The mountains and rivers of the immediate present are the manifestation of the path of the ancient buddhas. Because they are the self before the emergence of signs, they are the penetrating liberation of ultimate reality.

Master Daokai said, “Green mountains are forever walking. A stone woman bears a child by night.”

If one knows one’s own walking, one knows the walking of the green mountains. There should be an examination of both stepping back and stepping forward.

—Eihei Dogen, Mountains and Rivers Sutra


Image 1: Ryo Bo (Transcend the Duality) Kogetsu Tani (1931- ), ink on paper
Image 1: Ryo Bo (Transcend the Duality) Kogetsu Tani (1931- ), ink on paper

I’ve been told—but I don’t know for sure—that you’re like me. If I could speak for you, I would say that you have a deep longing for oneness, a deep urge to return to your original face before your parents were born.

The sutra just quoted talks about “the mountains and rivers of the immediate present.” How can you return to the immediate present? These mountains of the immediate present are the self before the emergence of subtle signs. Your existence in the immediate present is the self before the emergence of signs.

When we try to chant “The Merging of Difference and Oneness” during morning service, sometimes there are great differences in the pitch of our voices. When we feel the painful difference, we yearn for oneness. Some of us, in trying to make the oneness happen, just make more difference. It’s so discouraging to try to make difference turn into oneness: you can’t do it. Difference is difference and oneness is oneness. But in the mountains and rivers of the immediate present, difference and oneness are merged.

Anything we dream of is something we want to be reunited with. Everything we see, we hear, and we touch is what we want to be reunited with. Everything we experience we are separated from. Turning around, stepping back: this is practice. Once we step back, we naturally step forward. But before we step back, we don’t know what to do. We’re not settled, we’re not satisfied. When we step back from the world, we step back from where we are, and if we have any reservations at all about where we are, we cannot step back. When you and I are willing to be right here, right now, wholeheartedly, we can step back. We can turn around.

I’m expressing an aching heart. My heart is like water trying to return to the ocean. If I can simply accept this, it’s enough. “What does this pain ask of me?” “What does this person ask of me?” “What does this bird ask of me?” An answer may come. The answer may be “Turn it around.” Or “Let go.” Or “Come home.” Or “Scratch my back.” You may get an answer; that’s okay. But don’t stop questioning. “What does this ask of me?” is simply a way to talk about unambivalent presence. It’s a construction to help you let go of constructions. But it is not really a way back: you’re already there.

You may think I’m explaining something to you, but I’m just expressing myself. Hearts are meant to bleed: that’s what they’re built for.

There are about eighty people in this sesshin (retreat), and we are all packed into one room, so, unfortunately, some of the seats are not so good. Some of the people who got bad seats were moved to other bad seats. They are currently in some new bad seats, due to the compassion of the practice leaders. Our bleeding hearts sense your difficulty and we want to make you more comfortable. We don’t mean to inflict pain on you by putting you behind posts two inches from the wall, next to people you don’t like. We don’t mean to. But in our own stupid way we may be being very kind to you, giving you a chance to practice grateful mind. You are in a situation, a painful situation, where things are quite different from what you expected. Many people are experiencing emotional pain—almost stronger than the physical pain they are experiencing in their legs—regarding their seating assignment. One older student actually almost ran out of the zendo because of her seating assignment. Just as she tried to flee, the supernatural powers of the practice leaders moved her to a different seat. She’s sitting very still now in her good seat. Some other people didn’t get their seats changed, and they were even luckier, because their terrible situation turned around. How did they do it? How did they go from “This is impossible” to “Oh, I’m so grateful”? How did it happen? It happened.

Seating assignments are wonderful opportunities to turn it around, relatively easy compared with personal relationships with other beings. Our bleeding hearts want to turn it around with each other; we want to be reunited with each other, but we need the other person to help; somehow we can’t just unite on our own. Because the other person can wink, we wait for them. We say, “I can’t believe that you love me unless you wink at me. Please wink. I can’t believe you feel my heart reaching for you until you reach back. I can’t believe you trust my outstretched hand unless you take it.”

These are instructions in practice. We find these instructions in many places. As Shakespeare says inHamlet,

Horatio. Oh, day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet. And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

And we yearn for oneness. How can I express my yearning? With my mouth I express my yearning; with my body I ask the question, What? What is it? What is birth and death? What does it ask of me? What is it that cares?

Almost exactly half my life has been lived in Zen temples and monasteries. In the morning, I rise before dawn and shuffle sleepily to the zendo. Though painful difficulties often arise, friends and teachers are extremely kind and helpful to me. I cannot find words to fully express my gratitude and sense of good fortune for such a life. Trying to live a life of awakening is a joy beyond joy. Now it is autumn and I am approaching fifty. All around me and inside me, there is dying and sadness. I deeply question what real compassion is. How may I live the rest of my life to repay the love and kindness I have been given and to fulfill my responsibility for the welfare of all suffering beings? How can something helpful come from these mixed feelings?

Up until now, I have practiced by sitting still in the midst of all living beings, that is, by walking straight ahead in the Buddha Way. Yet I sense that something is missing, and, at times, I hear the echo of a voice saying, Reach out. In the past few years, I feel a change in my practice. I wonder, is reaching out something different from the way I am already living, or is it just doing what I am already doing more thoroughly and carefully?

