222 – Confronting the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse – Part 2
251 – Reflections on Dogen’s “Bussho, The Buddha-Nature” Part 1: Being

One of Zen master Dogen’s most beloved writings is a relatively short essay called “Sansuikyo,” or the Mountains and Waters Sutra. In this episode, I reflect on two aspects this work: The statement that mountains and waters are, in of themselves, words of the Buddha, and the fantastic imagery of “mountains walking.” I only cover a few paragraphs of the Sansuikyo, but it is enough to open up a profound spiritual inquiry.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Very First Section of the Mountains and Waters Sutra
Getting at the Meaning of the Mountains and Waters Sutra
Mountains and Waters ARE Sutra
Mountains Walking


The Very First Section of the Mountains and Waters Sutra

The Mountains and Waters Sutra is a relatively short essay by Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Soto Zen master. It is one dozens of essays, or fascicles, included in the collection of Dogen’s writings called the Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. There are many places in the Shobogenzo where Dogen uses imagery from nature (there is a fascicle called “Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors,” and one called “Plum Blossoms), but the Mountains and Waters Sutra is a favorite of many – I suspect in a large part to the way it makes nature the main character of the essay.

As I already mentioned, in this one short episode I am not going to be able to summarize the message of Sansuikyo, let alone explore the whole text. Shohaku Okumura has actually written a whole book on this single essay, called The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s “Sansuikyo.” I will take you on an initial foray into the first few paragraphs of the text, but I like to think that I will demonstrate a way to approach it that you could continue on your own.

To begin, I’ll read the first three paragraphs of the Sansuikyo as translated by Carl Bielefeldt, the version Okumura uses in his book:

These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas. Each, abiding in its own Dharma state, fulfills exhaustive virtues. Because they are the circumstances “prior to the kalpa of emptiness,” they are this life of the present; because they are the self “before the germination of any subtle sign,” they are liberated in their actual occurrence. Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvelous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.


Preceptor Kai of Mount Dayang addressed the assembly, saying, “The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.”


The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; hence, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking. Since the walking of the mountains should be like that of people, one ought not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to stride like humans.[i] 


Getting at the Meaning of the Mountains and Waters Sutra

You might assume that Zen teachers – or, at least, Zen masters like Shohaku Okumura who are fluent in both Japanese and English – know what Dogen is talking about, even if you don’t. However, that’s not really the case. Okumura writes that even though he has been studying Dogen for 45 years:

Dōgen’s writings are extremely difficult. Even in Japan, when we study Dōgen’s writings, we start with commentaries and translations into modern Japanese. Dōgen lived eight hundred years ago. For a modern Japanese person, reading Dōgen is like a Westerner reading thirteenth-century English literature mixed with Latin and Greek. Adding to this natural language barrier, Dōgen often intentionally ignored or twisted Chinese and Japanese grammar to express his unique perspective on well-known terms or expressions. To understand his writings we need a large range of knowledge on Buddhist teachings and Zen literature, but that is not enough. We also need to understand his teaching through the practice of zazen and other aspects of Sōtō Zen tradition. [ii]

If understanding Dogen is so difficult, how can the average practitioner meaningfully engage with his writings? We could skip reading Dogen at all, figuring we don’t have time for stuff that’s so challenging. Or we could read it without trying to understand it – just letting the words pass through us without worrying about what they mean or why Dogen chose them. This receptive-but-passive approach is okay, but it’s unlikely to help us gain access to the deep teaching Dogen was trying to express with his very carefully chosen words.

On the other hand, we could study Dogen’s writings academically. We could learn Japanese, take Dogen studies at a Japanese Buddhist university, research ancient Chinese and Japanese Buddhist imagery and poetry, and study all the related texts and teachings Dogen references in his writings… and still the deeper meaning might elude us. In his book, Okumura writes, “Somehow, even though we don’t understand [a passage by Dogen], it sounds beautiful, very poetic. We want to understand. This thirst to understand is a desire; it stands in the way of our encountering the text.”[ii]

I’ve said before that Dogen’s writings are best approached as poetry, and a poem by Billy Collins captures what I mean perfectly:[iv]

Introduction to Poetry

Collins describes beautifully and poetically what it means to engage with a text in an imaginative, playful, curious, respectful way while refraining from taking a purely intellectual, forceful approach to extracting meaning out of it. Another way to think of creative engagement with a text is to “dream” your way into it. Imagine you find yourself in a dream where, in some sense, mountains are like people, and the manner of their walking is being seriously discussed. Imagine yourself in a dream where a stone woman gives birth. Later, after you wake up, these things may seem strange to you, but within the context of the dream everything made sense. If we can dream our way into the landscape Dogen describes for us, we may be informed, influenced, or touched, even if it is in ways we can’t put into words.

