This has been a season of social distancing, a time of practice from afar, of empty meditation halls and shuttered retreat centers. While the Buddha’s own journey was at times solitary, his way has often been followed in groups. The earliest sutras are filled with stories of large gatherings of followers—dozens or hundreds of monks, nuns, and laypeople—all practicing together. At the first recitation of one famous verse of the Dhammapada, it is said that 30,000 monks in attendance realized awakening. The tradition of “leaving home” to pursue the three jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, or community of practitioners, has been a central narrative of Buddhist practice from the start.
Not this year. This is a year of staying home.
How perfect then that Kuya Minogue, resident priest at the British Columbia retreat Sakura-ji (formerly Creston Zendo), chose this moment to publish Mountains and Rivers Sutra, a collection of teachings by the California Zen teacher Norman Fischer, that Minogue has compiled into a series of 52 weekly home practices.
In a way, the genesis of this book began in 1971. A young student named Carl Bielefeldt at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center sat down with the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who had founded the monastery as well as the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), and the two of them began to translate the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” a tricky chapter from the medieval Zen master Eihei Dogen’s masterwork, the Shobogenzo. Dogen was the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, one of the two major Japanese lineages now well represented here in the West, and the Shobogenzo is his most famous collection of teachings. Bielefeldt didn’t think much of his progress on the chapter and abandoned the project for academic studies after Suzuki’s untimely death later that year. (He went on to become a distinguished professor at Stanford University and a renowned scholar of East Asian religion.) But the draft he left behind cast a long shadow on American Zen. Suzuki’s myriad disciples, and those of other Zen sanghas, have been studying—and retranslating—this chapter for some 50 years since then.
Minogue’s book continues this tradition. She begins with a full translation of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” though this one is by Kazuaki Tanahashi—another teacher and translator in SFZC’s wide orbit. Then each of the 52 chapters follows a simple pattern: a teaching on some aspect of Dogen’s chapter from Norman Fischer, a suggested practice from Minogue, and a few responses contributed by her students.
Fischer is a former co-abbot of SFZC, where he carried the mantle of Suzuki Roshi for five years in the 1990s and continues to teach today. A longtime fixture of the affiliated Green Gulch Farm, he also leads a nearby sangha of his own, the Everyday Zen Foundation. Yet his influence extends well beyond the sylvan suburbs of California’s Marin County.
Fischer gave these talks on the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” at New Mexico’s Upaya Zen Center in 2012, and Minogue faithfully transcribed them before dividing them into the book’s 52 teachings, each taking up no more than a page or so. She then established an “email Zen practice group” of seven women scattered around the world, from Australia to Kenya. They went through the teachings week by week, exchanging thoughts and practices online, and their responses are sampled at the end of each chapter.
With the publication of this book, we can all join this unique virtual sangha.
Dogen’s writing is said to be challenging even in Japanese. In English it can sometimes feel impenetrable, dense with apparent paradoxes and puzzles. This selection from the Shobogenzo is no exception, filled with the likes of mountains walking—and even walking on water. “Mountains’ walking is just like human walking,” Dogen insists. “Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.”
Yet beneath the surface, Dogen is making a more basic point. As Fischer describes in the book’s second teaching:
Dogen believed that we are not appreciating what life actually is. Zen practice is nothing more than appreciating life as it is, and then living it fully every moment. … He is not saying there is no path and no destination; but he is saying that the destination is every point along the path.
Minogue’s weekly practice suggestions are similarly delightfully concrete. Her first is simply this: “Take some time to go for a walk, preferably on a mountain trail by a creek.” In her third, she suggests we “visit the confluence of two nearby rivers.” While perhaps those dwelling in more urban jungles cannot follow such instructions to the letter, all of us can observe the spirit, “listen[ing] to the sounds all around us,” becoming “aware of the sounds that come from water and the sounds that come from the mountains.” Elsewhere, Minogue’s practices are more purely philosophical:
In the next week, notice the various ways in which you look to the future to bring you lasting happiness. Then see true happiness right here, right now.
Minogue’s book comes on the heels of another companion to Dogen’s chapter, Shohaku Okumura’s The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s “Sansuikyo,” published in 2018. (There is some ambiguity about whether the title refers to “rivers” or “waters.” Even the esteemed scholar Carl Bielefeldt—who had worked on the sutra in 1971—has used both words.) Okumura’s book is based on lectures he gave at the San Francisco Zen Center in 2002; he has since established his own sangha, the Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, Indiana. His book is a more traditional commentary, beginning with a revised translation by Bielefeldt and then proceeding nearly line by line through the text. Okumura also includes a thorough introduction to Dogen’s life and work and two closing essays, by Bielefeldt and the poet Gary Snyder.
To Okumura, Dogen’s chapter is not really about mountains or waters. “Rather, Dogen says mountains and waters are themselves sutra—they unceasingly expound the Buddha’s teaching.” Realizing this, we are awakened by the ordinary as much as by the profound. While Fischer and Okumura each reflect unique perspectives in their commentary, on this point these two modern Zen masters largely agree. The two very different books complement each other well—Okumura’s more formal and meticulous, Minogue’s more structured and experiential.
If mountains and waters can be our teachers, then so can emails, texts, video conferences, and all the ephemera of life at a distance. Whether you are cooped up at home as you read this or at last roaming freely through the wider wilderness, consider exploring Dogen’s timeless teachings. Both of these books will be invaluable guides.
And if this year’s challenges are feeling insurmountable, you can always skip to Minogue’s final practice instruction: “Take a day off and then do zazen eternally.”
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