Mountain, without & within

The physical fields of great austerities have been the desert and the mountains. Both physical contexts remove society and the ego but in different ways, through different metaphors, so to speak. The desert as physical emptiness, associated with dryness, heat, thirst, overbearing brightness, horizonalism, sparsity of living beings. Mountains connote coldness, snow, water, darkness, verticality, a profusion of living beings on the scale of ascent. Neither setting is habitable to the average person. Both represent metaphors of emptiness, forms of transcendence. Both settings have presented their near-inhabitants with religious and spiritual settings for austerities.

Shugendo is the Japanese asceticism of mountains, derived in part from Shinto’s assignment of sacred places in nature, with the mountain as dwelling of spiritual beings, plus the image of transcendence. Shugenda evolved from a mingling of Shinto and esoteric Buddhism, plus a degree of philosophical Taoism. As with Tibetan Buddhism, mountain life conjures a special relationship to natural objects and spirits, as if the heights and the separation from the valleys and flat lands below automatically elevates the person to a new level of spiritual aspiration.

Because of the physical austerities of mountain life, and the disciplinary practices equated to martial training, those who sought out its rigors in Japan were attracted to the warrior life: yamabushi and samuri. While desert hermits have used the vocabulary of combat against demons, their discipline is largely a mental exercise that then overcomes physical pain or discomfort.

In contrast, mountain asceticism in Japan extended to a whole class of male adventurers, soldiers, penitents, and strength-builders not necessarily imbued by religion — or, rather, carving out a martial religiosity akin to eternal combat against a panoply of gods and demons. Such is the evolution of many natural disciplines in East Asia.

The physical austerities may have come first, evolving into sedentary mental exercises later. For example, hatha yoga, the discipline of India’s Brahmins, the religious elite of Hinduism, may have preceded mental and philosophical training paralleling, supplementing, or even coming later. Until this evolution, ritual and mythology would substitute for philosophy and spirituality.

Another example is the evolution of Qigong into Tai chi chuan and on into advanced martial arts specialties. (There is no equivalent in the West. The Greek Olympics did not engender the later schools of philosophy.) An evolved Shintoism redirected martial impulses to a contemplation of nature: trees, rivers, mountains. An evolved Buddhism (Tendai, Shingon) redirected these impulses to discipline, transcendence, a denial of ego. The resulting Shugendo has remained the preserve of male asceticism, with a great deal of ritualism and a minimal emphasis on intellectualism.

Shugendo is dominated by the image of Enno Gyoja, a 7th century historical figure whom legend transformed into a “founder.” The very name means “En the ascetic.” According to legend, Enno was exiled for trespassing on a mountain in order to pursue religious practice, but every night he flew to the favored mountain, defying his exile. Enno is closely associated, at least by the 19th century artist Hokusai, with the sacred Mount Fuji, appearing as its patron in the artist’s renowned “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji.

Enno Gyoja Opens Mt. Fuji
"Enno Gyoja Opens Mt. Fuji"

In Hokusai’s modern but spiritualized portrait, Enno Gyoja is depicted as a powerful and self-disciplined man, a capable ascetic, neither god nor warrior, a hermit or holy man renouncing the world and probably any pretensions to supernatural powers. Without the legendary material surrounding the Shugendo founder, however, perhaps the mountains would not have attracted what the scholar Paul Swanson has enumerated as “ascetics, including unofficial monks, peripatetic holy men (hijiri), pilgrimage guides, blink musicians, exorcists, hermits, diviners, and wandering holy men.”

Desert, without & within

The early Christian desert hermits said very little about the desert as geography or physical locale. The physical context of solitude and a sense of the absolute described briefly by writer Paul Bowles (previous entry) is the setting, but the setting is seldom discussed or described by them. Rather, the desert setting establishes the maximum psychological parameters of the human mind and soul, beyond which there is no further going, an infinite presentation into which all finds its place but which restlessly continues onward and inward. Thus the hermit Macarius, called the Great, one day tells his brothers to flee. “Where could we flee beyond this desert?” they ask. “Macarius put his fingers to his lips and said, ‘Flee that,’ and he went into his cell, shut the door and sat down.” For the vast infinitude of the desert is but a microcosm of the hermit’s cell.

Desert spirituality is well explained by Belden Lane in his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, reviewed here. As he puts it:

Why do people choose to live in such a landscape, poised, as it is, on the edge of nothingness? “Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity,” says Ed Abbey. It touches our extremities. The desert fathers and mothers chose their barren locale because its values matched their own. They, too, opted to thrive on the boundary where life and death meet, living as simply as possible, with as few words as necessary, separated from the fragile anxieties of the world they had left behind.

