By Rev. Doyeon Park – This article was originally appeared on Lion’s Roar in 2018.
There is a popular saying in Zen Buddhism:
Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters;
After one gains insight through the teachings of a master, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters;
After enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters are waters.
Before we begin dharma study and practice, we see mountains as mountains and waters as waters. This represents our ordinary standpoint of how we see things in life. At this stage, we see everything as a fixed and separate entity, as it appears to be. With this understanding, when things change, we easily become confused, annoyed or frustrated. Here, we often put things onto one of two sides: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them: so-called dualistic thinking. Our society also presents things from these two opposite angles and we are expected to stand in one or the other. Of course, ‘my/our side’ is always good and right, and therefore ‘your/their’ side is evil and wrong. In this dualistic mind, when there are things we like, craving and attachment arise; when there are things we don’t like, fear and hatred arise. Knowing the dangers of this dualistic way of thinking, many dharma teachers emphasize breaking out of this black and white thinking, and “us versus them” mentality.
As we gain insight from dharma study and practice, we see that mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters. This means that now we are able to see how everything is actually made up of other things, nothing exists on its own; all things exist in relation to one another. We now have the understanding that things are changing and transient. This realization of the nature of interconnectedness and impermanence is critical in our dharma practice, as it is the source of infinite wisdom and compassion. But without proper reflection and guidance, we can easily fall into misunderstanding that mountains and waters don’t exist, which can lead us to the point where we don’t care about anything at all. Buddhist practice, at least from my understanding, is about bringing more wisdom and compassion into the world, not about denying or neglecting the world we are living in.
It is at the third stage, when mountains are once again mountains and waters are once again waters that we truly understand things as they are. My teacher has often asked me how different these mountains are from those of the first stage. It may seem like the same mountains. The difference is not in the mountains, but in the way we see them. It’s been my experience that when I see things through the eyes of the dharma, I find much deeper connection and understanding, and this usually enables me to be more patient, loving and compassionate.
We can see the mountains from the first stage as a reference to conventional truth, while the mountains of the second are a reference to ultimate truth. At the end, the third mountains are a reference to the Middle Way, which is being caught neither in conventional nor ultimate truth. In our everyday life, we need to distinguish between what is wholesome and beneficial, and what is not, so that we take actions that bring love and compassion for the sake of all beings.