Daido Roshi

Mountains Meeting Mountains

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi
Teaching of Mountains and Rivers, Part I

Featured in Mountain Record 25.1, Fall 2006


The Prologue

The empty sky vanishes. Mountains are level with the plains. Above, not a tile to cover the head. Below, not an inch of ground upon which to stand.

The Main Case

The great Master Dogen taught, “From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind. And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains.”

The Capping Verse

When we truly enter the mountains,
      birds, bugs, beasts and blossoms
radiate supernatural excellence
      and take great delight in our presence.


Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” is the heart of the teachings of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Over the years of developing the training here on Tremper Mountain, our way of teaching the dharma has come directly from this text. Dogen is known as an outstanding poet, metaphysician, and one of Japan’s leading spiritual figures. The subject of this chapter—which is part of his masterwork, Shobogenzo: The Tresury of the True Dharma Eye—is nature, the immediate landscape in which we practice. Dogen was a lover of nature. He built his primary monastery, Eiheiji, deep in the mountains, preferring the unspoiled environment of forested hills, crags and roaring streams to the high society of Kyoto. Yet, he was first and foremost a Zen Buddhist master, so the mountains and rivers of Dogen’s writings are not so much the mountains and rivers of poetry, but the mountains and rivers of the true dharma eye, of the realized truth of the universe. In fact, we can say that the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” is not about mountains and rivers, but that the mountains and rivers themselves are the sutra, the true buddhadharma.

In Buddhist lore, mountains and rivers frequently symbolize samsara, the cyclic nature of phenomenal existence and the ups and downs of life, phenomena. But in studying the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” it doesn’t take long to appreciate that Dogen’s mountains and rivers are not just the mountains and rivers of samsara. He challenges us, declaring that because mountains and rivers are samsara, they are nirvana. In other words, samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara.

In the sutra Dogen writes, “From time immemorial the mountains have been the dwelling place of the great sages; wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind.And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized.” Notice that he doesn’t just say “wise ones” or “sages.” He says “wise ones and sages.” “Wise ones” refers to those who do not yet have complete realization; they still lack vision of the Way. “Sages,” on the other hand, refers to those who have attained that vision of the Way. Dogen is saying that these two kinds of practitioners have “made mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind,” and it is through them that the mountains have been actualized. How do you actualize the mountain? To actualize the mountain, you first need to realize it.