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On Mountains and Waters

Understanding spiritual similes in the Zen tradition

Someone asked Xuedou, "What is the living meaning of Zen?"

Xuedou said, "The mountains are high, the oceans are wide."

I. Waters

There's a rich history of metaphor in the Zen canon, and foremost among those utilized are those having to with water: oceans, streams, and waves. The most basic question, then, is: when Zen masters talk about the ocean, what are they pointing at? It might be argued that Zen masters were simply speaking about the physical ocean; another possibility is that they are speaking in metaphor. The literal reading sees the directness of Zen masters, teaching about a noumenal world not separate from nirvana; the allegorical reading speaks the language of spiritual similes. Linji said, "If you love the sacred and hate the secular, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion." Both explanations have something to them, but neither accounts for the totality.

Spiritual systems are colored as much by their favorite similes as by their formulated tenets. For the non-dual systems, two similes stand out as predominant. One is space, which simultaneously encompasses all and permeates all, yet is nothing concrete in itself; the other is the ocean, which remains self-identical beneath the changing multitude of its waves. (1)

Here Bhikku Bodhi, as an outsider to non-dual modes of thought, is pointing out that the ocean is used as a means of talking about non-dual reality; but it should be pointed out immediately that Zen masters used this metaphor primarily for mind. This terminology can be found, predating Zen, in the Lankavatara Sutra, a text from the "Mind Only" school and later became the basis of Bodhidharma's teaching.

Mahamati, as with its visual form, consciousness arises together with the minutest sensory objects and sensory material of the various sense organs, and with it arise external realms as well like so many images in a clear mirror or like the ocean when a strong wind blows. And as the wind of externality stirs the sea of the mind, its waves of consciousness never cease. Whether there is any difference or not among the characteristics of causes and effects is due to a deep attachment to what arises from karma. (2)

In the Lankavatara model of consciousness, each sensory realm is regarded as its own wave on the ocean of mind. The conceptual consciousness (in the simplified Lanka model) are the class of waves that drive the turmoil. Sometimes called the karmic aspect of consciousness, it is the mind's tendency to reify sense-objects, investing them with reality, in order to get what it wants. It is a consciousness driven by causes because it seeks after effects. Dahui said, "People have been used by the mind's conceptual consciousness since before they can remember, flowing in the waves of birth and death, unable to be independent."

A term I would like to coin, if it hasn't been coined already, is karmic inertia. Karma just means "action" or "doing", and in the Buddhist framework of cause and effect, every action takes place due to causes, resulting from past actions. The waves being described are pushed by the habit-energy of past karma. Because they are thrown about by the waves, deluded people can't be free. Sometimes this is the metaphor of the 'stream' - someone following a particular causal path driven by mental fermentations.

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Dharmakaya, the "Body of Reality" is said to be perceptible when the intrinsic aspect of consciousness - is no longer obscured by delusion. Huanglong said, "The basis of sentient existence is the ocean of knowledge, which is its source. The substance of the flow of conscious existence is the Body of Reality."

While Bodhidharma's emphasis on the Lankavatara was influential on the early masters and patriarchs, Ch'an developed as a Chinese interpretation of this model.

As Chinese clergy and laypeople were struggling to understand Buddhism in the fourth and fifth centuries of the common era, they were wont to use a uniquely Chinese formulation: the distinction between essence (ti, lit., “body”) and function (yong, lit., “use”). There is no sharp distinction between essence and function; depending on the perspective, any entity or situation can be approached in terms of either one. Nor is there any sharp transformation in moving from essence to function, since the difference between the two is more in the mind of the beholder rather than in the entity itself. (3)

We can see this interpretive framework explicated by Seng-zhao in a treatise predating the emergence of Ch'an:

The Light-Emitting [Perfection of Wisdom] Sutra states, “Dharmas are without going and coming, without active transformation.” In searching for the operations of inactivity, how could one possibly seek stillness by undoing the active? One must seek stillness within the activities [of things]. Since one must seek stillness within the activities [of things], although active they are always still. Since one should not undo the active to seek stillness, although [things] are still they do not transcend activity. Nevertheless, even though activity and stillness have never varied, the deluded take them as different (4)

