive, we cling to it. It's like feminists looking for a feminist view in Buddhism and when they find something, they cling to that and ignore 99% of the trashing of women that goes on in Buddhism.”
A sutra is supposed to be words that came directly from Shakyamuni Buddha but Mahayana Buddhism created many new sutras and pretended they came from Buddha. Here, Carl says, Dogen implies the mountains and waters themselves are preaching this sutra. “You can hear Tassajara Creek speaking to us - speaking not just about Tassajara Creek, but speaking the Buddha dharma all the time - and the mountains are doing so also, they are a sutra – they are a text that we can read as we walk about.
Dogen, Carl says, “quotes one of the Zen Masters from China who says, ‘Mountains are always walking’ and then he says, ‘What does this mean?’ and the way he talks about it, it is clear he is invoking, in poetic terms, something that we see in a lot of text books about Buddhism, namely that everything is always changing. ‘The mountains are walking’ can be a kind of metaphor, not just for the sense we have when we are up on Chews Ridge and see the mountains as if they were walking out to the ocean, but a metaphor for a Buddhist philosophical notion that everything, even the most permanent things around us, are constantly changing in every moment - they aren't things - they are events - tiny, tiny events; sort of like sub-atomic events going on constantly, all the time.
“If you have read any books about Buddhism you have come across this doctrine of no self or impermanence and he uses that to deconstruct the solidity of the mountains and to give us a sense that these things are alive in some sense - going on bang, bang, bang, like that - the mountains and rivers of the present are actually becoming present at this moment and implicitly, at least, urging us to get with that.
“In one sense this is a fantastic way of talking about the landscape as a sentient being, but it is also done so through the sense of merging the people who have inhabited the land with the landscape. This is what Gary Snyder loves to do - he wanders around in the great basin finding the old legends of the Indians who lived there. I was thinking about this when my brother and I went up to see Suzuki Roshi's site up on the hill that I visit every time come down here and I realized these mountains and waters around here have a certain history already, even though we don't know the history of the Indians here, we can only imagine it, we can only imagine the 19th century Chinese who built the road in here and so on. Still - already there is a lore developing in these mountains and rivers that will be part of their meaning for us, I think for many of already - even if it is only a few decades old - if all goes well and things aren't too impermanent, in that sense the mountains will grow - these are young mountains, the Coast Range. And this young Buddhism is growing with these mountains - so that historical sense of the landscape is going to become richer and richer and richer.
“At one point Suzuki Roshi told me - why don't you look at this text? So I started looking at it, and it's very difficult. So I came to him and I said, "Wait a second, this is way over my head" and he said, "yes this is a very difficult, interesting, text" and I said, "Yeah, the language of it is so hard to understand" and he said, "It's not the language, it's the thought. This isn't just poetry, it's the philosophy that makes it make sense - it's very difficult to understand." I think he saw it as somehow not philosophy in the abstract or technical sense, but as a text very rich in Buddhist thought. What a shame that he died without giving a commentary to it. He was going to give a regular series of lectures at Tassajara on it. It would have been fantastic.
“When I said to him,
isn't this a bit stupid for someone like me to be translating
something so deep and rich, he said yep - get on with it.”
One of the remarkable things about Gary Snyder's poem that although it's ostensibly about mountains - like this text, it does something that overcomes the distinction between nature and culture.
Buddhists have not been ecologists, Dogen included. For ecology and environmentalism you need a lot of Western baggage - I mean you need the biological sciences, you need an Industrial Revolution that poses the issue and for the first time gives us good reasons for taking seriously what might happen if we didn't treat nature - and you need a certain, pardon the expression, Christian sense of our stewardship over the Earth that Buddhists don't have. Bodhisattvas don't have - they may want to save all sentient beings, but they don't have that sense that they were put on Earth to take care of the animals and of nature - that this is a kind of garden for humans - but without that, you are just another player with no more responsibility than the dog or cat. So it's not a Buddhist thing that we are talking about here, we are talking about something else that we need now to find - we need somehow to graft that together with our Buddhist training - we will have to create something new the way Dogen did.
But, in any case, because of that kind of wave of nostalgia that went through a lot of us about Suzuki Roshi, this book and the time in which I translated it came back to me and coincidently at the same time one of my graduate students is doing a dissertation on the American Buddhist poet Gary Snyder who had just published, a couple of years ago, a big - I mean for a poet - a big book, long book called "Mountains and Rivers Without End" that he had begun back in the 50s and worked through all these years and finally brought it out and so this graduate student organized a seminar on Gary Snyder, brought him to Stanford and brought Gary down to Stanford to do a reading - a long reading to a packed house down at Stanford. We were amazed that young Stanford students would even know who Gary Snyder was. I mean it wasn't just old hippies in the audience, there were a long of young - 500 people in the audience maybe.
, but still all that then dragged me back into this text and I had to give a lecture about "Mountains and Waters Sutra" and its relationship to Gary Snyder's poetry, which I did and then it got - maybe some of you have seen this - this is an advertisement for "The Zen Quarterly"? Do you get that at Tassajara? Yes.
This is not Vicki (laughter)
woman: He knows what to say. (laughter)
On the Mountains and Waters Sutra
If you are like me, the potato bread and mushroom soup is beginning to take hold [laughter] and so I promise not to talk for a long time - this is the best nap time at Tassajara [laughter] and I don't want to cut into it too much - mine own included.
I'm going to do what I was told to do last year. Every year I try to wrangle a trip to Tassajara and usually I have to sing for my supper by giving some kind of talk and last year I somehow wiggled out of it and didn't have to do it so Michael Wenger usually works this scam for me every year and said, "Okay now you owe us big time." So I'm going to give the talk that Michael Wenger told me to give last year. So you are getting warmed up leftovers on a warm afternoon and that is a talk about one book called "The Mountains and Waters Sutra." How many of you have heard of this book? Half or so. Would someone who has heard of it tell the rest of us what it is?
