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Dogen’s Mountain and Waters Sutra 1

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 08/31/2011
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Norman gives the first talk on Dogen’s Mountain and Waters Sutra as found in Kazuaki Tanahashi’s “Moon In a Dewdrop” and “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye – Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo” Chapter 23 Volume 1.

Dogen's Mountain and Waters Sutra

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | August 31, 2011

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum

Before I read the beginning part, I wrote a little introduction of my own for you, and then I’ll read the beginning and talk about it just a little bit. Here is my introduction to the Mountain and Waters Sutra:

The world around you is sacred. The world around you is not as it appears to be. Its appearance is miraculous, as is yours. Each thing is not itself. It stands for something else. Each thing stands for itself – the mask that masks the endlessness of that thing. Of everything, of you.

Though this is clear everywhere, it’s clearest in the mountains. It’s clearest in the waters. It’s clearest in the silence. In the wandering absorption into presence. In the presence of being present with presence, as presence. In the soaring and the constant walking of time standing still forever. Still as it passes without ceasing, so is endless.

Mountains express this. Waters express this. In weighty, monumental stillness. In clarity and luminosity. In constant movement in stillness, as in a stream, a lake – its depth.

The body is mountains and waters. The hardness of the teeth and bones. The softness of the lips and tongue. The living flowing of the blood, that circulates round and round throughout the sky and space.

The body sitting is a mountain. The body in motion is water. The body constantly sits and constantly moves. The earth sits within the body. The sky sits within the mind: the sanity, the wisdom, the truthfulness. The totality of virtue and delight sits within this stillness and movement, that is always murmuring its sound, its song crying out fully into all the distances. The message devoid of graspable content – of love, of belonging, of total inclusion. That is in the mountain’s stone; in the waters splashing; in the heart’s desire; the laughter of the tongue; the eyes’ tears.

That’s my little introduction to Mountains and Waters Sutra. I wrote it because Dogen uses technical Buddhist language and many quotations and concepts from the Buddhist philosophical upbringing that was his life. We have to decode that literature; it doesn’t have the emotional resonance for us that it had for him.

This is the beginning of the Mountains and Waters Sutra. This fascicle is in Moon in a Dewdrop. It’s also in the new two volume Dogen translation by Kaz Tanahashi; it’s online in Shasta Abbey’s website; and it’s also online at the Stanford website.

Mountains and waters right now actualize the ancient buddha expression.

I think this translation could be better, because Carl’s [Bielefeldt of Stanford University] translation gives more of the sense, because actualize sounds like some technical operation. Somehow the mountains are actualizing or doing something. What it really says in Carl’s translation is this:

Mountains and waters right now are the ancient buddha expression.

The “right now” part is not a throwaway part. It’s an important part, because for Dogen being in time is really important. We don’t usually notice that we are being in time as an experience. We have this conventional concept of time, as if we were inside of time. “I am going to go inside of time,” as if we could go out of it. Of course we can’t go out of it. We are time. That is Dogen’s point. Time is not a something that we are in like this room. We can go into the room and out of the room. Space is exactly that kind of thing but time isn’t. When we leave the room, we are still in time. When we are in the room, we are still inside time. As long as we are alive, we are time.

Right now is the only time there is. The past doesn’t exist except in our memory of it. The future doesn’t exist, except in our exasperation over it or our fear of it. The only thing that really exists is being in time now. So when he says “Mountains and waters right now…” what he means is mountains and waters right now in their present time, this moment, are the ancient buddha expression. Expression doesn’t just mean talking or expressing something, it also means manifesting it. For Dogen expressing and manifesting something, bringing it to life, are the same thing.


Mountains and waters right now are the ancient buddha expression. Each abiding in its condition unfolds its full potential. [Just as we are abiding in our condition.]

I was talking to someone today who was telling me that she has many regrets. Why would you have regrets unless you thought that you could be in another condition? Right? “I regret that the condition that I have always been in my life were not another condition.” But this is impossible, right? How could it ever be any other condition than the condition that it is? Everybody abides in their own position at any moment. We have a unique karmic arising, and we fully occupy that position in every moment of our lives. There is no other position for us in that moment but our karmic position.

So each one abiding in its karmic position unfolds its full potential. That’s too tame, though. It is more than that. Each thing abiding in its own phenomenal position, each person fully occupying her own life, which is the only thing that she has ever done and ever could do, each person fully expresses the inexhaustible virtue of the buddha.


Because mountains and waters have been active since before the Empty Eon [meaning before time began], they are alive at this moment [now].

Again, this applies to everything, because you have been arising before beginning-less time. You are alive now. You couldn’t be alive otherwise. That’s your nature.


