Three Mountain Poems


Dear Friends,

It’s the time of year when Plum Village closes down completely for a period of ten lazy days. After a wonderful, if busy, period it’s time for the monastics to be really, truly, deeply, lazy. Some of us will stay here and amble about or enjoy a solo retreat. Others will go together to the sea or to the mountains to swim and hike in a very, lazy fashion. In celebration of this, here is an article by Brother Phap Bieu about mountains. We hope you enjoy it.

The Plum Village Website Team

We often say that the Dharma is indescribable and yet we spend most of our time trying to understand its words and concepts. Sometimes we try really hard, and upon failing to grasp the complete meaning of the teachings, we become frustrated and disheartened: That moment of discouragement could be the moment we are closest to a breakthrough. We might even be just one smile away from what we have been searching for all along. The words we use to convey the teachings are capable of setting us in the right direction, but if we are not careful they might very quickly become like a thick raincoat, that prevents us from absorbing the teachings, from being soaked in the Dharma rain.

Perhaps this is the reason Zen teachers have often taught their students through poetry rather that rock-solid dialectics. Poetry uses words in order to aim at something beyond language. Words and concepts are meant to categorize, discriminate and enclose our reality in nice little boxes, for the mere sake of tidiness. A true meditator knows that reality cannot be as tidy as we want it to be, and that true beauty lies in the organic and messy nature of everything that exists. A good poem helps us to break out from the limitations of language, and this is why it does not need to make sense. It might be illogical, strange and unexplainable, and yet it still gives us a taste of the experience of the author.

Experience is the essence of all spiritual disciplines, but it is never what we expect it to be. It is often contradictory and cannot be conveyed by conventional language, so what is the point in trying to grasp it with reason? Maybe we would be better off being unreasonable and allow ourselves to simply waste time together, writing and sharing poems about life. I have the feeling that once the burden of reason is dropped nothing else can tie us to the ground.

The three following poems were composed by Master Hám Sơn (Zh. Hanshan, 憨山老人, 1546-1623), who was one of the most influential monks of the Ming dynasty era in China. He had a profound passion for poetry and left behind hundreds of poems. He spent his life between practicing deep meditation amongst remote snowy mountains, and social engagement in the great capitals of China. These three poems paint pictures of his life as a hermit. The explanations that I have added make no sense, so there is no point in trying to understand them. I wrote them to challenge myself and to engage in a sort of dance with Master Hám Sơn, and although my steps are so much more clumsy, it brought me great joy.

Still Lake and the cold soaks its water-lily garment
Over the lake, the mountain is far from right and wrong
Here all dusty footprints end, distant is the world of men
No special reason is seen in white clouds and gulls

The mountain is far from right and wrong

I often remember the days I spent in the Pyrenees with my brothers, amongst the white clouds and mountain peaks. Once you climb past the altitude where the trees stop growing you are welcomed by a strange and fascinating environment. Up there the air is pure, and the lakes are so deep blue that it makes you wonder if they might be filled with ink. Rocky cliffs tower on top of slopes covered with a very tenacious kind of grass. At first sight it looks really soft, but as you sit, it pierces through your clothes and skin, making you jump straight up again. Sometimes a cloud suddenly envelops the mountain and as it passes by it leaves a myriad of small droplets of moisture on the grass, and when the sun returns, you find yourself on the jewelled peak of the Lotus Sutra.

The environment is so impressive that you almost feel guilty to have peace in your heart. Confronted with such a sight it would make more sense to scream, tear all your clothes apart and jump from an overhanging cliff, to fly free toward the infinite. All you end up doing is smiling gently and walking past. Isn’t that what the clouds have been doing all along?

I entrust my swift steps to lead me wherever they might
My body is like a pine tree in the snow
Suddenly I may just stand by a flowing stream
Or I may chase a drifting cloud past another peak

My body is like a pine tree in the snow

Have you ever tried to enjoy a real lazy day? Waking up, early in the morning, you do not make any plan. You simply prepare a small teapot and hot water to bring along and, as soon as you are ready, you leave the safety of your home behind. The place you live in has been steeped in your thoughts and habits, and this is why in your everyday life you are not able to think or see anything new. But the moment you close the door behind you, the world ahead becomes a stage where suddenly all magic can be possible. A flowing stream is a bard that can enchant you with many different stories; a white cloud is an old friend from whom you regret having to part. When you walk in nature you should learn from the trees and the animals. Do not carry with you your heavy and expensive human self because it would just tire you out and, believe me, you would not need to use it. Just be a tree among other trees, or a rush of wind in the winter sky. If you ask “how do I do this?” you are already a thousand miles away from the goal, but if you simply do it, you will see that in your body there is a kind of wisdom you might never have suspected. I’m sure that at least you would be able to let your feet take the lead and bring you wherever they like. It might sound strange, but your feet are so much closer to your heart than your head has ever been.

Snow piles up against my door; at night I tend the stove
This body is here and yet it is almost as if it wasn’t
I wonder where the days and months have gone
Every time I look back at the world another year has died

I wonder where the days and months have gone

Time and space collided in mid-air and exploded in a million fragments. A ray of light travels for a billion years from the other side of the universe and lands on planet earth long after having left. I cannot make sense of what is happening anymore; is this my first day of school, the day of my ordination or the day when I’m going to die? As I lie down on my bed, am I simply taking a nap or am I breathing my last? I decided that if my mind is a painter, I’m going to commission a painting full of green hills, yellow sunflower fields and blue sky. I will ask my mind to paint something unexpected behind each object, so that my life will never be boring. I will also ask it to give a soul to everything, so that even while walking in the most remote places I will not feel lonely. The birds, the trees and the wind are all going to be my friends on the path.

What’s the point in choosing to paint only black and grey landscapes, raincoats, ties and cars out of mere duty toward society? When we are on our deathbed is the society that we followed so faithfully going to comfort us? On my path I sometimes encounter things that do not make sense. They seem to have no particular function, except for making my life feel more strange and exciting. Sometimes I sit in meditation and I can feel that my body is such an unexpected object. It is clearly there, and yet every time I focus on it’s boundaries they vanish as if they had never existed. It feels more like a cloud than like a bronze statue, and although it tolerates my obsession with playing the boss, when it needs something it will get it, whether I like it or not. My life would be so much less complicated if I could be better friends with my body and simply remember to listen to it more…

Br. Phap Bieu

Br. Phap Bieu lives in the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, France. He was ordained as a monk when he was 18 years old and became a Dharma Teacher this year. He is originally from Italy and speaks Italian, French, English and Vietnamese fluently. He is a talented musician and often conducts the Plum Village Monastics when they chant.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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