How about a non-Vicky telling us. [laughter and laughing] You guys are really serious.
Okay - I have to tell you myself, I guess, what "The Mountains and Waters Sutra" is. This is a text written in 1240 by the founder of the monastic order that created, ultimately, Tassajara - that is to say Soto Zen - a man named Dogen. It's one of the texts of a whole bunch, up to 95, that he wrote over a long period of time - mostly commenting on Zen stories that he had read in Chinese Zen books when he was a pilgrim and thereafter. He was a pilgrim to China for 4 years and picked up a lot of Zen books and became really, I think it's probably fair to say, the first Japanese who read seriously the Zen books that we now take for granted. So all the stories of the Masters, the sayings of the Masters and so on - Japanese had been Buddhists for centuries, but they hadn't read that material - and Dogen went to China and studied in the monastery there for 4 years and came back and created his own monastery - maybe the first Zen monastery - that is to say monastery devoted solely to Zen practice, in Japan. And then started teaching these stories that he had read and literature in the form of very interesting essays and commentaries and one of these is this book that Michael likes, "The Mountains and Waters Sutra."
It's not been clear to me - Michael's been haranguing me about this for the last 2 years, and it's not clear to me that he actually likes this book. I think what he likes about it is the history of its transmission into English. That is, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley back in the early 70s, studying with Suzuki Roshi, the founder of this monastery, I was looking for a topic to write about for my master’s thesis and Suzuki Roshi said, "Why don't you do this text - 'The Mountains and Waters Sutra'" - he said, "I love this text and I would love to have an English translation of it and then give a series of lectures on it." And last year, you know Gil Fronsdal set up a conference about the life of Suzuki Roshi that got a lot of us remembering him, thinking about him again and got Michael interested in getting me to talk about what it was like working with Suzuki Roshi to translate this "Mountains and Waters Sutra" which we did here at Tassajara the last summer that Suzuki Roshi was down here and then he got sick during that summer and, as you know, he passed away that year.
That is all I had to tell Michael about the experience of working with Suzuki Roshi - just that it was much nicer doing that than digging the latrines up there for the hill cabins which I had done the summer before [laughter].
But, in any case, because of that kind of wave of nostalgia that went through a lot of us about Suzuki Roshi, this book and the time in which I translated it came back to me and coincidently at the same time one of my graduate students is doing a dissertation on the American Buddhist poet Gary Snyder who had just published, a couple of years ago, a big - I mean for a poet - a big book, long book called "Mountains and Rivers Without End" that he had begun back in the 50s and worked through all these years and finally brought it out and so this graduate student organized a seminar on Gary Snyder, brought him to Stanford and brought Gary down to Stanford to do a reading - a long reading to a packed house down at Stanford.
We were amazed that young Stanford students would even know who Gary Snyder was. I mean it wasn't just old hippies in the audience, there were a long of young - 500 people in the audience maybe.
At that point Gary said that in the early 70s when Dick Baker gave him the translation that I had done down here of "Mountains and Waters Sutra" it set him back 10 years because what was in that thing was so problematic and so juicy for his topic of Mountains and Rivers Without End that he set to brooding about it - well he's probably exaggerating, after all he was going through several wives [laughter], he was setting up his place in the Sierras, he was - I mean he had other things to do besides sit and read my MA thesis, but still all that then dragged me back into this text and I had to give a lecture about "Mountains and Waters Sutra" and its relationship to Gary Snyder's poetry, which I did and then it got - maybe some of you have seen this - this is an advertisement for "The Zen Quarterly"? Do you get that at Tassajara?
Well, the latest issue, hot off the press of "Zen Quarterly" has the paper that I gave there and then gave a different version in Korea and finally it ended up in this magazine and what I did there is very different from what I did at Stanford or what I would do here, obviously. But, anyway, I got, for my - somehow my karma has come around from over a quarter of a century during which I never thought about this book, suddenly it is in my face - and so Michael wanted me to talk about it.
[“The Mountain Spirit: Reflections on Reading the Shōbō genzō.” In Proceedings of the International Conference on Korean Sπn Buddhism. Seoul: Bibaek Institute, 1998. (Reprinted as “The Mountain Spirit: Dōgen, Gary Snyder, and Critical Buddhism”, Zen Quarterly 11:1 , pp. 18-24.)]
Not only Gary Snyder and Michael, perhaps, and Carl, certainly, but lots of people seem to love this particular book of the Shobogenzo. I still get emails from people who say, "I came across an old Xerox of your MA thesis and it was extraordinarily inspiring to me" and some people say to me that this is their favorite book in all of Dogen's writing. I don't know that I understand why that is - probably each person has his own reasons for it, but I think one reason is that it talks about a subject for which we are hungry as Buddhists and especially as American Buddhists. It talks about nature and the natural world and I think many of us have a feeling that one of the things that Buddhism can offer us is a different take on nature - a healthier take on nature than many of the ones that seem to have been on our heritage in the Western tradition. A standard thing that I think you see a lot, both in books and I think that you hear in conversation, is that unlike the Christians who thought that nature was a kind of playground for human beings, created for us to do with what we will. Buddhists had a healthier attitude toward nature in which we were only part of a larger system and not necessarily the most important part and that we had to find a way to fit into that system - a non-destructive, healthy way to live in nature - come to terms with nature and not simply think that we can exploit it, use it for what we will, eat it, whatever, and take it for granted. And so Buddhism has become, increasingly over the last decade or so, to be a player in talks about ecology, environmentalism, animal rights and so on. But when we look around at Buddhist scriptures for a validation of that sense we have of Buddhism, it's not easy to find.