Then, we can see how it had intermingled with the Ch'an tradition during the time of Hongren and the Northern School, in the text Five Skillful Means:

The transcendence of thought is the essence, and the perceptive faculties are the function. Serenity is the essence, and illumination is the function. “Serene but always functioning; functioning but always serene.” Serene but always functioning—this is the absolute corresponding to phenomena. Functioning but always serene—this is phenomena corresponding to the absolute. Serene yet always functioning—this is form corresponding to emptiness. Functioning yet always serene—this is emptiness corresponding to form… (5)

The Chinese philosophers found kinship with the "Mind Only" school with their corresponding terms prabandha (continuity) and lakshana (characteristic). Though these originate as musical terms, they are employed to refer to the mind's ocean and waves in the Lanka.

At this point, we can gather the terms and make some connections:

Dahui said, "Once entanglements cease, both substance and function are in their natural state. 'Substance' means the clear, pure, original source of your own mind; the 'function' is your own mind's marvelous function of change and creation, which enters into both purity and defilement without being affected by or attached to purity or defilement." Despite the endless back-and-forth in the Zen tradition between substance and function (Hongzhi's silent illumination was something Dahui routinely criticized), Zen masters have to speak to both. Trying to "still the waves" isn't advised, nor is letting them move you. Linji said, "Try to grasp Zen in motion and it goes into stillness. Try to grasp Zen in stillness and it goes into motion."

More from Zen Masters on Waters

Xuedou said: "The river of Zen is quiet, even in the waves; the water of stability is clear, even in the waves."

Someone asked Yangqi: "As it is said, 'If you want to escape from clamor in the mind, you should read the ancient teaching.' What is the ancient teaching?"

Yangqi said: "The moon is bright in space, the waves are calm on the ocean."

Yuanwu said, "If your potential does not leave (its fixed) position, you tumble down into the poison sea. If your words don’t startle the crowd, you fall into the streams of the commonplace."

Yangshan said: "Just turn to the ocean of your own essence and develop practical accord with its true nature."

II. Mountains

Although the metaphorical language of the ocean and waves may have been influenced by imported ideas, symbolism concerning the mountains was already strongly embedded in Chinese culture. We might immediately recognize the mountain as a symbol representing stability, immensity, and height. In other words, as something immovable and powerful, that pierces the very heavens. The archetype for this type of symbolism is undoubtedly Mount Sumeru, an unimaginably large mountain that is at the center of every cosmos.

A monk asked, "When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?

Yunmen said, "Mount Sumeru."

To relate this case to our considerations on 'waters' as a metaphor, Yuanwu often said of Yunmen that he could give a word that followed the streams and currents, encompassed heaven and earth, and cut off all flows. In other words, Yunmen's response addresses the particular karmic path of the student (follows the streams). Secondly, Mount Sumeru is a truly Jungian type of symbol, surrounded by multiple ranges of mountains like a *temenos*, with the niraya-hells directly below it and the deva-realms above; in this way he invokes something that covers heaven and earth. Finally, in giving a turning word, the flow of discriminating thought is cut. For now, we might simply ponder the idea of the mountain as a sort of anchor for all creation. In a sense, no amount of discursive thinking can get to the heart of what it is about Mount Sumeru that 'cuts off all flows'.

Sumeru is far from the only 'magic mountain' in Chinese lore. The 'Three Mountains' (Penglai, Yingzhou, and Fangzhang), were said to be the home of Taoist Immortals - sages who had become deathless through ascetic practice and acquisition of esoteric wisdom. Linji made reference to them in his teaching: "Forever transcending past and present is the body of perfect wisdom. Blocking the way to the Three Mountains there is a manifold barrier." To the Zen student hoping to attain immortality or supranormal powers, Linji's allusion draws attention to the many barriers preventing them, while also emphasizing that all they need is to transcend the three eras (past, present and future).

