Mountains and Rivers Without End

If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should full know the green mountains’ walking. 

~Eihei Dogen (13th century Japan)

 

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Mountain majesty.

We stood in a circle, bowed to each other and at the sound of the wooden clappers, began walking into the mountains. Beginning in logged over, dog-hair thick conifer stands, we were soon striding through dripping and decadent old-growth forest. For 17 years the zen group out of Bellingham have been doing this pilgrimage into the mountains, into the mind of zen. We were also walking into the Sansuikyo or “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” a teaching given by Zen Master Eihei Dogen late in the night in the year 1240. It begins with the line “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way” and thus we began our ritual enactment of the ancient buddha way of mountains and rivers. In silence, we moved up the trail as one body, leaving no one behind, and just like the mountains there was stillness in our activity. Ascending some 1,500 feet over seven and a half miles in this way, we hiked through ancient temperate rainforest and up the slopes of a relatively young and still active stratovolcano.

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Hiking through old-growth conifer forest.

Along the way, we stopped to honor sacred places, bowing and chanting a part of Dogen’s sansuikyo each time. The first stop was an old-growth western hemlock, miraculously still alive, that had a lightning scar spiraling down its gnarled trunk. Living and dying in this ancient place isn’t particularly distinct and I thought of Shitou’s teaching (the Sandokai or “Harmony of Difference and Sameness”) that things are “not one, not two”. Like the feet in walking its difficult to say which comes first and which comes after. Maybe living and dying, like before and after, are really in each other all along. They are not one, not two; not different but also not the same.

 “Because green mountains are constantly walking, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not realize or understand it.”

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Touching an ancient western red cedar.

Our second stop was for lunch, which we shared in silence, and I was struck with how well humans can communicate without saying a word. During this lunch I came to understand not only how distracting talking can be but also what a crutch it can be. Because we remained in silence, we each had to pay close attention to what was going on in order to serve others, in order to share what was available. If someone wanted the bag of crackers or the beef jerky, they couldn’t simply ask and get someone’s attention. In this realm of silence, attention needed to be freely given not raucously garnered. During our usual mode of talking and eating, we can sort of not pay attention because someone will get our attention when its needed. But in silence, we all had to remain firmly rooted in the moment, like the ancient hemlocks all around, in order to engage in the simple act of sharing food. It was beautiful, simple and profound.

After a few more hours of silent walking, we stopped at a babbling little waterfall, which gushed forth from the mountains, through the mountains and through us. This was our second ceremonial site and we continued to read Dogen’s teaching together as the waters poured forth from rock and rubble. It was beautiful to hear our voices mixing and mingling with one another and the waters cascading down the mountain.

“All waters appear at the foot of the (eastern) mountains. Accordingly, all mountains ride on clouds and walk in the sky. Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.”

 

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Flowers and flowing waters.

In thick clouds, light rain (hard to tell the difference), we ascended to an open heather meadow which was to be our camp for two days. Exhausted we set up tents and our camp kitchen and hung our food bags before dropping off to heavy sleep. Ahh the exhausted sleep of mountain walking! We knew the 5:30am wake up bell would ring all too early.

And it did. Both mornings we woke up in this way. First the high sound of the morning bell and later the thud of wood on wood as we set up a makeshift han (the traditional way to call monks to at monasteries), which was struck for ten minutes calling us to meditation. The first morning we sat in the open air, using our sleeping pads for cushions and wrapping ourselves in our sleeping bags for warmth. These were our mountains seats and mountain robes.

The second morning we had set up the log lean-to as our zendo (meditation hall) which has served the group in years past. Both mornings we were visited by well-known camp robbers – gray jays – who startled us by flying shockingly close to our heads to find bits of leftover food to eat. Zazen or seated meditation was interspersed with kinhin or walking meditation which we did outdoors under the looming glaciers and peaks of Mount Baker (10,781 feet). Looking around, there was Mount Baker, Easton and Deming glaciers, Black Buttes, Cathedral Crag, Park Butte Lookout and to the west, the Twin Sisters Range with its own sets of glaciers. Mountains all around, dancing with their toes in all waters, whether frozen or flowing.

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Mountain zendo.

 

This day included an hour and half period of solo time, where each of us sat in a little nook of our own. We were instructed to meditate, write, read or sleep as needed but to no move around a whole lot. I was placed up a dry ravine where rocks cascaded down where water once flowed. I set up my mountain seat, wrapped myself in my mountain robe and just sat. Before leaving camp, I quickly grabbed water, first aid kit and “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” in a greedy way, thinking that I might want one of these things. I quickly discovered that I really didn’t need anything. I just sat, taking it all in and letting it all go like the breath. Nothing else to do, nothing extra needed.