You do not find many Buddhist scriptures that talk about what we would call the broad category of nature - but Dogen does. Now exactly how we define that broad category could be subject to lots of debate - even our own, let alone the Buddhist notions of nature, are very complicated - everything from an actual world studied by physicists to the nature of romanticism and of ecology and so on - there are lots of different senses of nature. But when we look for any of those senses, they are still pretty hard to find within the traditional Buddhist collective. But here we have a Zen Master - and we know Zen Masters are supposed to be - well all Buddhists in a way - the ones who love nature - we have a rare case of a Zen Master talking about nature and that's attractive, we cling to it. Finally I have validation for what I thought Buddhists always talked about - here is one that actually does. It's like feminists looking for a feminist view in Buddhism and when they find something, they cling to that and ignore 99% of the trashing of women that goes on in Buddhism.
The question is, then - one of our questions should be, I think, as Buddhists, to what extent we are generating a view of nature for Buddhists. If we are Buddhists, we are, it seems to me, within our rights to generate a Buddhist view of nature, even if we don't find it in the scripture. That's what Buddhists have always done and, if necessary, they have created their own scriptures and attributed to a Buddha saying - this is what the Buddha said at such and such a time and it happens to agree exactly with what I think. [laughing] And I think we are well within our rights to do that. In other words, I'm not saying that because we don't find much validation for ecology or environmentalism in the Buddhist scriptures that, therefore, we can't speak as Buddhists about a Buddhist view of it. That, I think, we have to do - we ought to do - that we are within our rights to do. Still, it's very nice to have a few examples of enlightened people who actually agree with us. It's not clear from this, those of you have read it may wonder whether in fact Dogen does agree with much of what we think as nature and that's what I want to talk about - some of the ways he thinks about it.
But still, in comparison with, certainly with Indian Buddhist scriptures, we're saying comparison with psychology, various kinds of philosophy, in which the Indian scriptures are very rich on this particular category of nature that we are interested, they are very weak. In fact, probably the Indians didn't have any category, as most people did not have any category, quite corresponding to what we call nature - and when you see the way they look at nature - now of course it's not fair to categorize an entire civilization by saying "the Indians think X" but still there is an enormous amount of material from Indian Buddhism, very little of which deals with nature - and when we look for things that we would think of as nature, it is often treated in a very negative way - a way that is at least as empty of spiritual values, you might say, as much in Christian stuff.
The Indian Buddhists seem especially interested in subjectivity - that is to say, in the life of the consciousness and to that extent they tended to see the natural world, indeed everything around them, as the object of consciousness. What was happening to us? What was impinging on our consciousness? For example, in meditation practice rather than have meditations about the beauties and glories of the natural world, it was "this is a red color now impinging itself on my consciousness" right? This is a sound now coming to me. In other words, they broke down the world into things that affected subjectivity and saw, in effect, sort of neutralized the rest of the world of its values independent of its relationship to what was happening to us. And when they talk about - you can see an example of this in a way, for example, that they talk about karma and they say there are 2 basic types of karma for each individual - that which constitutes what we might call personality - the structure of your own person and that which constitutes your environment. Here the environment is being reduced down to what it is that you are stuck with in your life as a human being - the source of things that will impinge upon you, rather than dividing it into this is natural, this is cultural, or other sorts of - it's all lumped into what happens to you from the outside or the place where you happen to find yourself - so in that sense, being in the middle of San Francisco or being down at Tassajara, there is no difference - no fundamental difference in the way, in the attitude toward - so it doesn't present, then, a world view in which it's likely we would see a lot of emphasis put on the value of nature and the meaning of nature.
When you come to the Chinese case, it's somewhat different. That is Buddhism left India about the beginning of the Common Era, came into China into a culture that had much less interest in this issue of subject vs. object as a way of dividing up the world. They did have, when Buddhism came in, a great interest in something that is in a way somewhat more familiar to us - and that is culture and nature. They saw human beings as living in an environment and participating in an environment that was made up of the natural world and the cultural activities of human beings. And so they had a sense, as I say, somewhat akin to much of what we think of when we think of nature vs. culture - of human constructs and the natural environment in which this is taking place. And so the Buddhists who didn't really emphasis that kind of distinction when they came in, began to fit their way of talking about Buddhism into that construct.
In Chinese civilization, you see it most clearly - the sort of tension between those two in the Confusion Tradition, which emphasizes the human world and man as a social being and the Daoists, as they are called - those people who emphasized humans as natural beings who have more in common with animals - who basically, like animals - and then on top of that they create culture. And there is a kind of friendly rivalry that goes on throughout the history of Chinese culture between the Confusions and Daoists - most Chinese intellectuals at least are sort of both - they go to work in culture and they take more human culture, society, civilization, moral - seriously and then on the weekends, so to speak, somewhat the way we do, they go and become Daoists [laughing and laughter] - they relax and enjoy the landscape, write poetry and make fun of the very activities that they did during the week - you probably recognize that kind of pattern [laughter] - many of us are down here precisely on that kind of trip.
The Buddhists, then, fit themselves into that and sort of had sort of a Confusion element - an elaborate, scholastic element - developing Buddhist culture, art, philosophy, ritual - and a kind of Daoist element that is best represented by the Zen tradition, which aligned itself with what you might call the Daoist Wing of this Chinese culture and tended to emphasize the natural vs. the cultural. And so you see the sort of thing for which Zen is famous - a rhetoric developing of making fun of all culture, including Buddhist culture.