I will attempt creative engagement with a few lines of Sansuikyo now, which is why I’m calling this episode reflections on Sansuikyo, rather than an explanation of Sansuikyo.


Mountains and Waters ARE Sutra

These mountains and waters of the present are the expression of the old buddhas.[v] 

This line essentially re-states the name of the essay itself: Sansuikyo, or Mountain (SAN) – Water (SUI) – Sutra (KYO). In his book, Shohaku Okumura explains:

This chapter of Shōbōgenzō is not a sūtra about mountains and waters. Rather, Dōgen says mountains and waters are themselves sūtra — they unceasingly expound the Buddha’s teaching.[vi]

In Buddhism, the word “sutra” means a “discourse of the Buddha.”[vii] The Sansuikyo, then, is not – as Okumura says – a sutra that uses mountains and waters as subject matter or metaphor, but a text about how mountains and waters are, in and of themselves, sutra. A better title might be the “Sutra of Mountains and Waters.”

The first line of the text doesn’t say “sutra,” though, it says mountains and waters are the “expression of old buddhas.” Technically speaking, a “sutra” contains the words of Buddha-with-a-capital-B, or Shakyamuni Buddha. However, in Zen many of our Dharma ancestors are revered as having awakened, and therefore are referred to affectionately and respectfully as “old buddhas” (with a lower case “b”). We value the “expression of old buddhas” as much as the sutras that quote Shakyamuni.

Now let’s assume “mountains and waters” refers to nature in general – that is, everything in the world that is not planned and controlled by human beings.

When we hear that nature is the “expression of old buddhas,” what do we think? The old buddhas are awakened people from the past who left a trail for us to follow so we may awaken ourselves. Maybe the old buddhas loved nature. When we commune with nature, we are indirectly communing with them, just like visiting a childhood home might help us feel connected with long lost loved ones. Maybe words and phrases are inadequate to express what the old buddhas have to say, so they preferred to use metaphors drawn from nature. Maybe mountains and waters (and fish and flowers and clouds) evoke something indescribable in us – some feeling of connection, of the ineffable, of perfection and completeness, or suchness – and we imagine that when the old buddhas sat by the same mountain stream they felt what we are feeling now.

However, none of these ways of explaining why mountains and waters are the “expression of old buddhas” hits the mark. Coming up with intellectual explanations for Dogen’s words – even if the explanations point toward spiritual experiences – is inadequate.

Instead, we should seek to encounter the text more intimately, to wrestle with it earnestly. Dogen says the mountains and waters you experience right here, right now, are the expression of the old buddhas. What can this possibly mean? The old buddhas are people who lived in the past. How can they be expressing anything right here and right now? Are they traveling through time? Or are the mountains and waters unchanged from the time of the old buddhas until now? Dogen’s words challenge our sense of time, as they often do.

Nature is whatever is not planned or controlled by human beings, so it doesn’t make sense for the old buddhas to lay claim to mountains and waters, using them as an expression. What makes the mountains and waters an expression of human beings? Perhaps nature has its own message, its own expression, but what would that expression have to do with human beings suffering, practicing, awakening, and then teaching others? The Buddha Way is about human beings liberating themselves from self-imposed suffering. Does nature care about that?

These questions are not meant to stimulate the intellect and encourage speculation or philosophizing, but instead are meant to help us realize to what extent we don’t actually understand what Dogen is talking about.

Now let’s imagine ourselves into a dream world, where the usual parameters of reality can be stretched or defied. What if buddhas awaken to how human beings are nothing other than nature? What if awakening involves realizing we think we’re in charge but we are not… how we imagine our separateness but in fact we are infinitely vulnerable, open, as if we have no skin… how the waters are our blood and the mountains are our bones… how expressing the doctrine of enlightenment through a river does not involve commandeering the river for small human purposes but in reality is the most appropriate means of expression the old buddha could find?


Mountains Walking

Jumping ahead a little:

The blue mountains are constantly walking.[viii] 

This is probably the most famous image from this essay, perhaps because it is, on the surface, so preposterous.

We know, scientifically speaking, geologically, mountains gradually move. Is that what Dogen is talking about? No. However, the truth we’re seeking doesn’t necessarily exclude a physical and geological manifestation. Is Dogen talking about how the mountains stay physically still, more or less, but move through time? No. Again, this may be so, but such an explanation remains intellectual.

