Wednesday, March 7, 2012


“Thirty years ago, before I had studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. And then later, when I had more intimate knowledge, I came to see mountains not as mountains and rivers not as rivers. But now that I have attained the substance, I again see mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers.”

I've posted on this before, true. But here's another simple way to think about this Zen saying. I read today in Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, that in Japan, mountaineering was thought of not so much as getting to the top of something, but to the center, like walking a labyrinth. The center of a mandala.

So. From a distance, from the valley, the mountain is a familiar thing, background, scenery, so familiar as to be ignored. The mountain? the villager says; What am I, blind? Of course I know the mountain, it's right over there, see it every day, no big deal. Thoreau said that "to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely one form," which is best observed from afar.

But maybe you decide to go up it, to take the journey. Setting foot upon the slope, the mountain is no longer the mountain. You cannot see it, not the whole thing, not the greater shape; the old parameters are gone, vanished into the thinning air. You see Thoreau's "infinite number of profiles," fragments, rocks at your feet, the trees around you, the trail a little ahead, but not very far, because it bends out of view. The old idea of the mountain no longer applies.

Then you reach the top; the wind tugs at you, the sun bright in the massive blue sky. Now you see that the mountain is not, in fact, best known from afar. You see what the mountain is: not some distant peaked thing, a lot of rock thrusting up out of the plain, a familiar landmark in the townspeople's minds... but something else entirely. Something utterly wild, something I cannot speak of, something only someone who has been on top of a mountain can know; especially, and maybe only, a someone who has walked that vertical walk, moved over the rock under his own power, felt the stab of stone under his soles, drinking hard and deep the mountain-scented air, sweat the good sweat, fought the good fight, the fight against gravity and laziness, to finally break past the tree line, over the final rise, at last to glory in the endless all-around view.

The mountain is now truly the mountain, as object and subject merge as one peak experience. The distant object is gone; the mountain itself is hardly there at all anymore. The center of the mandala.

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