All that elaborate Buddhist philosophy, all its institutions - that's all just culture - just a kind of human bullshit piled on top of the natural world - and as Buddhists our job is not to get ourselves further into that and to manipulate that and become expert at that, but rather to see through it all - to let it go, to return - and that's a common metaphor - return to what is natural. Now part of that means what is natural to us as conscious beings - our precultural consciousness - pre-linguistic, pre-philosophical, pre-symbolic experience - when red is just red, as they say. They like to say in Zen, "Buddhists see blue flowers as blue and green bamboo as green" - that's it, that's all. Before you add everything else - that sense of natural. And along side of that, a glorification of the natural or pre-cultural world of what we would call nature - nature in the raw - nature before it's been settled, civilized, organized, and, to a certain extent – what - destroyed. A kind of nostalgia for a lost innocence - a primitivism that I think resonates with many of us.
This style, Zen style, I think - not so coincidently, grows up within a context that is also familiar to us - mainly the urbanization of Chinese culture. Who is nostalgic for the landscape? The people who live in the city. Farmers do not get off on dirt, right? [laughter and laughing] and the natural things - they want a more powerful tractor or something to handle. But the people in the city who never get dirty, they are the ones who get off on the natural world - and there is a kind of nostalgia for the landscape, the lost innocence of the countryside in civilizations that are being urbanized - and that's what was happening in China. This kind of - this style - Zen style of what you might call a nature fetish, developed in the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries, precisely at the time when historians say Chinese civilization was becoming urbanized and there was growing up a considerable urban middle class intellectual society - a literati who were involved in government, politics and in the arts and letters - then those are the people from whom Zen Buddhism came.
They are like the white, middle class kids who become Zen Buddhists in this country - this particular stream of society that has built into its culture a certain nostalgia for a lost innocence and they are the ones, then, who glorify nature - really, I think for the first time in the history of Buddhism, who hung out with the landscape paintings that we often think of as Zen art, but in a way we can say "This was the nature art of a particular class to which Zen also belonged" - not necessarily that there was first Zen ideals then there was Zen landscapes. But there were landscapes into which Zen Buddhists imagined themselves. They shared a certain set of values - so landscape painting and nature poetry and these sorts of elite literary and artistic expressions of a sense of longing for a pre-industrial, if you want - a pre-urban environment.
Now, one of the things that happens in this way of thinking about nature is that the very artistic expressions of this longing or romance for nature become themselves called into question - after all, they are cultural artifacts. So you are doing a Confusion thing by celebrating a natural thing - a Daoist thing. Inevitably, you are being sucked into the other camp of culture whenever you speak out for nature. You're representing it - you are creating culture, you are creating artifacts, you are creating human symbols and there is a very interesting tension then within all Zen speech that we are all familiar with, any of us who have read it, of apology for speaking - silence is the best sermon and everything you say is wrong - don't believe any of what we say - a kind of liar's paradox - all of this is nonsense - all of this is just like, as they say, "dust on the eyes." I think you are all familiar with that sense of self-suspicion of any kind of expression of value and judgment, even about that which is beyond or prior to value - it was a very interesting and complicated business growing up.
Dogen goes over to China just at this time. He is a Japanese Buddhist trained in traditional, "indoor" you might say, Buddhism of all the theology, the art, the ritual and he goes into Zen monasteries and he reads books with this kind of nature romanticism. He comes back to Japan and tries to establish a Zen tradition there and starts, himself, writing books, commenting on these very sayings and stories. Dogen - one of the things that's interesting to me about him is that he doesn't fit into any of our sort of pre-conceived models of what a Japanese Buddhist ought to be like, what a Zen Buddhist ought to be like; he has his own way. He is a genius with a complex set of experiences of training in Japan, but also of another culture and he is, like many of us, a convert from the kind of Buddhism he grew up with to a new form of Buddhism that he discovered in another culture. And like many of us, he is wrestling to bring those new experiences together and make something meaningful that would talk, not only to himself - most lectures are probably, in part, for the person who is talking to convince themselves that they know what the hell they're talking about [laughter and laughing] but also for his students who were, more or less, in the same situation - to the extent that they were converting to Zen Buddhism, they had to give up a lot and take on a lot that they maybe didn't believe in, but anyway had to commit themselves to if they were going to practice. So his lectures have a very interesting way of talking to us if we think about them in that historical context - of someone struggling to create, in effect, a new religion that combines cultures and it seems to be that this essay on mountains and waters is a very good example of this - a very difficult example, but very rich and interesting - of this kind of wrestling with disparate cultures on a topic that really has very little precedent in previous Buddhist literature.
I've almost talked for half an hour and that was the introduction. [laughter]
What - it's nap time?!
Okay, well let me say very quickly what I had planned to say somewhat more leisurely and that is - when I went back and looked at this sutra, now thinking about Gary Snyder who is trying to create a literature - a Buddhist literature that incorporates Americans, and including Native American culture with Buddhist cultures - trying to see what in this text that I had forgotten by this time, might have been attractive to him - it seemed to me that there were at least 3 ways in which Dogen is talking about nature that are very interesting. They are in some tension with each other - I don't say it makes a seamless whole, but that is one of the reasons why they are very interesting. I just want to lay them out for you - for those of you who have read the text to see whether you recognize what I'm talking about and for those of you who haven't but who may in your next lifetime sit down with this text or be stuck on a desert island with only this text [laughing and laughter].
