First There is a Mountain…

river and mountains

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.

Diamond Sutra, Chapter 9

Buddha then asked, “Does someone who has started the path, a Stream-Enterer, say ‘I have entered the stream’?”
“No,”, Subhuti replied. “A true disciple entering the stream would not think of themselves as an individual that could be entering anything. Only that disciple who can themselves from others and others in themselves can truly be called a Stream-Enterer.”
Buddha continued, “Does a disciple who is at the second stage, a once-returner, say, ‘I am entitled to the rewards of a Once-Returner.’?”
“No. ‘Once-Returner’ is only a name. There is no passing away, or coming into, existence. Only one who realizes this can really be called a Once-Returner.”
“Subhuti, does a venerable One who will never more be reborn, a Non-Returner say to himself, ‘I am entitled to the rewards of a Non-returner.’?”
“No. A ‘Non-returner’ is merely a name. There is actually no one returning and no one not-returning.”
“Does a Buddha say to himself, ‘I have obtained Enlightenment.’?”
“No. There is no such thing as Perfect Enlightenment to obtain. If a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha were to say to himself, ‘I am enlightened’ he would be admitting there is an individual person. Enlightenment consists fo transcending the Self and realizing that individuality is an illusion.”
Subhuti then said, “You have said that I, Subhuti, excel among your disciples in knowing the bliss of Enlightenment. But I do not say to myself that I am so, for if I ever thought of myself as such then it would not be true that I escaped ego delusion. I know that in truth there is no Subhuti and so Subhuti abides nowhere.”

The Buddha is essentially saying that if we go around saying, “I am Enlightened,” it probably isn’t true. Stream-enterer and the other are considered the levels of Enlightenment. In Ch’an Buddhism Enlightenment is divided into stages that the practitioner enters over time. These stages are described as: Stream Enterer, Once-returner, Non-returner, and Arhat.