The following discourse is attributed to the Chinese Zen master Ch'ing yuan Wei-hsin of the T'ang Dynasty and provides a window into the understanding of Zen:

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, 'Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.' After I got insight into the truth of Zen through the instructions of a good master, I said, 'Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.' But now, having attained the abode of final rest, (that is, Enlightenment) I say, 'Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.'

He then asks:

'Are the three understandings the same or different?'

Over and over in Zen and Buddhism something like 'All is illusion' or 'The world is delusion' is presented. The problem with such understandings if presented as being true or otherwise representitive of reality, absolute or otherwise in the final sense, is that any and all persons presenting the statement and any and all persons recieving the statement would be themselves immersed products in that self-same illusion or delusion. Offering or making decisions on anything at all from that illusional or delusional position would be questionable, inturn totally undermining any credibility on such a statement, understanding, or belief.

Saying 'All is delusion' or 'The world is delusion' is by implication saying illusion/delusion IS, that is, that it exists, that it has it's own independent existence, existing independently without need. Dependent Origination on the other hand, implies there can be absolutely nothing whatsoever that is real or eternal behind this actual world and beyond the interdependence of everything. Because of that interdependence all that exists is inherently empty. It can be argued on the conventional level there is causation that could or would back up illusion/delusion, but because causation has no inherent existence either, neither then could or would illusion/delusion. To perceive that causation DOES have inherent existence is what is called ignorance. Perceiving that LACK of causation in inherent existence is wisdom.

Almost everybody that reads a little about Zen starts thinking that NOTHING exists because everything is inherently empty, so what we perceive as reality must be delusion. But emptiness is the absence of independent existence. What that means is SOMETHING must exist and one of the qualifications of that existence is emptiness...the absence of independent existence is only possible because there is SOMETHING that exists...otherwise there would be no 'need' for the absence of independent existence, and if there was no absence of independent existence, then everything would not be empty.

Wei-hsin's the mountains are mountains, waters are waters discourse, to the uninitiated and many others perhaps, seems to outline a definitive lineral progression, step-by-step process or series of stages approach toward the enlightenment/awakening experience. However it is more of a presentation of language problem than a Zen problem. The discourse is simply layed out in such a fashion that it is comprehensible in the written or spoken word. The 'steps' or 'stages' are presented in such a fashion that linguistically through the way words are used, that steps seem to be indicated, when in reality the steps do not exist as steps per se'. The 'third step' may transpire simutananeously with the 'second step' and the third and final step includes the first and second step, for example. It is extremely rare in Zen that such a step-by-step discourse is layed out so clearly for both the Zen adept and the novice to experience. That said, for our purposes here the term 'steps' will be used......

The 'first step' then, is before Wei-hsin studied or practiced Zen. The 'second step' after he studied and came to a certain insight. The 'third step' equals Satori.

In the first 'mountains are mountains, waters are waters' step Wei-hsin and the mountains are two, he is separtating himself from the mountains, the mountains are over there, he is over here. He is differentiating between himself and the mountains, setting up the classical subject (him) / object (the mountains) split, typical dualism of the everyday, conventional Samsara world.

In the second 'mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters' step there is a 'not this, not that" negation from the understanding of the first step. The conceptual distinction, or differentiation, of the mountains, waters, self, and others disappears. However, in the process, a higher level differentation is implied. In other words there becomes a differentation between the type of differentation of the first step and the 'disappeared differentation' or 'no differentation' of the second step. Just as the first step differentation was negated, the implied higher level differentation of the second step must also be negated in order to realize ultimate reality. When that happens there is a break through to the third step...the classic Zen bottom of the bucket break through, known in Zen lore as Smashing the Black Lacquer Barrel in an AN UNIMPEDED INTERDIFFUSION OF ALL PARTICULARS. Here 'mountains are really mountains', no more, no less; 'waters are really waters,' no more, no less. What happens is a negation of negation which is nothing less than an affirmation, albeit not in the relative sense but in the absolute sense. There is NO illusion/delusion, and although all remains truly unnamed in the greater realm of undifferentiated reality, the mountains are REALLY mountains, the waters are REALLY waters. That is why a Zen adept needs to breath air, drink when thirsty, eat when hungry, rest when tired, and put on extra flannel when cold (source).

See also:

  1. ALL IS ILLUSION? A Chinese-Indian Dichotomy In Advaita and Zen

  2. Stop the Distant Rowboat Using Just Your Mind

  3. No Ducks

  4. Nagarjuna I

  5. Nagarjuna II

In Zen lore Pai-chang Huae-hai (724-814) was a great Zen master. Prior to his awakening experience he was a student of the also great Zen master Ma-tsu Ta-chi (709-788). One day while Pai-chang was still his student the two were out walking together and saw in the sky a formation of wild ducks. Ma-tsu asked, "What is that?" Pai-chang said, "Wild ducks." Ma-tsu said, "Where have they gone?" Pai-chang replied, "They have flown away." Ma-tsu then twisted Pai-chang's nose, of from which Pai-chang cried out in pain. Ma-tsu said, "When have they ever flown away, they have been here since the beginning."


Any diligent student of Eastern spirituality will have penetrated beyond the populist conception of the mystic's 'union with the world' as a hazy dissolution of all oppositions and distinctions; rather, it entails a positive affirmation of differences within the holistic process of the world. The unity of the Taoist yin-yang symbol does not dissolve the complementary difference between these two entwining energies. Buddhism, too, recognizes the reality of division. Here is the JIJIMUGE doctrine of the Kegon School of Japanese Buddhism:

"All things are one and have no life apart from it; the One is all things and is incomplete without the least of them. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it; they are interfused with Reality while retaining the full identity of the part, and the One is no less One for the fact that it is a million-million parts."

Dualism is not overcome by its abolition, but through its acceptance and transcendence. The paradox is that all 'things' are at the same time themselves and part of an indivisible continuum. Likewise, different as they may be, dark and light, pain and pleasure, may not be separated. If we wish to experience more of one, we must embrace more of the other.(source)

Zen adept Te Shan burnt all his commentaries and books on Zen within hours of his awakening to the truth. Zen master Mu-nan gave Shoju his sacred book on Zen that had been passed down through seven generations of masters. Shoju threw it into burning coals. Why would either do such a thing? See:


It is often said that when you truly need a teacher --- or that which will function in lieu of a teacher --- one (or it) will appear. This may due to some inexplicable serendipity. It may be due to the fact that the seeker has searched deeply within himself or herself and determined what sort of instruction seems to be required. It could be swept over him or her like the First Death Experience of the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, or the Bhagavan's little known Second Death Experience. Or it could be a spiritual desperation on the part of the seeker, or maybe no more than a successful sales pitch by a teacher (sincere or not). It may be a combination of the previous factors, or some intuitive awareness beyond expression. For whatever the reason, the saying often applies and the coming together of the results of inner and outside forces, some within one's control, some without, can be found most eloquently as they all come together in the following:


It should be noted that Adam Osborne, who, as a young boy grew up at the Ramana ashram and the son of one of the foremost Ramana biographers Arthur Osborne, played a prominent role in the Last American Darshan as linked above.

Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.



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