'Since the virtues of the mountain are high and broad, the spiritual power to ride the clouds is always mastered from the mountains, and the marvelous ability to follow the wind is inevitably liberated from the mountains.' Dōgen 1200-1253
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21th April, 2021
In the last year of Shitao's life, he painted 'Riding the Clouds.' Most likely this is Mount Huang with peaks more that 3,250 feet high and the Xin'an River below with its headwaters in the Yellow Mountains. Here the clouds appear above the mountain peaks and swirl beyond the ridge line with the river flowing below. The painting feels mysterious and magical. There is little empty space; our eye is drawn to the interior landscape where someone on horseback is riding the boundless blanket of clouds. Her body similar in texture and color to the mountain landscape; it feels like she is riding on water. Beginning to reread Dogen's Mountains and Waters Sutra, I remembered seeing this painting. They seem to go hand in hand, compliment each other, and both speaking an eternal language. Dogen’s words aren't about mountains and rivers, they are mountains, rivers, clouds, horse, pines, the wind. Shitao’s life, beleaguered with unbearable difficulties, speaks a language that knits together with Dogen's writing-a life practice of paintings, calligraphy and poetry.
Perhaps it’s a good time to ask—Where is the mountain? Who travels the clouds? Last fall when climbing the steep peak at Boundary Creek in Stanley, Idaho and reaching a height at which I could no longer go beyond, I looked out across the valley toward the Sawtooth Range and said, ‘There are the mountains.’ Now I’m reminded of a passage in John Daido Loori’s book, The Way of Mountains and Rivers. Someone exclaimed, ‘Oh, there’s the mountain!’ Daido Roshi said, ‘That’s not the mountain.’ From the misty vista, there I was, riding the clouds, following the wind, and going everywhere. At this moment, the clouds and waters are manifesting the great way, the Tao; we are mountains and rivers.
bowing from Idaho,
Reminiscences of Nanjing: Riding the Clouds by Stone Wanderer(1642-1707)| Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Galler
Entangling Vines, Case 143 Xutang’s Three Questions. No. 1 “How can an unenlightened person put on clothes made of emptiness?”
Thomas Yūhō Kirchner, Kindle Edition, 2013.
17th March, 2021
When Xutang Zhiju was at ‘flying peak’ he presented three questions. Here is the first gate—“How can an unenlightened person put on clothes made of emptiness?” There is a myth that this peak is actually ‘Vulture Peak’ and that it flew to Lingyin overnight through darkness, suddenly appearing amongst the surrounding mountains. Within the central cave, there is an opening that reaches upwards where one can see the ‘one thread of heaven,’ a sliver of light. Here in this painting, she stands atop a ridge in simple clothes with a staff in hand.
After reading David Hinton’s Existence A Story, I began combing through collections of Shitao's paintings and found this painting along with a translation of the poem. It is astonishingly similar to Hinton’s exquisite story of Shih Tao’s Broad-Distance Pavillion. Here someone stands gazing out into what feels like eternity. Here too she appears to be standing on a peak far above the clouds. Could these be the clothes of emptiness-‘white clouds sash-like wrap mountain waists, as the volcanic bedrock flies in space?’ The words are so delicious, I read them again and again and recall my time in northern Idaho this past fall.
Standing on a not so high peak with Boundary Creek below, I could see in the distance, the craggy ridges of the Sawtooth Range and in the foreground Red Fish Lakes, big and small. I wonder, how does one put on clothes made of boundlessness. The journey downward seemed more difficult than I realized. Good to have my staff in hand and sturdy boots. Hearing Boundary Creek, whistling a poem, I pulled up the collar of my sweater and donned my weathered gloves for the descent.
bows from Idaho,
26th February, 2021
Heading out on State Highway 75S, there is an old, weathered sign; it sits on the side of the road, thrust in the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness. After stopping the car, I get out and look across the meadow wondering if I can see the river’s source—a streamlet or brook. I hear burbling amongst the artemisia tridentata. What about this ‘thing’ I just don’t understand? What’s it like being where you are sitting without explanations. This may be a time to check out our staying power.
When we inquire, we might find that the question is made for us. What if all of this is part of the journey. Where you are right now, can you sense yourself being breathed and feeling your feet on the earth. There’s a part of you, that knows how to be at ease, here, hearing the sounds that make this place. All of this is yours. The watershed meanders into tiny rivulets combining to form the River of No Return. Stream beds hold minerals and nutrients from the ocean brought by salmon. From their fragile life everything is connected to the meadow. The creatures that eat the fish, deposit the nutrients in the forests and a cascade of Douglas fir, big sage brush, walleye, and pronghorn deer emerge out of what Hinton calls the ‘single generative existence tissue,’ the Tao. Here the meadow explains nothing and further north the river dances a solo through the ‘wild’ of mountains, meadows, and rivers.
Before leaving to head south through the White Cloud Mountains, I turn round and round. There is a feeling of belonging, a tenderness when I’m here in mountain landscape. Every place has a sound and within the silence, ‘absence.’ As I’m leaving, I let in what I don’t know, don’t need to know, and hear the headwaters whisper through me, ‘here she calls her name, Salmon River.’