We don’t want to intellectualize… we don’t want to tie this teaching to a chair and beat it with a hose! And yet, if we do not engage the words, what good are they? Why did Dogen choose the word “walking?” What is walking? This is how most beings, how human beings, move around. We are not rooted in place like a plant, or stuck to a substrate like a fungi. We can willfully move. When conditions change, or we need something, we can move away from things or toward things.

We might look at walking as a manifestation of our humanity and individuality – of our free will, our intelligence, our capacity to act, our ability to move independently. The first manifestation of such humanity and individuality after we are born is calling for help verbally (crying) and reaching for things with our hands… but as soon as we are physically capable, both of those things are subordinated to the act of walking toward what we want under our own power, and then reaching for it.

In what sense do mountains walk? Mountains are a manifestation of nature which appears to be utterly without the capacity to move, let alone move willfully. Mountains have no brain or nervous system to manifest consciousness, volition, planning, or intention. Note that, later, Dogen says many things about waters in this essay but chooses mountains when he talks about walking. I can’t know, but I suspect he made this choice because it would be too easy for us to get confused if he talked about waters walking. “Oh!” We would say, thinking about the movement of streams and rivers, or the waves in the ocean, “Waters are constantly moving around!”

But Dogen doesn’t give us that. It is mountains which are walking. Of course, he warns, just a little later in Sansuikyo, “Since the walking of the mountains should be like that of people, one ought not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to stride like humans.” He also asks us to, “devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking.”[ix]

As we contemplate mountains walks, Dogen gives us a clue: “The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; hence, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking.”

The mountains lack none of their proper virtues… I take this to mean that the walking mountains are not some other mountains, not some metaphorical mountains. He’s talking about real mountains – rock and soil pushed up from beneath the earth’s crust by immensely powerful forces. The mountains we walk on, the ones we see in the distance, the ones that collect snow that melts and provides us with water.

They are constantly at rest and constantly walking. What kind of walking can such mountains do? I defined walking as willful movement. We should not get stuck in imagining how a giant, inanimate mound of rock can move willfully like a human does. Instead, perhaps we should examine our own walking. Maybe our own walking is not what we think? Dogen gives us a clue a little later on:

To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not yet know, has not made clear, this walking. Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains. The blue mountains are not sentient; they are not insentient. We ourselves are not sentient; we are not insentient. We can have no doubts about these blue mountains walking.[x]

When you walk, what is happening? We imagine there is an “Executive I” inside our head, one who perceives, evaluates, makes a plan, directs the walking, and then experiences whatever we encounter as we walk. We assume this Executive I similarly directs everything in our life, including our practice. The teachings tell us this is an illusion, but it is extremely difficult to let our conviction about this go. What is the alternative? To be insentient? A biological machine? To not exist? To not have free will? To be no better than a mountain, a mound of lifeless rock?

But as we gradually open up our minds, we may perceive things we have never conceived of before.

Walking is a manifestation of our life force. We are alive, we can respond. What kind of walking does not even depend on movement? What kind of beingness does not even depend on willful activity? What kind of beingness do we share with a mountain? Perhaps that beingness is really much more who we are than the small self we identify with, walking around and acting based on an individual agenda?

I like to think Dogen’s words are not meant to teach us anything, that they do not contain any answers of the kind we’re used to searching for and finding. Instead, Dogen’s words invite, coax, and challenge us, encouraging us to go on a spiritual adventure. At a deep level, you know what Dogen means by “mountains walking.”

However, if we ever reach a conclusion and say, “Ah, that is mountains walking!” We are wrong. Or maybe we have a little bit of the truth, but now we have bound it to a chair. If we say, “I can never understand mountains walking” we are wrong, and we turn back from the opportunity of a lifetime. Although we cannot capture it, we can know it.



[i] Okumura, Shohaku. The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s “Sansuikyo” (p. 29). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid (p. 42)

[iii] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46712/introduction-to-poetry

[iv] Collins, Billy. The Apple that Astonished Paris. University of Arkansas Press, 1996.

[v] Okumura, Shohaku. The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s “Sansuikyo” (p. 29). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Ibid (p. 15)

[vii] Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener (Michael H. Kohn, Translator). A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. (Original copyright 1991.)

[viii] Okumura, Shohaku. The Mountains and Waters Sutra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s “Sansuikyo” (p. 29). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid (p. 30)


Picture Credit

Image by Markus Christ from Pixabay


222 – Confronting the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse – Part 2
251 – Reflections on Dogen’s “Bussho, The Buddha-Nature” Part 1: Being