Dogen says right at the very beginning - the title of the text is "Mountains and Waters Sutra" and that is rather surprising, first of all that he's talking about mountains and water at all, because most sutras are called something like The Sutra in Which The God Brahma asked Shakyamuni to Explain the Doctrine of X - you know, something, it's all very technical or philosophical or symbolic - but here he says - this is a sutra about the landscape. So that is surprising. But even more surprising - Dogen? I mean just an ordinary Buddhist - an ordinary Buddhist is going to write a sutra? After all sutras are the words of the Buddha - what chutzpah. I'm going to sit down and write a new sutra. Buddhists did it but never admitted it, they always pretended that it had been translated from Sanskrit and - well - But Dogen, in the very first line of this sutra clears up at least part of that surprise, but adds another, more interesting surprise, namely he says, in the very first line, the mountains and waters around us right now are the teachings of the ancient Buddha. In other words, I'm not writing a sutra, the mountains and waters are writing a sutra - or speaking a sutra - sutras were originally chanted - still are chanted - so they are speaking to us. You can hear Tassajara Creek speaking to us - speaking not just about Tassajara Creek, but speaking the Buddha dharma all the time - and the mountains are doing so also, they are a sutra – they are a text that we can read as we walk about. And, as I say, that clears up the problem of genre - he's not writing a sutra but it creates a much bigger problem that everything, at least in the natural world, is writing a sutra or speaking a sutra.
But it's even more complicated than that because what I just translated as the teachings of the Buddha dharma is actually in Japanese ambiguous - the term he uses is an expression of the way - now "the way" here we know from the word Dao -as in "the Dao of Pooh" - maybe not the first thing you think of, but that is to say a juicy Chinese classical term and Buddhist term - "the way" which had a whole range of meanings in itself. The mountains and waters are the expression of this "way."
Now "way" means words or speech - that's one of its meanings - that why I said you can understand that the mountains and waters are speaking, but it also means the way everything really is. When the Daoists talk about the Dao, they are talking about the way everything really is, before we mess with it, before we distort it, get confused about it - its reality itself. Mountains and rivers are expressing the way everything really is - the way we really are - their existence is our existence. And then it also means the way we do things. The way of the Buddha, when he says - expressing the way of the ancient Buddha - the way of the Buddha is a technical term in Buddhism that means the Buddhist path - practice. So they are not just there blabbing about Buddhism, they are engaged in practices. Tassajara teaches practicing Buddha as it's running past us. What the Hell does that mean? So it's - Right away he is setting you up for "What the Hell are you talking about?" and then the rest of the text is a very typical thing he does - he sets you up and says something incredible at the beginning and then the rest of the text is - once you set the hook kind of, then the rest of the text is getting you to see what he is talking about; and it seems to be that the text goes through, and in effect, talks about these ambiguities between that very first sentence. It talks about what is really going on with mountains and waters - what they really are. It also talks about how they are expressing the symbolic world of Buddhism in their existence and he talks about how they are practicing - or how you can understand Buddhist practice as the practice of mountains and rivers.
When he talks about the way things really are - mountains and rivers, the way things really are, he is talking at a kind of metaphysical level that in some ways is the easiest for us to get at - he says that in order to introduce this kind of talk, he quotes one of the Zen Masters from China who says, "Mountains are always walking" and then he says, "What does this mean?" and the way he talks about it, it is clear he is invoking, in poetic terms, something that we see in a lot of text books about Buddhism, namely that everything is always changing.
"The mountains are walking" can be a kind of metaphor, not just for the sense we have when we are up on Chews Ridge and see the mountains as if they were walking out to the ocean, but a metaphor for a Buddhist philosophical notion that everything, even the most permanent things around us, are constantly changing in every moment - they aren't things - they are events - tiny, tiny events; sort of like sub-atomic events going on constantly, all the time.
If you have read any books about Buddhism you have come across this doctrine of "no self" or "impermanence" and he uses that to deconstruct, the way Buddhists like to do, the solidity of the mountains and to give us a sense that these things are alive in some sense - going on bang, bang, bang, like that - the mountains and rivers of the present are actually becoming present at this moment and implicitly, at least, urging us to get with that. It's a standard practice, right, in Zen Buddhism, to get with that - bang, bang, bang in every moment and stay with that - it's one of the standard things other people do while I'm sleeping up in the Zendo [laughing] is to try to get into that moment.
So that's one level or layer or seem running through this text - that kind of analysis. But this is not - at first, when I first read this - I was trained as a graduate student in Buddhist doctrine, I thought - oh yeah, this whole thing is just a disguised philosophy, right, dressed up with a lot of literary and artistic illusion, but now, in middle age, you know, when I kind of lost that Protestant urge for an Orthodox belief, I'm saying "Why on Earth would anyone dress up a philosophy with all that if they didn't take the artistic part seriously, as part of the mountains and rivers? Why did I miss the fact that he said they are actually speaking - they are actually practicing?" I think that that was some sort of metaphor for something else that I had read in a Buddhist text book. So then I began to look back and think "What if you took that stuff quite more seriously - seems to me there's another stream or strand running through this text of what you might call symbolic sense of nature.
And nature is not just one damn thing happening after another – nature is not just the emptiness of the self or the emptiness of the substance of the mountains - but that nature also is expressing a very rich symbolic world that the Buddhists live in - and here you see in the section - basically this text is divided into a section on the mountains, a section on the waters and a section on mountains and waters together, so they are mixed together and it seems to me when he shifts into the section on waters, you really see a sense that he's not just talking Buddhist philosophy, but also talking Buddhist cosmology, or Buddhist mystical - a mystical sense that Buddhists had, especially the Buddhists in Japan at the time that he grew up there and went off to China, in which the natural world is expressing a much deeper hidden world of Buddhist symbols.
The Japan that Dogen lived in was a cosmological world - sort of like our Medieval Catholic world where everything that happened in the world was a kind of homology to or in correspondence to something in the other world - the hidden world of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas and the dead and the spirits and the dragons - such that, for example, every part of our body belonged to some Buddha - our body is like a mandala, right, that is to say a sacred diagram and the parts of our body correspond to parts in that sacred vision - the sort of vision you could have in a contemplative state of the entire universe so that our hands, our fingers, the joints of our fingers, every part of our body has a symbolic meaning - it belongs to Akshobhya,the Buddha of the East. I read the other day in something Gary Snyder sent me that feces is Vairocana, the great Buddha Vairocana.
