Posts Tagged ‘mountains and rivers’

“Before I studied Zen,” goes a famous Zen saying, “I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I had studied Zen for thirty years I no longer saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. But now that I have finally mastered Zen, I once again see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.”

The author of that saying is the poet and Ch’an master Ch’ing Yuan, who lived in the eighth century CE. However, his saying transcends its time and place, and it has long since entered Western culture. A version of it may be heard in the song “There Is a Mountain” by the Scottish folksinger Donovan.

Evoking the landscape of ancient China, Ch’ing Yuan’s saying bears a foreign, romantic aura, but like many Zen proverbs it is also an eminently practical observation. It has less to do with objects seen than with a way of seeing. Ch’ing Yuan used mountains and rivers as examples because they were prominent presences in his daily life. But his saying becomes more accessible if we substitute presences that have become prominent—and troubling—in our own lives of late. I am thinking of American banks and, more broadly, of the global financial system.

To most of us, a bank is a bank. It is always there—an abiding presence that might well be a mountain, so central and established is its place in the community. We keep our money there—or rather, it keeps our money and our important papers, and we rely on it to do so. Although its rates, fees, and policies vary from year to year, its presence is as constant as it is secure. You can take it to the bank, we say, knowing exactly what we mean.

Yet, as Ch’ing Yuan discovered through thirty years of contemplation, mountains are not mountains, insofar as “mountains” denotes something that possesses a separate, intrinsic, and unchanging self. And, as many of us have recently discovered, banks are not as solid as they seem . Their names may remain the same, but their assets are constantly in flux. And however independent they may appear, they are components of an interdependent system, which is no more stable than our rapidly changing climate.

To recognize as much may be deeply distressing, but in the end it is liberating. No longer imprisoned by an illusion of solidity, we see, as Ch’ing Yuan did, the impermanence at the core of our existence. Having nothing solid to cling to, be it a mutual fund or a Treasury bond, we are released from clinging. And if we can extend this realization to all conditioned things, including our bodies, thoughts, and states of mind, we may experience what the Dalai Lama has called “the only true peace, the only true liberation.”

Yet, as Ch’ing Yuan acknowledged in the third part of his saying, we live in the ordinary relative world, where mountains are mountains and banks are banks. Attachment to the illusion of permanence, financial or otherwise, can cause great suffering, but so can a lofty attachment to the insight of impermanence. That is why Zen teachings urge us to cultivate mindfulness in our everyday lives as well as in the zendo. By so doing, we maintain awareness of what Peter Matthiessen has called “the eternally rising and perishing reality of the world,” even as we make our mortgage payments or reallocate our assets. And over time we come to rely on that immovable awareness, which isn’t depressed when we’re depressed or poor when we are poor. On the contrary, it is a refuge from temporal conditions, more dependable than any bank and more durable than any mountain.

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