The landscape and the language are the same. And we ourselves are landscape and the land.
~ Conrad Aiken “A Letter from Li Po”
For the second year in a row I participated in the Red Cedar Zen Community’s “Mountains and Rivers Retreat” on Mount Baker, which Red Cedar has been doing since 2000. This was the 19th time. Most years it is done as a multi-night backpacking pilgrimage to a large meadow below the azure glaciers of this hulking volcanic mountain. This year’s form was a day-hike of 12 hours and 17 miles round trip. We walked in silence, stopped and performed seven ritual ceremonies, chanted Dogen’s sansuikyo (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”), chanted Shitou’s “Merging of Difference and Unity” and exchanged water between the sea and the mountain. A pilgrimate of sorts and a “sutra-mapping” of the sansuikyo, where landscape, language and pilgrim come together, realizing unity.
Walking in silence through the deep conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest and into the seemingly esoteric words of Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master, my mind runs rampant. Thoughts like “what’s this plant” and “what the hell does Dogen mean here”, ebb, flow and mingle with mundane thoughts about home and home-life.
Dogen’s writings, particularly in the sansuikyo, encourage us to see the realization or enlightenment in daily acts, not only of body and speech but also of mind. Words matter, he seems to be saying, just don’t hold on to them too tightly. He shows us the deep truth in going beyond thought and logic but also in thought and logic. To understand that what is happening right now, all our words, thoughts and actions, are an expression of completeness, is to see mountains and waters as expressing wholeness.
“Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”
The essay is divided into five parts, and we chant one section at a time at different ceremonial sites as we walk into and out of the mountains – an ancient hemlock, a headwater stream, a trickling waterfall, a mountain meadow, a rocky creek bed, and a bouldery prominence.
First stop is in decadent and quintessential northwest coniferous forest. Ancient, verdant, dripping with life. Our voices join together as we chant, raised to an ancient conifer whose bark is twisted and scarred by lightning. This ancient one’s top is broken and, with few branches with which to capture the sun’s energy, I am surprised that it is alive at all. But it is alive, erect and tall.
The first part of the essay we read in front of this ancient and venerable teacher. Here Dogen quotes Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong, who said, “The green mountains are always walking …,” to which Dogen adds, “Mountains walking is just like humans walking…If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking.”
Walking along the trail lost in thought, I wonder at the mountains’ walking, and my own. Do I doubt this walking? How can I doubt or not understand something that I have been doing for a very long time and that I do without apparent thought? How does this walking and the mountains’ constantly walking relate? How are they the same thing or are they? Perhaps if I wasn’t so distracted by thoughts, I would be able to see this mountains’ walking and understand my own? But perhaps the mountains too, get lost in thought, always walking, always changing.
“Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.”
Climbing farther and ascending deeper into the mountains, we pass through unlogged, old-growth forests of hemlock, cedar and fir. Some of these trees, feet in diameter, have been standing here for hundreds of years and are a couple hundred feet tall. Drapped in moss and lichen they seem to grow not up from the ground, but out from the atmosphere filling time and space. Deeper into silence, deeper into the forest, and deeper into Dogen we go, yet my mind wands away from the present, moment by moment.
We stop where the trail crosses the South Fork Nooksack River, downstream of where it flows out of Elbow Lake. Not only do we chant the Mountains and Waters Sutra, but we also engage in a water-changing ceremony and chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity,” written by Chinese Cha’n (Zen) teacher Shitou Xiqian in the 8th Century. As the Salish Sea merges with the Nooksack, our voices join together with the sound of flowing water, becoming one chant, one sutra.
“In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness. In the dark, there is light, but don’t see it as light.”
At this time and place I think of this as:
“In water there is mountain, but don’t think water is mountain. In the mountain, there is water but don’t think mountain is water.”
Each is it’s own, and interpenetrates the other, completely.
Continuing our chanting of Dogen, the sutra shifts to a focus on water. Water is water, right, and we all know what it is. It is wet and flows downstream. In typical Dogen fashion, however, he flips this on its head to remind us that what we think of as water (or reality) isn’t really water. He implores us to study the moment when “water sees water.”
“Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving nor still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor nonexistent, neither deluded nor enlightened. When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it?”
What is this water that Dogen speaks of? I begin to notice all the places where water flows in these mountains, trickling out everywhere – seeping out of tree roots and crevices and cascading down rocky streams. Does it only flow downwards or does it also flow sideways and upwards?
And where does all this water come from? Where is it going? Is there really an end and a beginning or is it simply an endless cycle of no-beginning and no-end? If this is so for water, surely it must be so for me as well.
Deepening our walking, deepening our mapping of this sutra, we traverse the edges of the South Fork Nooksack drainage. Cedars seem to flow down the mountainside, giant tree roots that cling like an eagle’s talons to the earth. The forest parts here and there to afford views of the South Fork Divide, Loomis Mountain and the Twin Sisters, hazy in the smoky air. We cross the divide at Bell Pass, a sweet little ponded-meadow and walk into the Middle Fork Nooksack River watershed.
