The Way of Mountains & Rivers

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire With A Large Pine

Many people misunderstand the famous Zen "mountains and rivers" saying of Master Qingyuan.

The saying goes, "Before I started doing Zen, mountains were just mountains, and rivers were just rivers. Once I began doing Zen, mountains were suddenly no longer mountains, and rivers suddenly no longer rivers. These days, however, mountains are again mountains, and rivers are again rivers." 

Does Qingyuan's enigmatic saying mean that Enlightenment is just a return to Non-Enlightenment? Not at all. What would be the point of that? 

In phase one, "Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers" only because you've accepted name-and-form conditioning since childhood. So you don't really see a mountain when you look at it. You just see a dull concept, the mental label "mountain." This is a form of deep affliction caused by ingrained conceptual thinking. It imposes the suffering of dullness. It's why adulthood is a cage compared to childhood.

In phase two, which is Satori, "Mountains are no longer mountains, and rivers no longer rivers." You instantly perceive that behind the mental act of labeling, which creates a stereotyped form, there is a wonderful, chaotic incoherence that is also supremely beautiful & ecstatic. It is possible to live for many years in this state, as I did and often still do. You go around laughing & sometimes crying at everything. You see that the so called "universe" is supremely energetic, that everything is strangely linked together, and you gain intimations of something like Transcendent Wisdom.

It's like Cézanne compulsively painting Mont Sainte-Victoire from all different angles, in all different lights. Other people would just say, "It's a mountain, and not a particularly interesting one." But Cézanne saw that it was the inconceivable Reality and tried to show other people what he'd seen.

In the third and final phase, "Mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers," but this doesn't mean you've returned to the old dualistic dullness. It just means that once you've seen the true nature of mountains and rivers, you don't mind using the old labels just for the sake of shorthand communication with other people. After all, why not? But you are now aware that's not the whole story. You use words without being taken in by them. Your mind is free, luminous, shibumi & penetrating.Yet you could never get to this final phase of relaxed equanimity if you hadn't overthrown everything with great energy and gone beyond the labels "mountains and rivers" in the first place!

Do you understand? Experientially speaking, the third phase is fundamentally different from the first phase, even though they appear outwardly to be the same. It is Great Enlightenment itself.

Involuntary chattering dull-headed puppet mind [un-Enlightenment], which slaps labels on every sensation & experience, is really not the Way. How could submitting to an unnecessary affliction and suffering from it for your whole life be the Way? The Way is found in the Mysterious Realization, 妙悟, the attainment of which requires a desperate & almost inhuman energy like the painter Cézanne's.

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