Zen Road
Zen Road
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Mountain thinking

by Reiryu Philippe Coupey

 

Polishing the tile to make it a mirror
And sitting impassive as a mountain.
The true object of Buddhism from the West
Is like the pomegranate before it opens, like the volcano before it erupts.
- Eihei Dogen, the Eiheikoroku (poem n°6)

 

In the first line, Dogen is referring to a mondo between Baso and his master Nangaku. One day Baso was practicing zazen somewhere in front of the dojo. Nangaku was walking by, saw him, and said, “Hey, you’re still doing zazen?! Tell me, do you have an object when you do zazen? Do you have an object in your practice?” At that time there was no expression like mushotoku, which means “no object” or “without goal.” Baso said, “Yes. It’s to become Buddha.” Nangaku didn’t say anything, but he saw a tile near his feet. He picked it up and started to rub it against a big, smooth rock. He was polishing the tile. “Master, what are you doing?” asked Baso. “I’m making a mirror.” By now Baso wasn’t doing zazen anymore. He stared at his master and said, “How can you make a mirror out of a tile just by polishing it?” “And you,” replied Nangaku, “how can you become Buddha by doing zazen?”

 

You can understand why this mondo has become so famous. It’s because it touches directly and completely on the subject of practicing with an object – for something – or practicing for nothing.

 

In Soto Zen, we don’t practice to obtain satori, or to become Buddha, or to become pure, or even to progress. In fact, one of Dogen’s basic principles is that zazen itself is satori. No need to look for it. Satori means becoming deeply free; and becoming free doesn’t mean getting something, but rather losing: losing your hindrances, your prejudices, your ideas, your personal thoughts. Dogen, Nyojo, Sawaki, Deshimaru – they all said the same thing: mushotoku, no object, is essential.

 

“How can you become Buddha by practicing zazen?”

 

The story of Baso and Nangaku is also told by Master Dogen in the Fukanzazengi. Right at the beginning of that text he talks about the mistake of wanting to polish the tile to make a mirror, of wanting to become anything at all, even just wanting to become better.

 

Error. You’re already better. You’re beyond better. Deep down, you’re not calculating. Deep down, you’re not ambitious. Deep down, you’re not motivated by competition. Fundamentally, you’re not looking to succeed. Why? Because fundamentally, you are already Buddha. And also because you don’t own this Buddha. So: no competition. This is Zen teaching.

 

The second line of the poem –

 

And sitting impassive as a mountain

 

– means being one with the cosmos. It’s zazen as it was transmitted by the buddhas and patriarchs.

 

The mountain has no object and it’s not looking to obtain satori; it’s not trying to become Buddha, as Baso was. The mountain has no plans. The mountain has no personal thoughts. That’s what it means to follow the cosmic order: sitting without an object, like Mount Sumeru, which is the mountain in the middle of the universe. Sometimes it’s called “Silver Mountain,” sometimes “Crystal Mountain”: frozen, cold like a diamond. These are images from Buddhist mythology, but they are also metaphors for the practice.

 

So please, stay seated, impassive like Bodhidharma on Mount Shoshitsu. Impassive like a mountain, but not heavy like a mountain. Be light like a swallow ready to take wing. Like a lion going into the mountains. Naturally. Like going home, fearless.

 

“Going into the mountains” means becoming one with the mountain. No separation. So if the master says to you, “Go into the mountains,” you should understand what he means. He means, “Study and transform your mind.” Becoming the mountain is i shin den shin.

 

Here’s what Sensei said when he commented on this image of the mountain: “If you don’t use zazen for your ego, then mountain thinking appears: the posture, and nothing else.”

 


 

Excerpt from a kusen given during the first Sesshin Sans Demeure, at Neu Schönau, Germany, February 2001.

 


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