“Keeping its own form, without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices in every place.”

 In the afternoon, some of us went on an optional day hike up a trail that took us eastward over a ridge and then up to Park Butte Lookout (an old fire lookout that can be camped in – first come, first serve). As we ascended up the talus, rocky slope, we heard the high pitched whistle call of pikas (small mammals related to rabbits, who make haystacks in order to dry grass for winter), which we eventually spotted among the rocks and rubble. Once we crested the top, we were greeted with a most amazing view. To the north, Mount Baker and Easton glacier carving lateral moraines into the mountain; to the east, a long line of craggy peaks stretching from Canada seemingly to the end of the earth. This was the North Cascades in all its alpine glory – mountains upon mountains stretching as far as I could see. My heart soared and my feet nearly did too!

“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.”

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Striking the han, the call to morning meditation.

Our last day, we awoke early again to the sound of the bell and the han calling us to meditation. After a couple of rounds of zazen and kinhin we ate a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and then set about to breaking down camp and packing up to leave. A clear day in the mountains with clouds coming and going on Mount Baker in a never-ending game of hide and seek. I reminded myself to remember that just because it is covered in clouds it doesn’t mean that shining, lovely Mount Baker is not there. We did another ceremony, this time facing the mountain itself before beginning our descent back to the trail head.

“The Buddha said, ‘All things are ultimately unbound. There is nowhere that they permanently reside.” Know that even though all things are unbound and not tied to anything, they abide in their own condition.”

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Splendor.

We continued to flow downward as mountains walking, stopping frequently for short breaks especially for our knees. Again, as one body we moved and there was stillness and silence in our activity. We stopped twice more on the way down to perform our ceremonies and to recite the rest of the sansuikyo. The first stop was a rocky gulch, looking northwestward down a long, green drainage (Middle Fork Nooksack, I believe).

“Mountains have been the abode of great sages from the limitless past to the limitless present. Wise people and sages all have mountains as their inner chamber, as their body and mind. Because of wise people and sages, mountains are actualized.”

We trudged onward and downward, experiencing the mountains as walking, constantly walking. Lunch was had again in silence in a meadow at the top of a pass. After a needed rest, we continued down the trail to our next ceremony site, which was a rocky outcrop overlooking mountains beyond. As we chanted the final part of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” I looked around and noticed a strange assemblage of tree species. There were western hemlock, like all the forest around, but also Alaska yellow cedar, Douglas-fir, western white pine, subalpine or Pacific silver fir, and a creeping species of juniper. Wow, this was a place where species came together that are not normally found together. What a special place!

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Ceremonial site of great conifer diversity.

“There are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.”

My pace slowed as we neared the parking lot, which it usually does when I am coming down out of mountains. I am both excited to be home with my family and reticent to return to town. Such beauty and imagination was experienced in the mountains and waters and I wondered how I could cultivate that same sense in my everyday life. Could I see mountains in traffic, mountains in frustration, mountains in worry? Could I learn to see rivers in anger, glaciers in paperwork, cascading waters in the conditions of my life? This, I now saw, was the green mountains constantly walking, and the practice of the wild that I came here to do.


written by David LaFever

10 thoughts on “Mountains and Rivers Without End

  1. Mark Pringle

    Good to hear that your walking has been enlivened by the spirit of mountains walking. Thanks for bringing this forward! Some years ago I was sitting on a rock near Seldon Pass in the John Muir Wilderness when a pika appeared out of nowhere, ran across my legs, and then ducked out of sight. Quick like a cony…silently and very fast.

    Borrowed that last phrase from Gary Snyder who borrowed it from W.H Auden. He quotes Auden in the Survival and Sacrament section of The Practice of the Wild.

    Snyder: “A culture of wilderness starts somewhere in this terrain. Civilization is part of nature – our egos play in the fields of the unconscious – history takes place in the Holocene – human culture is rooted in the primitive and the paleolithic – our body is a vertebrate mammal being – and our souls are out in the wilderness.”

    All together elsewhere, vast
    Herds of reindeer move across
    Miles and miles of golden moss,
    Silently and very fast.

    W.H. Auden
    from “The Fall of Rome.”

    Like

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