Perhaps reaching out will naturally develop from wholehearted devotion to the small tasks that appear before me every day. Perhaps caring for the near will somehow accomplish the far-reaching work of compassion. Yet I can’t help feeling uneasy with this devotion to the small and the near unless I hold the thought of universal compassion in my heart and in my mind. In fact, I can’t even really take care of the small things in my life without the support of others. Or, turning it around, only by devotion to the wellbeing of others am I able to accomplish the smallest things.

The authentic practice of sitting still in the depths of silence and coming to understand Buddha’s teachings is not accomplished by yourself. The true significance of Buddha’s radical instruction “Just sit” cannot be realized except in the context of the vow to save all living beings.

In the midst of such thoughts and feelings, I find comfort and encouragement in the stories of our ancestral founders. Please consider this anecdote.

The monk Daokai went to study with Master Touzi. He asked, “The sayings of the buddhas and founders are like everyday rice and tea. Do they have anything else to help people?”

Touzi said, “You tell me: Do the emperor’s commands in his own realm depend on the ancient kings?”

As Doakai was about the speak, Touzi hit him with his whisk and said, “The moment you intended to come here, you already deserved a beating.” At this Daokai was awakened.

It warms my heart to find my question reflected in Daokai’s question: Did the Buddhas and founders teach anything other than this everyday activity? Does repaying kindness and benefitting beings depend on anything outside of meticulous attention to moment-by-moment experience? Does our everyday practice of compassion depend on the authority of ancient buddhas? The response to this question is contained in the rest of the story.

There are two approaches to settling your body-mind into the Buddha Way. The first is going to a teacher and listening to the teaching; the second is total devotion of just sitting. Listening to the teaching opens your heart-mind and allows it to work freely. Just sitting is the everyday affair of the Buddhas and the living realization of the Zen founders. Neither approach can be neglected.

The story indicates that first you go in faith to receive help from another, and then, in accepting this help, you find it in yourself. First the truth turns you, then you turn the truth.

Recently, I went to an art show, a presentation of life-size dolls. The woman who made them also teaches doll making. She said that doll making is a way for people to manifest their deepest affirmation in form. Listening to her, I thought of the way of just sitting: manifesting in the sitting posture your deepest affirmation, clarifying the body-mind, and awakening to reality. In the buddha-dharma, the true reality is free of form and formlessness, but it must be brought into form in order to be healing.

The doll maker also explained that these dolls are always created within a circle of friends. What is a circle? A circle is a two-dimensional image. In three dimensions, we might call it a cauldron, a crucible, or a womb container for the process in which the highest aspiration of your life comes into form.

So the circle is a relationship: a relationship of mutual commitment and support. It can be created by just two people. A student and a teacher working together, discussing the dharma form, the container in which they realize the total devotion to just sitting. Knowing that the process cannot be realized by an individual alone, each person in the circle seeks and gives help, thus strengthening the cauldron and allowing the contents to be cooked to perfection. Teachers and friends need us to realize our truest and most perfect potential, and they won’t be happy until we accomplish this.

Practicing in the cauldron with friends and teachers may protect us from clinging to limited ideas of what sitting practice is. For example, in the process of realizing the Buddha Way through our sitting, we are likely to develop a narrow attitude about what awakening is. We may think that we have it or that we don’t have it.

Entering the meditation hall and sitting in the midst of friends and teachers may actually be seen as a request for guidance. We sit down and thus ask for guidance from everyone. “This is my practice; this is my offering to all beings. This is my attempt to manifest in form my highest aspiration. What do you think, folks?” Guidance may be received when a teacher walks around the meditation hall adjusting posture.

Image 2: Kika Onza (Returning to Original Home) Kogetsu Tani (1931- ), ink on paper
Image 2: Kika Onza (Returning to Original Home) Kogetsu Tani (1931- ), ink on paper

Sometimes you may feel that you are sitting quite straight, and after being adjusted you may feel crooked. It’s not that you were right or wrong, but rather that you now have new information about what you are. Someone has touched you and through this touch has said, I love you and really want you to be completely happy. And, by the way, please try this posture. How does this feel? And if you still don’t feel you are receiving guidance, you need to say out loud to your teacher, “How is my practice, what is the truth?” By asking, you create the cauldron and you stir the soup.

Each of you – not separately, but in the cauldron with all beings, cooking and being cooked—is realizing awakening. Not you by yourself, because that is not who you really are. You by yourself are not Buddha-Nature; but your being in the cauldron of all beings is realizing the Buddha-Way. This is the total exertion of your life.

You also can’t really be flexible and free of fixed views by yourself. To decide for yourself what flexibility is is a kind of rigidity. Living in harmony with all beings is flexibility. It is a kind of cosmic democracy. Each of us has a role in the situation and gets one vote. You cast your vote by being here like a great unmoving mountain. Please cast your vote completely: that is your job. Then listen to all other beings, especially foreigners, especially strangers, and especially enemies.

Hang out with people who are capable of making a commitment to you and your life, and who require that you make a commitment to theirs. Hang out with people who care about you, with people who need you to develop and who say so. Make such a commitment and don’t break that bond until you and all beings are perfect.

You can’t make the Buddha-Body without a cauldron, and you can’t make a cauldron by yourself. You can’t practice all by yourself: that is delusion. Everything coming forward and confirming you is awakening. Then you are really cooking.

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