He sent me - he was over at my house and so to thank me for my hospitality and my wife's hospitality, he sent us a tantric sex manual [laughter] and he said, "I don't send this to everybody - you have to be married and middle aged before you can" [laughter] and I said, "Well, you came too late for me, Gary, if I did these things I would injure something - I mean, you know.." [laughing and laughter] but in there you have all these symbolic correspondences where the sex partner of the priest says "eat my Vairochana and then there's a footnote that says "feces" - and I'm like "Oh God, eewww" - but that was - so everything, down to the feces, piss, everything in our world had a symbolic meaning and to master those symbolic meanings was to live in a world, then, that was a world of enlightenment and not just of piss and shit, but meaningful, rich, sacred.
And Dogen lived in such a world and that world was mapped on the landscape - not just on the human body, but on the landscape around it - every mountain in Japan is inhabited by gods and represents some part of the sacred mandala, or chart you might say - map of the hidden universe - every pass you go over in Japan, as you see in Tibet, you know, every pass has some Om Mani Padme Hum, every pass is guarded by a bodhisattva; every cave is an entrance into some underworld - the whole land is inhabited by spirits and a set of Buddhist meanings that were brought into Japan and laid over the landscape - mapped over the landscape, so that when you take a walk in Japan, you are not just walking in a pretty place or an ugly place - you are walking across a mandala, a sacred one and you are located in it and you are a player in the sacred world - wake up to that - it was one of the standard practices - wake up to that, become that and act that out in your body, speech and thought - in everything you do. Dogen lived in that world.
The Zen Masters knew about that stuff - the Zen Masters in China, but they weren't so interested - they were more interested in this - what you might call asymmetrical flakey world of nature romanticism - but Dogen had this other symbolic symmetrical world of Buddhist symbolism in his being - in his body from when he was in China and he came back tried to fit those two together in the text and I think in is practice, I think that's why there is so much ritual in Soto Zen. Some people say, "Oh that was just added on by a bunch of Japanese afterwards because they didn't understand true Zen - unh unh - it was there from the very beginning - it was deeply, deeply important - how you moved, how you carried yourself - how you held your hands, how you put your hands in your pocket - all of that was meaningful and that was built in to Dogen's Zen, as it was in the Japanese Zen teachers he grew up with. So that's a second layer in this text - the natural landscape as symbolically enriched or enchanted.
And then there is a third layer that was very dear to Dogen and that is what you might call a mythological layer - that the landscape is not enchanted just by the sacred deities that sort of lurk behind it, but by its own history and, remember in that very first line when he says "The mountains and waters today are the teachings of the ancient Buddha" now ancient here can often mean a kind of metaphor for eternal - in other words an eternal truth of the Buddha are being expressed in every moment - but it can also mean old - an old Buddha is a standard expression in Dogen's writing for all the practitioners who have come before us in the lineage of Zen - from the time of the Buddha up to our day. And in the last part of the text he begins to invoke a landscape filled with the legendary figures of the past that enrich it and give it meaning. He talks about how the kings of ancient China went into the mountains in search of wisdom and met with Daoist sages who lived off in the mountains and took teachings from them. He talks about how Shakyamuni left the court of his father and went into the mountains to study Buddhism. He talks about Zen Masters living in the mountains.
He talks about a Zen Master who was famous for having wandered - ended up as a boatman on a river and then, having taught Zen through his disciples, jumping into the river and disappearing, losing himself completely in nature - in a very literal sense. And then he goes on to say "this is not just a story about a Zen Master - everyone who practices in nature, loses himself in nature and you can never meet a Zen Master when you go into the mountains or rivers, they are all living there, but you never meet them. Why? Because they have become one with the mountains and rivers - they don't stand out, they don't leave traces, there is just mountains and rivers practicing" and then he says it's not that - it's not that Zen Masters practice in the mountains, it's that the mountains and rivers are themselves practicing and the Zen Masters jump into that practice and become that practice and disappear.
And so you have this sense that the landscape is - I mean in one sense this is a fantastic way of talking about the landscape as a sentient being, but it is also done so through the sense of merging the people who have inhabited the land with the landscape. And I was talking about Gary Snyder - this was very important for him because this is what Gary Snyder loves to do - he wanders around in the great basin finding the old legends of the Indians who lived there. I was thinking about this when my brother and I went up to see Suzuki Roshi's site up on the hill that I visit every time come down here and I realized these mountains and waters around here have a certain history already, even though we don't know the history of the Indians here - I mean we can only imagine it, we can only imagine the 19th century Chinese who built the road in here and so on, still - already there is a lore developing in these mountains and rivers that will be part of their meaning for us, I think for many of already - even if it is only a few decades old - if all goes well and things aren't too impermanent, in that sense the mountains will grow - these are young mountains. We are told the Coast Range and that the young Buddhism is growing with these mountains - so that historical sense of the landscape is going to become richer and richer and richer.
OK. I'm gonna stop. That's 45 minutes.
Medieval Soto Zen from the time of Dogen up to say 17th Century - we are talking 500 years. Like virtually every kind of Buddhism and deeply, deeply impregnated you might say from a sense of what we would loosely call tantric Buddhism - esoteric Buddhism with very elaborate symbolic structures and ritual structures and in the 18th Century there was a - not only in Soto Zen, but in many forms of Buddhism - in Japan there was an attempt to rationalize the tradition - to modernize it, in effect, this is early modern period sociologically - to demystify it, you might say. And so there was an attempt to weed out those elements that seemed extraneous to what was then perceived to be the authentic vision of Soto Zen - that went back to Dogen and the Chinese. So that many of what we might call mystical or cosmological ritual elements were dismissed as later accretions often by people associated with the Eiheiji line of Soto Zen who blamed it on the Sojiji line and their Keizan, so you will very often read Keizan mystified Dogen's Zen. That's a kind of sectarian polemic we don't have today - I think it was their - in the Japanese world, including Dogen's world - but there came a time when that Medieval world view, somewhat like our own reformation, seemed in a kind of natural law theory and so on that we turned against, seemed no longer relevant, no longer appropriate, which was only exaggerated, of course, in the 19th Century when they came on modern science and religion as a private, personal spiritual experience as opposed to some ritual or institution.
