Being Wrong On The Internet (and loving the mountains)

Writing on the internet is strange. I type things, and hit a button, and then people all over the world can read it. Forever! It's permanent. This is pretty terrifying, especially because sometimes I write things that are kind of stupid. This month, I wrote a post called "The Real Monastery Is Really, Truly, Just a Monastery" which was just me blowing off hot air. The abbot of Antaiji made a comment on it (or at least a guy living at Antaiji, with the same name as the abbot... not entirely sure), and when I read what he wrote I thought, "Huh. I'm totally wrong!" But it was too late. What I wrote was already out there. 

I know there's no such thing as absolute "right" and "wrong," but I do believe there is a spectrum. These days especially I think I've been ending up on whatever end of that spectrum is farther away from "correct." And I know there are people farther in the other direction than me, or at least, in a direction I want to go. In the months since leaving the monastery I've seen most of my confidence and optimism crumble in the face of the reality of living and practicing basically alone in a metropolitan city. I do still value my time in the monastery, but I'm starting to see that my relative, conditioned self hasn't actually changed so much, and I'm still clueless how to deal with how my relative, conditioned self as it manifests in the world. So: endless practice. More work. 

Initially I started this blog for my family. I sent out a mass email to all of my friends, family, high school and college teachers, and dharma siblings asking for money, because I don't have any, and I want to go to school. In the email, I promised I'd start a blog so people could have a way of knowing what I'm up to, and so I did. It feels bizarre to me that people outside my family read this (and 185 hits from the Czech Republic. Who is reading this in the Czech Republic? Are you Zen practitioners? Can you understand my English? I've never been to the Czech Republic. Is it cold there right now? What kind of food do you eat?). So whenever I press the "publish" button on this blog, a voice of alarm sounds inside me: what if I'm totally wrong about this? Why am I writing at all?

This month, the study abroad program I work on visited Dorogawa, a mountainous area in Japan known for the ascetic practices of Shugendo Buddhism. From what I can tell, Shugendo is a mixture of folk religion, esoteric Buddhism, and ascetic practice. Dogen wrote frequently wrote about the benefits of practicing in the mountains, but actually this wasn’t his own unique idea. For hundreds of years before him there was a long history of mountain asceticism, with monks retreating to caves to meditate, fast, and endure the cold. In Japanese culture, mountains have always been seen as sacred, the ultimate place to practice. As I study more about Japanese Buddhism, it’s amazing to realize how much of Dogen’s ideas were reinterpretations of ideas that came before him. 

Some people love reading Dogen, but I have a hard time appreciating or understanding what he's saying. My dharma sister once suggested to me that I treat the Shobogenzo like a poem- to just let the words come in and make their sounds- so this is what I try to do. Sansuigyō, The Sutra of Mountains and Rivers, is one chapter of the Shobogenzo which I keep coming back to, like a poem I love but cannot understand. In this chapter, Dogen claims that the mountains are walking. “The walking of mountains must be like the walking of human beings,” he writes. “Therefore, even though it does not look like human walking, do not doubt the walking of the mountains…If we doubt the walking of the mountains, we also do not yet know our own walking.” 

I remember reading these lines five years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, and having no idea what they meant. I still don’t. Part of me wants to interpret it metaphorically; “walking” means moving; it’s an acknowledgement of existence in the impermanence and flux of things. But Dogen is clearly rejecting our tendency to resort to metaphor. He says we should not doubt the mountains are walking with legs and feet like people. If I doubt the mountains’ walking, I doubt my own walking. 

on our hike
Sansuigyō is also interesting to me because it’s one of the only chapters in the Shobogenzo where Dogen uses the word “love” in a positive way. He writes, “We generally say that mountains belong to a country, but [mountains] belong to people who love mountains. Mountains always love their occupiers, whereupon saints and sages, people of high virtue, enter the mountains.”

What does it mean to love the mountains, and why does Dogen talk about this? It seems strange, coming from a guy who usually urges his students to cut off love and attachment. Why is it okay to love mountains and not people? Is it because mountains are silent? Is it because they don't have bodies that we can hold? For the record, I’ve certainly met monks in Japan who loved mountains more than they loved people. Loving the mountains is a real thing.

Why do the mountains belong to those who love them?

On our trip we hiked ten miles to the top of Kannonmine, part of the Omine Mountain range. I’m pretty out of shape and it took a long time. When we got to the top, we were above the tree line and we could see a 360 degree panorama view of the area. The sky was blue with white clouds, and on one side, the mountain was bright green with trees. It had these deep ridges running down its side, making it look like a giant, green fist.

When I saw it I thought, “The mountains are walking!” I had no doubt. 

And wouldn’t that be wonderful? If it wasn’t a dream, if it wasn’t a poem, if it wasn’t a metaphor or an anthropomorphization, if it wasn’t just some verbal skillful means Dogen is whipping up to bust me out of my dualistic point of view… wouldn’t it be wonderful if the mountains were actually walking? If they belonged to me because I love them?  


  1. Not long after reading your post, I came across this:

    "Master Tozan was asked," From where do all the Buddhas come?" He answers,The east mountain walks upon the water."...

    Tozan seems to be saying that the mountain starts flowing down the river. but what his phrase in fact describes is the mind state in which the mountain and I are one and the same. As we walk along the quietly flowing river, we too begin to flow quietly, and all of the great mountains along the river begin to flow quietly as well. Is the water me? Is the scenery me? Is the flowing water disappearing? We open to the state of mind of no mountain, no river, no self..."

    Shodo Harada Roshi,

    Moon by the Window


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?

Burn It All Down