A famous, historical Zen teacher named Qingyuan Weixin had a saying…
At the first level on the path he saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.
On the second level of the path he saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.
And at a third level he saw once again mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.
The singer Donovan Leitch was inspired by this story when he wrote the song “There is a Mountain,” with the seemingly nonsensical lyric, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”
It seems like such a profound thing to say.
I think the first stage, when mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, is the beginning of our practice; when we’ve started the journey to self-transformation. There are teachers to learn from and things to be learned—there is a mountain to climb.
Second, when mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers, is when we start to see things as they really are; when we start to see our true nature.
We see everything is made up of other things, nothing exists on its own. Those mountains are made up of rocks and trees and grass and so many other things. Everything is connected to everything else. When we become conscious that this applies to ourselves too, it is very important. We live in the delusion: we are separate from the world around us. This delusion causes us to suffer and has stopped us from understanding.
When we come to realize the oneness of things, we comprehend that we are Enlightened, and we have been the whole time.
It’s at the third stage, when mountains are once again mountains and rivers are once again rivers, that we really understand; we reconcile the paradox. This is where we learn to dwell in both the transcendent reality and the immanent one.
First stage our feet are firmly planted on the ground. Second stage we have our heads in the clouds. Third stage we learn how to do both.
This represents understanding, as the Heart Sutra says, “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.” When we have key insights into the nature of reality, we dwell in the world of Emptiness and the world of Form. We come to realize the truth, we’ve been doing that the whole time.