Thus the true hermit understands that the emptying of self must resemble the earth’s emptying of itself. The choices of desert and mountain examined by Lane differ both in quality and style. Historically, mountains have represented the dwelling-places of gods and enlightened beings, while deserts have been depicted as the dwelling places of demons and malevolent spirits. Perhaps they represent the psychology of Frost’s famous little poem:

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Here the fire and ice are within, just as the desert and mountain must be. But Frost sees both as inevitable extremes in human beings, with ice as coldness and hatred, with fire as war and destruction. These emotional opposites at play within the human mind are both destructive. Yet at the same time, they destroy one another if the mind simply watches, allows them to pass, to disintegrate for lack of an anchoring place. The mind must let go of desires, emotions, entanglements. This will happen when we “perish twice,” when we end both and come into being with a receptive and solitary heart. It is then that the desert and mountain compliment our inner being. Until then, both places seem forbidding, and indeed are destructive and intolerant of human life.

If the desert is the test of physical and psychological tenacity, then old age and death test psychological and spiritual tenacity. Old age and infirmity haunts everyone, including the hermit. Old age is not merely the transition to death but the end of autonomy. Physical and spiritual liberty is found in the desert, the silence and solitude of desert life, the life one carries about within oneself every moment. Desert life (the inner desert) envelopes and nurtures the mind and heart. Everything else is the world. Can we carry our desert into that final house of physical dependency and personal loss?

In the case of the ancient desert hermit, who was to pass his last days with monks, he grieved nevertheless for the lost days of inner life dissipated by even the presence of others. How much more so the modern hermit can expect the faceless treatment of bureaucracy and of the well-intentioned — or the less so. The infinity of the desert carried within the self is, like the natural desert, a fragile environment honed over much time.

When a certain elder had to leave the desert for the city because of his infirmity and age, a visitor saw him and asked why he grieved. “What would you do in the desert, now that you are so old?” The old man looked at him and pondered sorrowfully. “Was not the mere liberty of my soul enough for me in the desert?”

The Vitam Patrum records another passage about the physical desert. This passage, like the anecdotes above, quickly translate the physical desert into the state of solitude and equanimity constantly nurtured in the self. And it accepts the challenge of death.

There is another place in the inner desert …. To this spot those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbour, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them. Only on the Saturday and on the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven. If by chance any one is missing in that gathering, straightway they understand he has been detained by some unevenness of his body, and they all go to visit him, not indeed all of them together but at different times and each carrying with him whatever he may have by him at home that might seem grateful to the sick. But for no other use dare any disturb the silence of his neighbor …

So the cell modeled the desert for not only the hermit in his tiny dwelling, but later for the monks who sought in vain to adequately reproduce this desert in a communitarian setting. The lifeline of community in the like-minded hermits was undoubtedly precious to each of them, though we have stories of hermits dying alone. So the hermits developed a kind and circumscribed routine of taking care of one another, of setting a day when each would appear not for social conviviality but for the higher liturgy that merely served as a social device for confirming one another’s physical needs. This model was reproduced among the Carthusians, and every order calling itself a hermit order in the West. In the east, the hermit would more likely disappear into forest or mountain (as prescribed in Hindu asrama, for example), there to be delivered to whatever fate was wisest. But the East Asian examples in the Japanese Buddhist hijiri and wanderers requires an essay of its own.

So the Christian desert hermits developed a silent and tacit system of checking upon one another. But even then, it was met with a mix of relief andreluctance. This was the constant psychological dilemma of, for example, the French hermit Charles de Foucauld, revolving around the extreme desire of solitude.

In some ways, the issue of solitude versus helo will resonate with hermits of any age or state of health. Even when put in spiritual terms, though, the psychological simmers somewhere below, in the subconscious. When the abbot Marcus visited Arsenius, Arsensius was not pleased. Marcus said to Arsenius: “Why do you flee from us?” The old man replied: “God knows I love you, but I cannot be with both God and men.”

Baptism of solitude

American expatriate writer and composer Paul Bowles (1910-1999) once wrote a little travel essay titled “Baptism of Solitude.” The essay describes what he tells us the French call le bapteme de la solitude, referring to the unique sensation of encountering the desert, specifically the Sahara Desert, whether for the “first or the tenth time.” The essay opens:

Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns, and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resembling the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway.

The absence of sound, which is silence, is only part of a natural component of solitude.

Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape.

Bowles describes the sky at night, which though filled with stars is never quite dark but “an intense and burning blue.” And there is nothing else, especially leaving the town, the camels, and going up into the dunes, or out on a stone ledge, leaving everything behind. The peculiar sensation — if the viewer does not rush back inside — is a desire to linger, to stay.

It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.

The rest of the essay goes on to describe the social life of Arabs, Touaregs, Sudanese and Mauritanian blacks, and the French in the Sahara before Algeria independence. Bowles describes the wonderful oases and their verdant orchards and grainfields, the extremes of day and night temperatures, the rare but turbulent rainfalls, the effect of the desert on the White Fathers — the religious order of missionaries who ended up acquiring “a certain healthy and unorthodox fatalism.” The essay is a consummate piece of travel literature.

