River Seeing River

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi
Teachings of Mountains and Rivers, Part III

Featured in Mountain Record 25.1, Fall 2006

The Prologue

Morning dew on the tips of ten thousand grasses reveals the truth of all of the myriad forms of this great earth. Have you seen it? The sounds of the river valley sing the eighty-four thousand hymns of suchness. Have you heard them? Pervading throughout these forms and sounds is a trail far from words and ideas. Have you found it? If not, then look, listen and enter right here.


The Main Case

Zen Master Dogen said, “The river is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither being nor nonbeing, neither delusion nor enlightenment. Solidified, it is harder than diamond: who could break it? Melted, it is softer than milk: who could break it? This being the case we cannot doubt the many virtues realized by the river. We should then study that occasion, when the rivers of the ten directions are seen in the ten directions. This is not a study only of the time when humans and gods see the river: there is a study of the river seeing the river. The river practices and verifies the river; hence, there is a study of the river speaking river. We must bring to realization the path on which the self encounters the self. We must move back and forth along, and spring off from, the vital path on which the other studies and fully comprehends the other.”


The Capping Verse

The mind empty of all activity embraces all that appears.
Like gazing into the jewel mirror, form and reflection see each other.
No coming or going, no arising or vanishing, no abiding.
The ten thousand hands and eyes manifest of themselves each in accord to circumstances, and yet never forget their way.

This section of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” deals with the third of the Five Ranks of Master Dongshan. The third rank reflects the development of maturity in practice—the functioning of emptiness in everyday life and the birth of compassion as the activity of the world.

Master Dogen spoke about rivers the way he spoke about mountains: intimately, not just as a metaphor or as a description of a physical river. The river Dogen speaks of in this sutra is the river of the dharmadhatu, the phenomenal realm, the realm of the ten thousand things. Rivers, like mountains, have always had a special spiritual significance. A lot of history has unfolded along the banks of the Ganges in India, the Yangtze River in China, the Euphrates and Tigris of Mesopotamia. Much of the dharma and the teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have taken shape along the banks of rivers as well.

Thoreau said of the Merrimack River:

There is an inward voice that in the stream sends forth its spirit to the listening ear, and in calm content it flows on like wisdom, welcome with its own respect, clear in its breast like all these beautiful thoughts. It receives the green and graceful trees. They smile in its peaceful arms.




In Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha, the river plays a key role in Gautama’s awakening. For me, that book was a very powerful teaching. I remember it was a very troubled time in my life when I returned to it, and heard it as if for the first time, although I had studied it many years earlier in school. Somehow, the book had not penetrated when I was younger. But at this later time, the reading of Siddhartha took me to the Delaware River. Going to the river became a pilgrimage for me, a place to go to receive the river’s spirit, to be nourished. I didn’t know what was going on. I was moved by what Hesse had to say about Siddhartha. Each time I went to the Delaware, it was like a clear, cool, refreshing drink of water, soothing a fire inside me. I didn’t understand, but I kept going back. I photographed the multiplicity of the river’s faces and forms revealed at different times. I found myself traveling the river, immersing myself in it. This went on for years, and for years the river taught me. Then, finally, I heard it. I heard it speak. I heard what it was saying to Siddhartha, and to Thoreau.