Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Mount Sumeru

April 1, 2015

…maybe we are simply learning to be more like the land in our sitting – to sit still as the rocks, yet humming with intrinsic awareness.

I used to think, with many koans: there’s just not enough to go on. How are we supposed to know what to make of it when it’s so spare? Surely we need to add a lot to it, to read things into it. In fact I used to wonder if the teachers were doing just that – reading too much into them. How could they know Master So-and-so meant x or y? But as practice went on and perhaps the process of kenosis continued (“emptying,” in the terminology of the Orthodox church), I began to see that in fact we didn’t need to add to the koans at all. We needed to lose things ourselves, we needed to shed layers and layers of preconceptions that we didn’t know we were carrying. Then when we were empty enough, the koan could start to shine in its primordial clarity. In fact they ceased to be separate from the immemorial radiance of all existence.

As Dogen said, “The treasure chamber opens by itself, and one uses the treasure at will.”

* * *

The morning after our recent sesshin a small team of men led by Pancho (Joshua, Charles, Tor, Luke, Josh and myself) cleared a complete path around the little Mount Fuji at Mountain Cloud down in the arroyo. Or perhaps it’s a little Mount Sumeru, the “world mountain” at the center of the universe in old Buddhist cosmology, with which Mount Kailash has sometimes been identified. Mount Sumeru seems to be a Buddhist echo of the shamanistic “world mountain” – the axis by which all realms can be accessed. (Is this so different from the “wish-fulfilling jewel” of Zen, or from the “Absolute Buddha”?)

Perhaps it’s healthy for a culture not to leave behind its autochthonous roots. Where I grew up in the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford, as kids we knew the names of the dips, dells and copses of the land nearby – names that couldn’t be found on the official Ordnance Survey maps yet which all the villagers knew. They had been passed down orally. (The Cambridge scholar and writer Robert MacFarlane recently published a book salvaging words connected with landscape, before they are lost altogether.)

Martin Prechtel (author of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar) says the human soul is intrinsically indigenous – meaning it does not exist separately from place. It is close kin to the genius loci, the “spirit of place.” It is shy of civilization. Perhaps the soul prefers the old gods of the land to the grand abstract deities of empire and civilization. It seems Zen too has favored indigenous locality – to the extent that most of the masters have come down to us as nothing more than the names of geographical features where they lived, as if their individual personalities had fully dissolved in place: Tozan, Tokusan, Isan are mountains, Hyakujo a cliff face a hundred fathoms high, and Joshu the local town.

This last sesshin was short but powerful. Maybe the land at Mountain Cloud is lending more of a hand and we are starting to feel it more. Or maybe we are simply learning to be more like the land in our sitting – to sit still as the rocks, yet humming with intrinsic awareness. But like them, whose awareness it is, or of what, we can’t ever say. We are as dumb as they are, even when we think we are speaking.

With thanks and love to all the sesshin participants, and all sangha members for their support – not forgetting the land where Mountain Cloud stands – who together made it a good retreat,


Just a reminder that there is old advice to discuss the details of our practice only with our teachers. Of course, we may naturally at times want to share aspects of it with others, but it’s best kept general – and definitely so with other sangha members. Fine to say: “I had an awful sit last night,” or “boy, sitting was interesting this morning,” but not too much more. I remember one lovely Zen monastery I used to go to on the moors of northern England (just about the only place you could find Zen in those isles back then) – a beautiful place, but the students would sometimes give one another unsolicited advice or criticism, or brag about their “spiritual accomplishments” – all of which can be just a touch nauseating, and is quite unnecessary.

Image Credit: Magical Landscape 108, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Zen Path, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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