Mountains in China have been seen as a particularly powerful aspect of sacred geography. They are sometimes the dwelling places of the dead, or of local divinities. Yün-chü claims to be bothered by visits of "heavenly spirits" to his mountain hut (TSL 49). Mountains are filled with dangers, such as ferocious beasts, but they also hold a magnetic attraction to which the wealth of Chinese landscape painting and poetry bears testimony. In entering the mountains the pilgrim is often entering another reality. When Tung-shan encounters Lung-shan in his mountain abode, he is reminded that there are no roads into the mountain. Furthermore, Lung-shan seems to be as old as, if not older than, the mountain itself (TSL 23). In addition to being regarded as an external, physical sacred space, mountains have also been seen as images of internal, subjective sacred geography. In the Lieh Tzu, an early text associated with the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu, we find accounts of journeys, rich in descriptions of natural scenery, that are explicitly identified as inner spiritual journeys. (6)

These considerations may have played into the emphasis on the mountain as a spiritual simile in Zen. Zen masters tended to denounce any significance to physically entering the mountains, lest their students become attached. Linji allegedly banned Zen students from making pilgrimages to Mount Wu-t'ai, where hey hoped to commune with Manjusri, cautioning them not to imagine that there were any places that were more or less conducive to practicing the Dharma, and even asserting that the students themselves were already 'the living Manjusri'. All the same, the canon is replete with characters one day deciding to vanish into the peaks, often never to return. More than a few records of the masters note some number of disciples who received the teaching and 'entered the mountains', producing no Dharma-heirs. (7)

One practice associated with pilgrimage is that of "entering the mountains." On a practical level, the connection may seem quite obvious, since so many of the Ch'an masters had their temples on mountains. To visit them one could not avoid entering the mountains. However, journeys into the mountains seem to have been more than this. In the terse anecdotes of the discourse records, where the context is often left unstated, it is significant that mountain wandering, when it occurs, is mentioned explicitly. Furthermore, mountain wandering is often presented as a separate practice, an end in itself, with no mention of visiting teachers. For example, in TSL 39, when Hsüeh-feng tells Tung-shan that he is "returning to the peaks," their conversation concerns only how one goes there. There is no suggestion of visiting anyone. In fact, the manner in which mountain wandering is discussed in the anecdotes is suggestive of spiritual quest. The Chinese term often encountered in the discourse records, ”entering the mountain" (ju-shan), is quite distinct from climbing or going to a mountain.

Of course, this term may not mean anything more than secluding oneself in a mountainous region, as Tung- shan's disciple Yün-chü did in TSL 49. But there are certain spiritual traditions in China, such as Mao-shan Taoism, where the aspirant is believed literally to go inside a mountain in order to undergo spiritual transformation. However one entered the mountains, the implications of the journey invariably seemed to be spiritual. Another word used when referring to mountain wandering is yu (e.g. TSL 76). This term is used in the Chuang Tzu chapter title translated "Free and Easy Wandering," where it implies a mental and physical freedomclearly much more than travel for pleasure. (8)

In the Lankavatara Sutra, 'mountains and rock walls' are described as barriers to physical projections, but not to thought. We might consider this in light of the many references in Zen to an enlightened person's power to pass through impenetrable barriers. The mythology concerning 'wall gazing' might be apt to consider here (keeping mind that the original meaning had nothing to do with literal wall gazing). Thus the portrayal of mountains as both barriers and the dwelling place of sages who move through them freely, without obstruction. When Zhaozhou was asked, "When the mountains close in on you on every side. from all four directions - what then?", he answered. "It is the pathless that is Zhaozhou."

The unattainable entry to the mountain may inform our understanding of mountains as a symbol of the 'heights', a place where one is aloof, elated, or with access to the divine. In my research, I came across an alleged 'Zen saying': "If you want to climb a mountain, you must begin at the top." While I could not source this saying (meaning it is likely an invention), we might relate it to Yuan-tong's saying, "When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy." The insurmountable task of reaching the heights by gradations of practice might be likened to a slow trudge, and this is not advised by Zen masters. Conceiving of enlightenment as a place *reached* in such a way - where one is thereafter fixed, serene, and surveying reality from on high - is dismissed. Zen masters want to put you right at the zenith to begin with. Zen is about saving energy.