We reach our next ceremonial site, a dripping, lovely little cascade where moss blankets the rocks and ferns dance in tiny breaths of wind. We lay down our packs, take out our sutras and prepare again for ceremony. Like each one before, it begins with Bob setting up the “altar” with a candle, incense and the vials of water. We all then engage in the ancient Zen dance of ritual which includes offering, bowing, chanting and dedicating. Here it is further complicated by the tricky and often slippery ground of the mountain world, but then again, isn’t our life always a bit tricky and often precarious too?
“Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing?”
Our next stop is at Ridley Creek, close to our destination at Mazama Park, where we exchange water and again chant the “Merging of Difference and Unity.” We are high enough in the mountains that wildflowers blanket the creek-side. Lupines and daisys grace us with their color, bringing in bumblebees and butterflies. Suddenly there is a lot of life within this life.
“If you don’t understand the way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?”
I have long strove to understand the world around me, which has led me to the pursuits of ecology, Zen Buddhism, and even backpacking. I love knowing what plants and animals are around me and how they interact, and why things are the way they are. However, this can also lead me into questioning everything which can be done in a judgmental way. “Why are you doing it that way,” I seem to catch myself all to often saying. So what is Dogen saying here? How are we to understand the way right before us? How are we to understand understanding? And what does this tell us about the path we are walking?
We have lunch and take rests at a place the Nooksack people called something like spelhpalhxen (“large, open berry picking place”, or something like that) and gaze up at where the icy top of the mountain usually is. We can just barely make out the glaciers on Mount Baker’s flanks through the hazy smoke, which if you didn’t know they were there you might not even notice. We engage in ceremony yet again, and continue our chanting of Dogen:
“When you take one view you see mountains flowing, and when you take another view, mountains are not flowing. One time mountains are flowing, another time they are not flowing.”
Which is the truth, where does reality lie? Is Mount Baker really there or not? Does it have to be an either/or situation? Can it be both there and not-there, can we be both alive and dying too?
We turn and head back down the trail. It has gotten late and we take an inventory of headlamps in case we need them. Our next stop is a steep, rocky and dry creek bed at the very top of the Middle Fork Nooksack watershed. Looking down the watershed, it feels as though we are at the very top of the world. The drainage winds down, sinuous and serene through forested mountains made hazy blue by smoke. It seems as though we can see to the sea and perhaps you can on clear days. A gorgeous view that draws me in. This could very well be the abode of sages and wise ones that Dogen writes about:
“You may think that in mountains many wise people and sages are assembled. But after entering the mountains, not a single person meets another.”
What is Dogen getting at here, I wonder as we continue on our journey? It was true that we have met very few people along the trail, and who knows if they were wise ones or sages, but still, didn’t we meet someone here? If no one else, then perhaps we meet ourselves here in the mountains, and come to a better understanding of our own walking, our own true nature. So how is it that we meet no one? Isn’t the point of this trip to meet someone, anybody? “Is anybody out there,” I want to yell into the void.
The last stop on our pilgrimage is an outcrop of rocks high above the South Fork Nooksack, looking more or less directly at the Twin Sisters range. I remember this spot from last year and the astonishment I felt when I looked around and realized how many tree species were growing together here. It’s a place of mixing and mingling where wet-loving species like hemlock and Douglas-fir meet with mountain species like western white pine and mountain hemlock, drier species such as juniper and even Alaska yellow-cedar, with its characteristic draping foliage. A remarkable spot and I feel a sense of something special here. No wonder this is one of our spots for ritual.
“Although mountains belong to the nation, mountains belong to the people that love them. When mountains love…a virtuous sage or wise person enters the mountains…trees and rocks become abundant and birds and animals are inspired.”
I sling my pack back on and say hello to the juniper growing low over the rocky ground, touching its scaly-foliage before turning and heading down the trail. I think of my daughters and the mountains and the future of it all. How are we to best take care of our home and each other? What is this “entering the mountains”, and what does the “green mountains constantly walking” mean for us at this juncture of time and space? What does love have to do with any of it?
Love, ahh love, is the key to it all, I believe. But it is not the kind of love that is possessive, greedy, or shallow. It is a love that is simple and deep, selfless and freeing rather than controlling and limiting. It is a love that comes from the knowing that we are all connected, so what each one of us does matters.
“Free your minds and your ass will follow,” George Clinton once said, so we begin with freeing our minds which may be what Dogen is getting at with all of these words, after all. We let our minds flow freely, not resting (for too long) on anything, like the purplish copper butterfly we saw near Ridley Creek. It alighted on a white daisy for flying off again, fluttering in the mountain air. And we engage in and acknowledge relationship just as the butterfly did with the daisy. We pollinate the mountains and the mountains pollinate us.
“Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”
Both Dogen and the mountains are showing us the way to love, generously, and that what comes from this is abundance. When we are greedy we constrict the world and create limits, but when we give our lives and our love freely, the world opens up all around us. There is reciprocity and interpenetration. Actually this is already, always happening and we are simply called to see it. The green mountains are constantly walking, and the waters flow freely in all directions, and when we come to know this, we too can understand our own walking. And be set free, not from but into our very lives.