Mountains are not mountains

People often bring up another Zen story about seeing that the mountains are not mountains, seeing that the rivers are not rivers, and seeing the mountains and seeing the rivers; so I might as well include a discussion of it here. This story comes from a statement given in a formal lecture by Zen Master Wei Cheng, who said, “Thirty years ago, before I had studied Zen, I saw the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. Later, when I had personally seen a Zen teacher and had attained initiatory experience, I saw that the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers. But now that I had attained peace, I see the mountains simply as mountains, and see the rivers simply as rivers. Tell me, everyone, are these three views the same or different? If anyone can distinguish the black from the white, I will admit that you have seen me in person.”

Because this story is part of traditional Zen lore, students of later generations, including people all over the world today, have taken it as a handle on Zen study. Some people say it represents the so-called three barriers of Zen. Others say that it is necessary to reach the point at which you see that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers, and then turn around again to arrive at seeing mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers again; this they identify as the realm of great penetration and great enlightenment. In reality, these explanations are ultimately just impressionistic talk; these views may seem to be correct, but they are not.

First, it is necessary to understand clearly that this talk by Zen Master Wei-cheng is about his own personal experience in practice. When it comes to the matter of whether Master Wei-cheng had actually attained great penetration and great enlightenment himself, you first of all cannot invent some fabrication and make up a subjective determination of the issue on his behalf.

His first stage, where he says he saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers, of course, represents the state of anyone before studying the Zen Way. Everyone is like this, seeing mountains, rivers, and earth, the various humans and natural environments in the physical world clearly and distinctly; this does not require any special interpretation.

For the second stage, where he said he saw mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers, it is one hundred percent certain that this is a state achieved through the actual application of meditative concentration work. If one has genuinely practiced meditative concentration work and the method and process of cultivation realization, and if one’s inner and outer physical and mental application and conduct have not gone astray in any way, then eventually this should cause the physical and mental temperament and constitution to undergo a great change. The eyes will be full of spiritual light, the spirit will solidify, the energy will mass, and the material world seen by the eyes, the mountains, rivers, land, and so on will naturally seem as though one is in a waking dream, like images of light reflected in water. One will feel that everything in this material world is all dreamlike, illusory existence, totally unreal; and one will also see people as like mechanical robots.

Many people who reach this stage, whether they are studying Zen or practicing Taoism, thereupon assume it is the true Way, but really this sort of state has nothing to do with the Way. This happens because of long immersion of the body and mind in quiet concentration, resulting in diminution of psychological and biological instincts, and repletion with vital energy that causes the brain and nervous system to undergo a change resembling electrical charging, so one sees the phenomena before one as ephemeral and has no feeling of reality. This is similar to the scattering of vision experienced when the body is depleted and weakened after a serious illness, or when one is about to die. Of course, this phenomenon associated with sickness and dying does not itself represent the state of people practicing meditative concentration who see mountains and rivers as not being mountains and rivers: it is just a way of making a comparison. One is due to illness or dying; one arises from being filled with the living power of life; so they are not exactly the same.

But you must not forget that this kind of phenomenon is just a different sensation of the biological organs; what enables you to produce such feelings and cognition is still the function of your consciousness and thought. If you assume that seeing mountains as not being mountains and seeing rivers as not being rivers is a good phenomenon reflecting practice of Zen or Tao, that is still mediocre; if so, then you might as well take a hallucinogenic pill or a moderate dose of tranquilizers, for would that not cause a similar marvel? Can you say this is the Way?

So many people who study Zen and lecture on Zen today, both in China and the rest of the world, often bring up this issue. I cannot but add some explanation to the matter so that practitioners avoid making the mistake of entering into byways and ruining the useful physical body.

Coming to Zen Master Wei-cheng’s third stage of seeing the mountains as mountains again and seeing the rivers as rivers again represents a Zen state where he had advanced a step farther, so he said of himself that he had attained peace. If you just go by these remarks and assume that this is great penetration and great enlightenment, then you might as well relax and go to sleep, waking up to see that mountains are still mountains and rivers are still rivers. Would this not be more direct and enjoyable?

Therefore it is really not easy at all to read the classics and stories of Zen; we should not by any means become confused by fragmentary interpretations. It is essential to seek personal experience of realization; only then do you know the ultimate. If we were to take this one story, which only points to a process of practice, and augment it so that it would be perfectly complete, we would have to cite the saying of T’ang dynasty Zen Master Nan-ch’uan, “When people today see this flower, it is like a dream,” to be able to approach the final Zen work of letting go. In sum, this story only refers to the mental work involved in Zen; it is not completely relevant to the insight of enlightenment.