Furthermore, while there are stories in Zen and Taoism about disciples finding instruction on the peaks (the folktale Seven Taoist Masters is full of such accounts), the sought-after teacher ends up being absent. In one tale, a pilgrim seeking a Taoist immortal reaches his thatched hut only to hear from his servant, "The master has gone herb-gathering on the mountain, cloud-hidden." In the Avatamsaka Sutra, Sudhana goes to visit his teacher Meghasri, only to find that he is not there, having left for another mountain.

Vimalakirti said, "It's like this: the high plateau does not produce lotus flowers; it is the mire of the low swamplands that produce these flowers."... If you consider quietude right and commotion wrong, then this is seeking the real aspect by destroying the worldly aspect, seeking nirvana, the peace of extinction, apart from birth and death. When you like the quiet and hate the hubbub, this is just the time to apply effort. Suddenly when in the midst of the hubbub, you topple the scene of quietude- that power surpasses the (meditation) seat and cushion by a million billion times. (9)

Dahui, in one of his letters to a student (above), references the distinction between stillness and activity (essence, ti; function, yong). He warns that idealizing the heights, solitude, or stillness as somehow 'closer' to nirvana is missing the mark. The peaks are thus consistently held as the realm of the masters and sages, but not something to seek after. 'Staying awhile' if one finds himself at the top is a subject toward which Zen masters are ambivalent - how long is too long? Should one be a private buddha, or teach disciples? As a private buddha, is one neglecting the world and falling into stillness? The retreat from the world is often criticized as 'dead Zen'. But entering the world as a teacher presents problems of its own, as Zen masters often warn that no Dharma at all is taught when one 'teaches the Dharma', and that Zen is not something that can actually be given from one to another. As a teacher, what would one even teach? This is dilemma is not easily resolved, and the history of Zen is replete with masters leaving behind a few named Dharma-heirs who carry on the lineage, but often leaving behind several more that simply vanish into obscurity, unnamed.

More from Zen Masters on Mountains

A monk asked Baizhang: "What is the matter of extraordinary wonder?"

Baizhang said: "Sitting alone on Daxiong Peak!" ["the Peak of Great Valor" or "this Great Sublime Peak"]

The monk made a deep bow. Baizhang thereupon hit him.

Yuanwu commented: Baizhang was ordinarily like a tiger with wings.

The Master [Dongshan] asked a monk, "Where have you come from?"

"From wandering in the mountains," the monk said.

"Did you go to the top of any mountain?" asked the Master.

"Yes, I did," the monk replied.

"Was there anyone on the top?" asked the Master.

"No, there wasn't," said the monk.

"In that case, you didn't reach the top," said the Master.

"If it were the case that I hadn't gone to the top, how could I know there was no one there?" responded the monk.

"Why didn't you stay awhile?" asked the Master.

"I wasn't opposed to staying, but there is one in India who wouldn't permit it."

"I've been suspicious of this fellow from the first," the Master said.

The Hermit of Lotus Flower Peak said: “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people — I go straight into the myriad peaks."

III. Heights and Depths

The original nature is the ocean. Vast and all-encompassing, the surface features of the waves are distinguished from one another by the discriminating mind, even though it is all just water. The ocean is the essence of mind, the waves are its activity. Fundamentally it is always the same; and yet, Zen masters teach about 'enlightenment'. What is it? Simple. Linji said, "If you can just stop this mind that rushes around moment to moment, looking for something, and you'll be no different from the ancestors and the Buddhas." Stop following the waves of karmic inertia and the ocean becomes calm and clear. Once you've penetrated the great matter, you can follow the waves at your leisure without being pulled awry. Mazu said, "When successive thoughts do not await one another, and each thought dies peacefully away, this is called absorption in the oceanic reflection."

Therefore we might say that when the simile of the ocean is used, Zen masters are often going from the internal to the external. By contrast, the mountains - impassible, fixed, and towering - are often used as a metaphor for a place of solitude, stillness and serenity. They are the dwelling places of sages that Zen students seek to penetrate (even though they are impenetrable). When Zen masters speak about mountains they are often going from the external to the internal. One leaves the hustle and bustle of the ordinary world to "enter the mountains", sometimes literally. One pierces the heavens and dwells in a spiritual realm.