So that now you have a sense that Soto Zen paired down to being in the present moment and a lot of emphasis on internal experience - private experience, psychological experience, as opposed to the ritual, symbolic world that was the pre-modern form of it. So, then if you ask what's the relationship between those two, then you have to develop a kind of meta-theory to put those two together - yep, I'd have to become a theologian and say, "Well, what's really going on there is..." and then I'd create a structure in which those two could be seen as two aspects of the same thing -that's better done by a Zen Master who understands, you know, what would be helpful than by somebody just spinning his wheels. [laughing] Does that help?
That's a typical, academic way out, right? [laughter] You explain it historically and then you don't have to understand it. First there was X and then there was Y [laughing].
A: You're taking "mystical" to mean "Zen" here?
A: You walk around carrying your bowl like this [indicating] - like the lotus sutra - you mean like a lotus flower - lots of it; and the saying in Soto Zen that deportment is itself Buddhism - and then what does that mean? It means that monk-ish ritual is, itself, the goal - to master [laughing] - that's one way of reading it - to master Buddhist behavior - or the behavior of a Buddha, is to be a Buddha - it's a behavioral modification program [laughing and laughter] - a ritual training program for priests, is one way of understanding it - nod internal or private - that's an extreme
A: Well, I see that as too reductionist - it's not simply modifying behavior - what I see for Dogen, I don't want to speak for the history of Soto Zen - but just for my own take on Dogen, he had a question and whether it's true or not that he actually had this question as a boy, I think it's appropriate that they said, "As a boy, when he first was studying Buddhism..." he had the question, "Look, everyone says we're already the Buddhas, so obviously the goal of our religion is not to become Buddhas, what the Hell is the goal of our religion? Why are we practicing Buddhism? Why do Buddhas, themselves, practice Buddhism? What's the point here of the religion, if we already have what it is that is, ostensibly, the goal of this?" and it is said that that led to his quest. Well, that's a question that arose for him, not out of Zen Buddhism, although Zen Buddhism poses the same question for us, but it arose out of his Japanese Buddhism. In effect, it's a question -What do I do now that the thing I wanted out of my religion has been taken away from me because it's been given to me already and I can no longer use that as the goal that I'm going after.
Now what do I do? It seems to me that's the kind of structure you might say - of his religious quest - and it seems to me the answer is - if you're a Buddha, start acting like a Buddha - try behaving like a Buddha. Now, I don't mean this just in the behavioral sense - start doing, but the model of the Buddha's lifestyle became key to him. What he discovered in Zen Buddhism was not so much some new doctrine - what he discovered was a tradition that preserved the style of an actual Buddha - someone, a real Buddha who had lived in the world and who had behaved in a certain way, by becoming a monk, I mean in his idea of idea of Shakyamuni's life - in his life he became a monk and he practiced a certain lifestyle. He just gave himself over to that - he said, this is what Buddha's do - I'm a Buddha, therefore I do it. And that is our way of being Buddhas. That is my solution. I commit myself to that tradition. That is one reason, it seems to me, why the lineage is so important. Committing yourself to the lineage and the practices of the people who belong to that community is, itself, to be a Buddha - to practice Zen Buddhism. And if you are looking for something more than that, you missed the point. Some structure like that is the way I, at least recently, have come to think about it.
A: One way of thinking about it, and this is something that Dogen shared with people of his time, a shift from a spatial model of how to orient yourself, to a historical model. The people of his time were thinking very seriously, "How can we be Buddhists in this time?" - I mean they thought of themselves as moderns, right? [laughing] Seems ironic to us, but other people will think of us as being silly thinking of ourselves as moderns as some point. We are moderns - that's an ancient religion and how can we now, under very different circumstances so removed from India and from the culture of the Buddha and what you might call the spiritual power of the Buddha, how can we now be Buddhists? In other words, they located themselves historically and asking what's appropriate - and you see that in the rise of pure land Buddhism and in the rise of reform Tendai and Nichiren Buddhism - lots of people asking the same question. I think Dogen was asking it and answering it, also in historical terms, by recognizing that there is - that the world around us, including the mountains and rivers, is a historical world and we are situated in history and we need - to be in the present is not just in the here and now but also to be there and then in some kind of conversation with the past that has set a model or set examples for us as - we don't have to make it up new, we inherit it and if we give ourselves to that inheritance - to that heritage and live it out and pass it on, then we are - you might say - grounded in the Buddha World, rather than the notion beneath the surface somehow or in the other world there is a Buddha World that we can try to express through ritual practice - it was now much more re-enacting - a script, you might say; become the players in the ongoing historical drama of Buddhism.
Q: When we locate ourselves in history as modern people in this modern part of the world, what does the Mountain and Waters Sutra - what can we deduce from that as to how we should practive, given the modern world we live in.
A: Anybody? I don't have brilliant insights. You people who live at Tassajara - do you have help for us city folk?
A: Have you read Gary Snyder's poem?
