When a Mountain is No Longer a Mountain

Many years ago I ran across the koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
Once you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain

While my memory has no doubt mangled the wording, the sentiment has long since stuck with me. Like many koans it makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense. It needs no explanation, yet could never be explained.

And perhaps my gaikokujin sensibilities distort the saying’s true meaning, but I would interpret that particular koan as something like this –

If life makes sense, you are not thinking hard enough. If you are looking to truly understand the world, you never will. All that’s left is to embrace that you know nothing, and to find the knowledge in that.

I’ve never had a the privilege to formally study Zen, but I read much of it’s works in this spirit. Koans are intentionally nonsensical.

As I child I would assure myself that somehow they did make sense, that I could see their deeper meaning. But that is indeed a simplistic, childlike view. Koans make no sense and you can only understand them by embracing that they make no sense.

And that may seem a futile exercise, but life is a futile exercise. And life makes no sense until you embrace the that it makes no sense.

In the West we call this the absurd – another apt description of existence. As Camus describes:

At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of [man’s] gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea,” as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.

In the West we have fought against the absurd. We have called it nausea and godlessness and feared the immorality and unreason that would tumble down upon us if we admitted the existence of the absurd.

Those writers and thinkers who have embraced this approach are often seen as dark figures who stare into the abyss and scorn all that is Good.

And perhaps they are.

But a mountain is no longer a mountain, and it is only by embracing that, by embracing the absurd, that a mountain can become a mountain again.

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