Thus, one's original nature is void and calm - but "the wind of externality" stirs up the waves, one comes out of the depths. One who abandons worldly concerns to seek the Zen path heads for the heights, but cannot abide in that kind of stillness either. He must depart from the heights. Hongzhi said that the true mind of Zen has no extremes, no edges and no center. As such, one doesn't have to seek the extremes to find Zen, although in the course of studying Zen, one may have to explore both. Yuanwu said, "Just still the thoughts in your mind. It is good to do this right in the midst of disturbance. When you are working on this, penetrate the heights and depths."

There are a few cases we might consider that discuss plumbing the heights and depths. First, there is the case of Elder Ting on the bridge:

Once in Chen Chou, as Elder Ting was returning from a vegetarian feast, he rested on a bridge. There he met three Buddhist monks.

One of them asked, "What is the meaning of 'Where the river of Ch'an is deep, you must plumb the very bottom'?" Ting grabbed him and was about to throw him off the bridge, when the other two Buddhists frantically tried to rescue him, saying, "Stop! Stop! He has offended you, Elder but we hope you will be merciful."

Ting said, "If not for you two, I would have let him plumb the very bottom."

And then, the case of the Hundred Foot Pole in the Wumenguan:

Sekiso asked: "How can you proceed on from the top of a hundred-foot pole?" Another Zen teacher said: "One who sits on the top of a hundred-foot pole has attained a certain height but still is not handling Zen freely. He should proceed on from there and appear with his whole body in the ten parts of the world."

Wumen's verse mentions that jumping from the pole would be suicide. In koan study, the moment where one lets go of the sense of self is sometimes called 'leaping from the hundred food pole'; thus it is 'suicide'. What are we to make of these examples, that indicate the 'deadliness' of traversing the heights and depths? Perhaps the conception put forward by Daoist philosophers of the substance of reality being 'subtle', 'hidden', or 'low' played a part. "The highest virtue of the Dao is like water," says Laozi, who goes on to describe water as always seeking the lowest level, which is abhorred by human beings. The nature of the Dao was always to return to the source - things arise, then *decline*. Thus, one arises from the source into the mundane, then seeks to transcend further to a higher understanding - but this higher understanding includes the knowledge that water always flows back into the ocean.

Mi-an said, "The shortcut of Zen is to leave the present and directly experience the state before birth, before the division of wholeness. When you accomplish this, you are like a dragon in the water, like a tiger in the mountains."

Becoming a formidable being in whatever environment one finds oneself in - a veritable force of nature - is the mark of one in full possession of Zen. To employ the cliche, there really is no coming and no going, and all the hills and valleys are the same measurement. All are level. Direct experience of extremes reveals their relativity. One leaps from great heights, walks on the bottom of the ocean, and enters the tallest mountains in order to discover this.

More from Zen Masters on Heights/Depths

Shitou said, "I would rather sink to the bottom of the sea for endless eons than seek liberation through all the saints of the universe."

Xiatang said, "Don't let either good or bad thoughts enter into your thinking, forget about both Buddhism and things of the world. Let go of body and mind, like letting go over a cliff."

Huanglong said, "To drink up the ocean and turn a mountain upside down is an ordinary affair for a Zennist."

Yuanwu also said, "[Zen Adepts] walk on the bottom of the deepest ocean, uncontaminated, with free minds, acting normally, indistinguishable from the average person."

Huizhen [a Vinaya/Pureland Master] said, "When people do not understand, I use the Zen style of teaching."

Someone asked Huizhen, “Do the results of religious practice vary according to the extent of realization?”

The Master answered. "When a drop of water falls from the cliff, it knows the morning sea.”

(1) Bhikku Bodhi - Dhamma and Non-Duality

(2) Lankavatara Sutra, Red Pine translation

(3) McRae, Seeing Through Zen

(4) Treatise on the Immutability of Things, Seng- zhao (374–414) , McRae translation

(5) See McRae, Northern School

(6) Record of Tung-shan, Powell translation

(7) For example, Huineng supposedly had 40 unnamed disciples, who 'entered the mountains' after his death; the early lineage records which were largely mythological suggested 'vanishing' Dharma-heirs from Bodhidharma, Huike, and Sengcan.

(8) Powell again

(9) Dahui, Swampland Flowers