Because they have been the self since before form arose, they are emancipation actualized.

The other translation says,

Because they have been self since before form arose, they are liberated in theiractual occurrence.

So being liberates. When we make our lives real, we are liberated in our situation.


Because mountains are high and broad, their way of riding the clouds always extends from the mountains; their wondrous power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.

Priest Daoki of Mount Furong said to the assembly, “The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”

These seem like impossible things. Mountains are the opposite of walking, it would appear. They’re solid. They don’t move ever. So it is just the opposite of walking. A stone woman is exactly a woman incapable of giving birth.

This sounds like Zen non-sequiturs, but it’s not. It’s telling us that we have deeply rooted, conventional ways of seeing things and feeling about our life, understanding our life, and conceptualizing our life. We take our conventional way of viewing things completely for granted. Things like mountains don’t walk.

We have concepts like that, but they are wrong, he is about to explain. Who cares if they’re wrong? The only reason it is bad that they are wrong is because it keeps us bound. It keeps us limited. It keeps our hearts closed. For example, we think that we are all separate and apart. We are sure of that. That’s just how it is. Well, that keeps us believing that. It keeps us at arm’s length from others. We require others to react to us in certain ways so that we feel safe and feel that we can afford to open ourselves. So there are many consequences for that belief that we have. But it is not so. There has never been a moment when we have been alone and apart. It is just not the case. So it would be better if we knew that.

These are examples of conceptual frameworks that are being exploded, as Dogen will now say, talking about the he famous saying of Daoki.

Mountains do not lack the characteristics of mountains. Therefore, they always abide in ease, and they always walk. Examine in detail the characteristics of mountains’ walking.

If you go in the mountains, you feel this. You feel the aliveness of the mountains. Mountains don’t seem dead to you. They seem very alive and very moving and changing. The mountains never stay the same. But you have to be in the mountains; you have to examine the mountains in detail. You can’t just think about the mountains, or breeze through the mountains quickly.

This applies also to one’s own life. That’s what we do on our cushions, right? We examine our lives in detail. We don’t make a bunch of assumptions. We actually sit there in that moment, fully investigating the nature of our life in that moment.

Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The buddha ancestor’s words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. Penetrate these words.

Walking is movement, flow, flux, change. There is nothing that is not walking.
We are always walking. When we are sitting still on our cushion, we are walking like the mountain. Every change in the universe is ringing in our hearts when we are sitting there. Understand this about your life. Understand this about everyone’s life. Understand this about reality. Nothing is staying the same. Everything is flowing like walking, flowing like water.

Because green mountains walk, they are permanent [constant].

The only thing constant is movement and change. So mountains are walking. They are permanent. They are constant.

Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it.

Sometimes we don’t notice the movement, because we are in the middle of it, just like the strange optical illusion that we all have that we are not hurtling through space at a great rate. We all imagine that we are relatively still. We don’t realize we are moving at thousands of miles an hour.

So that is what he is saying. When you are in the mountains, you don’t know that the mountain is moving. When you are on the earth, you don’t realize that the earth is moving. When you are in your own life in a particular way, you don’t see the flow of your life. In the mountains means the blossoming of the entire world. There is a Zen saying, “A flower blooms, and the whole world opens up.” When the Buddha opens up and becomes awakened, he says, “The whole world is awakened.”

“In the mountains” means the blooming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not notice or understand the mountains’ walking. Those without eyes cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.

Even though the person in the mountains does not notice or understand it, the mountains are blooming. They are it. They are living it and manifesting it. People outside the mountains also might not notice that the mountains are walking. “Those without eyes cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.”

So our effort in practice is not to change anything. Our effort is to open our eyes and see what is going on with us. To appreciate what our life is, not to change ourselves, but to appreciate ourselves.

If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk [which you do], but that you do not know your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should fully know the green mountains’ walking.

Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient. You are neither sentient nor insentient. At this moment you cannot doubt the green mountains’ walking.

Let’s take a few minutes to appreciate this and just sit for a moment, because I think that the best way to approach this text is not with too many explanations. I actually planned to say very little, but I realized that because it is practice period, a lot of people have made a commitment to listen to the seminar online.

We can return to our breath and our body, and we can imagine our body as a mountain and feel it as a mountain. Our body is made of the same elements as the body of the mountain. Neither sentient nor insentient. We can feel the depth of our own presence. In our consciousness we fully inhabit our own subjectivity. We can never inhabit the subjectivity of another; and yet, if we can plumb the depth of our own subjectivity, it is like the flower blooming: the whole world is there. We can understand everyone and everything, which means we can love everyone and everything, because it is there in the center of our heart in the present moment of being alive.


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