Saturday, November 26, 2016


Here's a way of trying to homogenize, or at least bridge, the experiences of grandeur which supposedly greet every supplicant to a mountain and the experiences of sacrality which devotés of particular traditions might draw from it. The characterization goes beyond the idea that the latter project sacrality on to a shared experience, which is a plus.

Each of these themes or views brings together different ideas, images, and associations to evoke the experience of a deeper reality. Tibetan pilgrims, for example, view the peak of Mount Kailas as the pagoda palace of Demchog. The two images fuse in their minds so that the mountain becomes the palace. This fusion of images awakens the experience of something that imbues Mount Kailas with an aura of sanctity. The pilgrim becomes aware of a divine presence emanating from the mountain. 

The process works a little like the fusion of two slightly different photographs of a scene in a stereoscopic viewer to trigger a vivid perception of the third dimension inherent in each two-dimensional picture. The scene that looked flat suddenly seems to pop open with depth – in the case of a mountain like Kailas, a luminous depth full of meaning and significance for the pilgrim who reveres it as sacred. 

The juxtaposition of images and associations also acts like the resonance of notes in a chord of music. Hearing the different tones resonate together creates a harmony, a sound with a quality that no note can produce by itself. In a similar way, a sense of the sacred issues from the resonance of images and associations in a view of a mountain, not from any single one of them. For followers of religious traditions, however, the fusion or resonance of cultural and spiritual associations in a view of a sacred mountain does not just create an effect: rather, it reveals an underlying reality present but hidden from usual awareness.
Edwin Bernbaum, "Sacred Mountains,"
in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor (2006)

This is clever and hermeneutically generous - what to the secular observer might seem a mere "effect" to the believer "reveals an underlying reality" - but I'm troubled by it. Is it because Bernbaum implicitly asserts that the experience is in fact the same: an experience of depth? (The trekker's experience is already an experience of depth.) His language is full of the sublime - heights and depths, mists and mysteries, vastness and vistas infinite and hidden - but I wonder if that is indeed how a mountain like Kailas is understood by a pilgrim. Intuitively I imagine a reality one needs a trained eye and a prepared consciousness to observe might seem hidden at first but, once attained, reverses figure and ground: if it still slips from view, this is not because it is deep and far away but because the mind - not the mountain - is clouded.

I have no basis whatever for this counterclaim, just a perhaps perverse resistance to the idea that different travelers of course encounter the same mountain. (Well, I have one rather corny piece of evidence: years ago, I was in Hakone, a famous Mount Fuji viewing site, on a day of near complete fog. This didn't stop a class of high school students, their easels facing into the murk where Fuji was, from painting the mountain in its pristineness.) At the very least, I'm compelled to try to relativize the supposedly shared experience of natural splendor the way in which this narrative relativizes religious "associations." For now, at least, I think one of the methodological claims of my Spring course "Not to scale: On sacred mountains" will be that sacred mountains are not mountains. (Recall my brief for religious studies: the discipline that recognizes there is no consensus on the real. We don't experience the same human nature, the same future, the same world.)

But here as in so many things (the list goes on) the impending trumpocalypse ruins things. My effort at pluralism and humility could provide comfort to obscurantism and ignorance! At least some of the climate deniers who have taken over our ruling party believe what they say. They don't see what I think everyone must be able to see - record droughts! deadlier storms! melting icecaps! warming seas! vanishing glaciers! - and in at least some cases this is for religious reasons. I'm thinking not of those for whom the phenomena are there but dismissed as unimportant, but those for whom something else entirely is going on. They don't experience the same nature! Aware that my terms are janglingly inconsistent here, I don't want to represent a position from which there is no possibility of their eyes being opened.

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