Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mountain stroll: 青山常運歩

A snow day meant the Sacred Mountains class didn't meet today, so I had a chance to go down a rabbit hole. Near the end of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World comes a brief quotation from the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen:

As for mountains, there are mountains hidden in jewels; there are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992, 257)

It comes a page after another well-chosen quotation, from the Skanda Purana:

He who thinks of Himachal, even if he does not see it, is greater than he who accomplishes all his devotions at Benares. He who thinks of Himachal will be freed from all his sins.... (256)

At this point in his gorgeously illustrated account of holy peaks around the world, Bernbaum is addressing readers who cannot but be filled with a mix of Wanderlust and envy. Just thinking about sacred mountains can be salutary for us who live in cities and on the plains, he concedes. Indeed, mountains by themselves - even ones held sacred by various peoples - can't reliably do the work for us, since their devotés are liable to mistake the symbol for what is symbolized: the holy mystery of life itself, disclosed through the double-take of things experienced as natural at the same time as holy. This ultimate depth experience is more accessible on mountains than elsewhere, given their optics, but the reality revealed is everywhere. Thus: Dogen.

Knowing we wouldn't have class, I veered away from Bernbaum prep to Dogen quest. Where does 道元 Dogen (1200-1253) say this, and what could it mean? It turns out to be near the end of the "山水経 Mountains and Waters Sutra," one of the earliest parts of the 正法眼蔵 Shobogenzo. The translation can be found here; the original, which I can half-pretend to be able to read, goes like this:


But to know what it might mean you need to know that Dogen's heading toward a complicated denouement, where words melt and recongeal, even as mountains are understood as the embodied insights of enlightened beings. (As a modern-language explanation I found puts it, 山はただ山であるというのではなく、解脱者の見た山であるということである.) Good also to know that the whole work is framed by the enigmatic pronouncements of two Chinese sages, 芙蓉道楷 Furong Daokai (1043-1118) and 雲門文偃 Yunmen Wenyan (864-949)



the blue [green] mountains walk and the Eastern mountains move over water. There's all sorts of cool stuff about the nonduality of water and mountains, about water going upward and experienced as a solid palace by fish in the sea, while mountains, too, 流 flow (and don't flow; it's complicated, and isn't). But the upshot - an upshot - is:


Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue [green] mountains. This has something to do with how we become one with what we perceive, so the mountains walk as we walk them, and as we study them mountains study themselves. But this is just the surface of what's going on, since, long before we came to the mountains, whether in thought or in stride, they were seen by the buddhas, and in some way we could with effort realize as well, are manifestations of these seeings. 山水が仏の教えを説 "Mountains and waters preach the Buddha's teaching," the modern Japanese page explains.

They are sutras - a claim not entirely unlike John Muir's stone sermons:

It seems strange that visitors to Yosemite should be so little influenced by its novel grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped. Most of those I saw yesterday were looking down as if wholly unconscious of anything going on about them, while the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. Yet respectable-looking, even wise-looking people were fixing bits of worms on bent pieces of wire to catch trout. Sport they called it. Should church-goers try to pass the time fishing in baptismal fonts while dull sermons were being preached, the so-called sport might not be so bad; but to play in the Yosemite temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons! (My First Summer in the Sierra)

Okay, so maybe the resemblance is just superficial. But both views dissolve the solidity of mountains in a way Bernbaum might question. Or was the Dogen reference at the end an invitation to just such a detour?

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