A: If you are interested in this issue, you might look at it, because it is one of the remarkable things about Gary Snyder's poem that although it's ostensibly about mountains - like this text, it does something that overcomes the distinction between nature and culture. That is to say, Gary is remarkable - take the famous poem that I read as a kid back in the 60s - Bubbs Creek Haircut - it's a very cool poem - it juxtaposes his preparation for going into the wilderness up Bubbs Creek, above Kings Canyon National Park, with a haircut that he got on Howard Street back in San Francisco and the Goodwill Store that used to be near the Barber Shop where he went and he talks about cultural artifacts in the basement of the Goodwill Store and then he jumps from there back and forth between that very cultural experience of human artifacts into the wilderness and he keeps jumping back and forth. That's a very early and powerful expression of the sense that he has of trying someone to overcome our sense of guilt about being cultural beings. I mean most people have not felt that there cultures were a violation of the natural world.
You need to have so much cultural, industrial power that you start to destroy things before you become guilty - feel guilty and feel so alienated, right, that your cities are a blight on the landscape. Most people had such small settlements that they were part of the landscape and they didn't feel this sense of "oh my God, I'm evil somehow because I'm a culture producer" and Gary, I think, is urging us back, in many ways, to that sense - even in New York. He has a poem about New York City- the landscape of New York City. He has a sense of trying to overcome this sense of guilt - that if we are going to be ecological beings, we are going to have to accept that our culture is natural in some ways. Take that seriously and think how our culture can work as a natural thing and not something that we are ashamed of - that we try to block and prevent from spreading too far, like a cancer. He has a very accepting sense of humans' unnaturalness - so much so that in this seminar there were people protesting - they said Gary Snyder is copping out on the ecology movement by this - celebrating the landscape and the old tires thrown to the side of the highway as themselves somehow beautiful and natural. He talks about the carcasses of old tires along the highway in the same way he talks about a flower in the mountains - it's just beautiful - and they thought that kind of non-discriminating Zen beauty undercuts the political movement to protect the landscape from tire carcasses and he's abnegating his moral responsibility - it's an interesting kind of debate. I think it's in some sense revealed in Zen Buddhism. On the one hand we are told, all the time, accept whatever comes - so does that mean if I'm at Auschwitz... you know, a guard at Auschwitz, I accept whatever comes? How do we fit into the landscape and yet take a stand, you know, some kind of moral, responsible stand? It's a perennial question. I don't think this text has the answer, but it does provide, it seems to me, at least 3 ways in which we could think about nature and culture and their relationship to each other. I'm not sure they would be, necessarily, conducive to the sorts of needs we feel for protecting the landscape.
You know, Buddhists have not been ecologists, Dogen included. For ecology and environmentalism you need a lot of Western baggage - I mean you need the biological sciences, you need an Industrial Revolution that poses the issue and for the first time gives us good reasons for taking seriously what might happen if we didn't treat nature - and you need a certain, pardon the expression, Christian sense of our stewardship over the Earth that Buddhists don't have. Bodhisattvas don't have - they may want to save all sentient beings, but they don't have that sense that they were put on Earth to take care of the animals and of nature - that this is a kind of garden for humans - but without that, you are just another player with no more responsibility than the dog or cat. So it's not a Buddhist thing that we are talking about here, we are talking about something else that we need now to find - we need somehow to graft that together with our Buddhist training - we will have to create something new the way Dogen did.
A: There was a big fight over that, too, because Native Americans have said "Oh ya, the White Shaman" - in other words, you are appropriating our native lore for some kind of middle-class white boy’s trip - now that you've conquered the place, you can sort of appreciate us. [laughing] You can't win in this game [Laughing] You are always going to be stepping on somebody. And other people said, "no no no - what Gary is trying to do there is to give.." what he calls "Turtle Island" - he calls North America, Turtle Island, from some old Indian expression for it, trying to give this place back to people as an inhabited landscape with its own lore - give us a larger sense of the history of this place.
It didn't just begin with shooting buffalo and Indians and so on. But the place itself has a long, sacred history that can be sort of appreciated if we understand the peoples who lived here and how they sacrificed.
A: You don't think it is about nature?
A: You know, at one point Suzuki Roshi told me - why don't you look at this text - so I started looking at it, and it's very difficult - and so I came to him and I said, "Wait a second, this is way over my head" and he said, "yes this is a very difficult, interesting, text" and I said, "Yeah, the language of it is so hard to understand" and he said, "It's not the language, kid, it's the thought - this isn't just poetry, it's the philosophy that makes it make sense - it's very difficult to understand" and so I think he saw it as, you know, somehow not philosophy in the abstract or technical sense, but as a text very rich in Buddhist thought and, I mean, what a shame that he died without giving a commentary to it. He was going to give a regular series of lectures at Tassajara on it. It would have been fantastic. Better than Sandokai I bet.
A: I can't remember all the details. Kishizawa Ian Roshi was a Zen Master who lectured for many years on this book - that is the Shobogenzo and Suzuki Roshi heard many of those lectures personally and in those commentaries they're fairly standard, I would say - they talk about the philosophy of change - of being in the present and so on. They don't talk about mandalas and they don't talk about legends all that sort of - they are what I would call a kind of modern Soto theological take on the meaning of the text. This stuff that I was talking about is my own crackle barrel interpretation - it's not a traditional interpretation.
A: Although, I take some solace in the fact that, for example, going back to the question that Vicky was asking - the relationship between the Soto Zen tradition and the more Tantric stuff - Suzuki Roshi - I remember saying it at the time and I had no idea what on Earth he meant by this - he said Soto and Shingon are brothers. Shingon is the closest form of Buddhism to Soto Zen. Shingon is the mantrayana - the tantric school of Buddhism in Japan. So he may have, you know, might not have said this - didn't talk this way in his own lectures, but you know he might have nodded and said, "Yeah, at a shallow level I guess you could say [laughing] - and when I said to him "Isn't this a bit stupid for someone like me to be translating something so much deeper and richer than..." and he said, "yep" [laughing and laughter] - get on with it. [laughing]
Transcribed by Alice Dill March 2017