“Before I had studied Ch’an [Zen] for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”
The typical way almost every human being goes about life is by first latching onto some arbitrary concept about identity and the nature of our appearance here (whether derived from a conditioned interpretation on experience and perception, or from various second-hand sources, such as religious dogmas or social conventions). Then we construct a personal belief system out of it, in turn bolstering that belief structure with the stamp of emotional conviction. We proceed to base our ensuing behaviors and relationships on such notions, clinging to them as a raft in the sea of chaos that this world often seems to be.
In reality, all manifestation is conceptual. The most popular concepts we tend to cling to are related to the existence of a personal self, other persons/selves, and some sort of Cosmic Self/God. One’s own personhood, that of other beings, and even that of God are seen as fixed and solid entities in and of themselves. Once convicted of these concepts, it is very rare to question or investigate them to find out if they are actually true. It is generally too disturbing to go against the flow of cultural and consensus belief systems, because to do so plunges one into doubt, uncertainty, and even potential ostracism from the local herd.
The mountains must be mountains, and the rivers must be rivers.
For those who do make the effort to inspect these prevalent concepts that tend to rule and define the usual individual, they may come to recognize their inherent emptiness. That is, these so-called selves or Self are not the names we apply to them, but rather are mental fabrications, made up of other elements that are also empty of any inherent existence. As such, they are inevitably seen to be mere conditional and conditioned fantasies of interpretation on perception.
It doesn’t mean that the subjects and objects of perception don’t exist, but simply that the beliefs, names, and labels that we superimpose on our sensory contacts are no more than conceptual designations. Moreover, the stress and dissatisfaction in our lives is primarily due to this habit of clinging to fixed beliefs about the nature of appearances, including our own.
As it is, the mountains are not really mountains, nor are the rivers actually rivers.
Even in such recognition, however, there still persists the tendency to linger in the realm of conceptuality by attaching to a subsequent belief in the non-existence of one’s own selfhood, other living beings/selves, or a Universal Supreme Being-type Self. For those who would realize true liberation, however, the only resort is to see through and surrender any and all positions, letting go of every conceptual obscuration that separates one from the reality of “what is”.
Labels such as “self” or “non-self” are no longer really applicable. They are artificial superimpositions on our own true nature, and the true nature of all phenomena. That’s all part of the business of knowing, of certainty, and so the wise close down that shop in exchange for the limitless freedom, spontaneity, and spaciousness of the Unknown.
Having recognized the provisional nature of all concepts, we can play with them or discard them, as circumstances and conditions may warrant. The key is refraining from attachment, or fixation, on any idea or mental creation. In that way, everything can present itself as fresh and new — as it is — unencumbered by our projections and conditioned notions.
Mountains are indeed mountains, and rivers are rivers.
“The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form. Real form is all dharmas. All dharmas are forms as they are, natures as they are, body as it is, the mind as it is, the world as it is, clouds and rain as they are, walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, as they are; sorrow and joy, movement and stillness, as they are; a staff and a whisk, as they are; a twirling flower and a smiling face, as they are. . . the constancy of pines and the integrity of bamboos, as they are.”