“Baptism of Solitude” does not pursue the historical meaning of the desert. It is an introduction for moderns and Westerners, but anyone acquainted with the early Christian desert hermits will fill in the psychological side that Bowles’ descriptive and suggestive essay begins to describe. He comes to the edge of this vast topic of desert solitude, of the absoluteness it represents, aware that his reader can only come so far with him. So Bowles concludes about what going to the desert ought to suggest to a modern-minded person.

Perhaps the logical question to ask at this point is: Why go? The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort and money, for the absolute has no price.

Bowles recorded a reading of this essay in 1994 at his home in Tangiers. The sense of Bowles’ essay and spoken words are imaginatively captured by a 2000 short graphic film “Baptism Of Solitude: A Tribute To Paul Bowles” by Tonya Hurley, available on YouTube.

from Baptism of Solitude: A Tribute to Paul Bowles
from "Baptism of Solitude: A Tribute to Paul Bowles"

Planting fields, eating rice

A famous koan of The Book of Serenity titled “Dizang Planting the Fields” is prefaced by this setting: the 9th century Chan master Guichen, called “Dizang” because he resided at the Dizang temple once for a little while, is visited by Xiushan, Fayan, and others, who are traveling from the south but whose journey is interrupted by rain, snow, and overflowing streams. They stop at Dizang’s temple. They sit about the brazier, ignoring master Dizang.

Dizang draws closer and says quietly: “May I ask something?” Xiushan looks up and says yes. Dizang asks, “Are the mountains, rivers, and earth identical or separate from your elders?”

Xiushan replies to Dizang, with a tentative voice or perhaps a self-assured one: “Separate.” Dizang holds up two fingers. “Identical! Identical!” Xiushan blurts out. Dizang holds up two fingers again. Then he gets up and leaves.

Once out of earshot, Fayan asks Xiushan what is the meaning of the two fingers. Xiushan replies cooly that Dizang did it artibrarily. It has no meaning. “Don’t insult him,” says Fayan. “Bah,” says Xiushan, “are there elephant’s tusks in a rat’s mouth?”

The next day, the visitors leave, but Fayan tells Xiushan that he is going to stay, that he will catch up with the others if he decides otherwise. But Fayan stays a long time.

This is only the preface to the story, but the personalities are already clearly delineated for what follows. Fayan studied with Dizang a long time. It happened that Xiushan and the others came to Dizang’s temple again. We can imagine the same setting, sitting around the brazier. Dizang speaks first, again.

“You are from the South?” “Yes.” “How is Buddhism in the South these days?” Xiushan replies “There’s a lot of discussion going on.” Dizang asks, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and eating rice?”

What Dizang intends by the question about Buddhism in the south is to confirm that Xiushan now understood what he did not before, that now he could speak for himself. But instead Xiushan boasted of the busy debate and scholarship going on there, presumably including himself as part of it.

Next Dizang wanted to reveal the nature of all this vain discussion in the south, to at least hear a defense of it, and so refers to his own meagre efforts, his diurnal planting of the fields, which is both figurative and literal. It is to him the essence of practice, in contrast to discussion.

But Xiushan does not accept what Dizang does, and replies, “How about the world?” In other words, Xiushan dismisses Dizang’s activity as the heart of Buddhism and practice. He scorns it as something primitive in contrast to the discussion going on in the south, and by extension in the civilized world. Is this what you are doing while the world does important things? Xiushan suggests.

Dizang responds, “What do you call the world?” How does Xiushan define the “world”? Is it larger, better, deeper, than simply planting the fields and eating its yield? Dizang might have given up on Xiushan’s badgering train of talk and simply said something to the effect that, well, that’s what I do here; it doesn’t matter. Xiushan would not catch on either way.

Most commentary on this story concentrates on the distinction between discussion (communion of speech) and practice (communion with the source). From there the various stages of enlightenment in the Chan/Zen tradition may be discussed, or the use of scriptures and sutras versus meditation. But all this, too, would consist of discussion. The very institution of temples and monasteries, as in the West, eventually led to the creation of a class of meditators and a class of workers, with the latter indoors and performing minimal labor, a severe dichotomy.

But the story of Dizang points directly to the essence of practice as found in the hermits of antiquity. The Commentary in The Book of Serenity:

Even though planting the fields and making rice is ordinary, unless you investigate to the full you don’t know their import. The ancients would reap and boil chestnuts and rice at the edge of a hoe, in a broken-legged pot, deep in the mountains — their fortune was no more than contentment; all their lives they never sought from anyone. Their nobility was no more than purity and serenity — what need for bushels of emblems? … It’s not necessary to open a hall and expound the teachings as in the South. Leave the clamor …