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On Mountains Being Mountains in Zen and Martial Arts

Updated on March 27, 2016

Human Perceptions and Experience Play a Great Role in the Zen Understanding of Life

Zen theory, thought, and practice are never static nor is any examination of themes in Zen intended for the purpose of arriving at a stoic conclusion. Zen is experiential and anything rooted in experience is going to involve changes in attitudes, mores, expectations, and perceptions. The only way this cannot be the case is when a person seeks to no longer be fluid and becomes, what iconic director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) would refer to, an unchanged man in a changing society.

There are different ways to examine a zen saying or koan. Re-examining the same theme over and over again at different periods in one's life and, frequently does, opens doors to gain new insights.

This leads to revisiting the zen notion that a "Mountain is just a mountain," a musing that is incorrectly attributed to Bruce Lee when he noted a "punch is just a punch" in his personal notes.

Bruce Lee was prone to borrow from other sources.

The Zen Influence on JKD Thoughts & Theories

A significant amount of Bruce Lee's thoughts and notes are drawn from philosophical components of Zen Buddhism. Granted, not all of his material is based on eastern philosophy as western thought also played a role in shaping his articulation of his theories.

No one can deny that Zen theory and practice was a dominating component in the written expression of the art and the art, itself, became a form (at least in part) of zen in motion.
We know this because Bruce Lee had a tendency to take once obscure in the west (now often repeated thanks to the new movement) phrases from eastern philosophy and make alterations. In the original texts, the words may read "A zen man...." or "In Zen" and they are changed to "A JKD man...." or "In JKD....."

Again, a great many quotes attributed to Bruce Lee are attributed to him mistakenly. Often, Bruce Lee would jot down notes from other sources, but failed to indicate where he drew the quote from. Since he was writing notes to himself, he likely felt there was no need to make mention of the original source. He knew who wrote the material and, probably, his notations reflected thoughts that were passing through his mind at the time.

Over the years, "Bruce Lee quotes" have found their way into martial arts books without their original context. Quite honestly, the ability to cross-reference Bruce Lee's notes with other sources was going to be incredibly difficult unless you knew where to look. The way the quotes are presented both in print and online make no mention many famous quotes and sayings are actual nods to philosophers and sages of eastern thought. The sayings come from larger works with overarching themes. In some instances, the source material is western - and not eastern - in origin.

The problem here is taking a random quote here and there outside of the context of how the theory originally appeared can alter the meaning or allow it to be interpreted in the most convenient of manner. In other words, the quote can be used to fit a theory or thought in which it has no connection. Deeply philosophy musings end up becoming incoherent advertising and marketing slogans.

Not knowing what the original source material leads to misinterpretations.

The Shakespearean Analogy

Often times, the misquoting travesties are the equivalent of a consumer electronics store saying William Shakespeare heavily promoted the notion you should buy a new TV, computer, and camera every year because he didn't want you to sit on your money. He said "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" which, of course, means "you can't take it with you" so spend it.
A gold vendor could come along and say Shakespeare was referring to putting money in smart vehicles as opposed to risky ones such as loans. He also was noting you should live within your means so do not borrow.

Some of these interpretations have a logical value to them. Others are merely obtuse contortions of logic.

Advisably, it is best to look at the actual quote found in Hamlet to examine the original, interesting context.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

The real sentiment Shakespeare was trying to get across here was not so much that borrowing and lending damage finances, but bad financial decisions can lead to actions that risk ruining character and honesty.

Context is everything.

The Zen Roots Laid Bare
The frequently repeated quote "A punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick" comes from the Zen saying:

"Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. 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 waters once again as waters."

{attributed to Ch'ing-yüan Wei-hsin in 13 Ch'uan Teng Lu, 22. (The Way of Zen 126) }

First, there is no definitive answer to what this saying means. To try to define Zen in one particular way would be to go against its essence and very tenants. (Now you know where that line from "Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate" comes from) Zen is about personal insight, enlightenment, learning, growth, and following a spiritual path. Zen is about living life in the now. It is experiential.

When mountains are mountains and waters are waters, then they become more than mountains and waters, and once again return to being mountains and waters, you realize the middle stage was an illusion based on personal perceptions.

Mountains and waters are mountains and waters. They can never be something else. The middle stage where mountains and waters are more not what they are is merely based on the PERCEPTION of them.

How you see mountains and water may change. You may redefine them or alter their meaning, either consciously or unconsciously, but they never ever existed outside of their suchness. The zen saying can be altered to something else. Bruce Lee was apt to change the saying to punches and kicks. In truth, anyone could change what they want to anything they wish. Mountains, waters, kicks, punches, could be model airplanes and parking spaces.

Everything is what it is and nothing more.

Perceptions and Experience Chart Understanding

Human beings, being both cognitive, emotional, logical, and illogical, can and do change their opinions and perceptions. In some cases, perceptions and opinions are changed due to external factors.

Logic dictates jumping off a bridge into three feet of water 25 feet below would be a ridiculously bad idea. The idea becomes a good one if you have to jump off that same bridge to avoid a ravenous mountain lion.

Clearly, your experience on the bridge changes. You can walk across the bridge every day for a year and your relationship to the structure never changes. It is merely a way to get over the shallow river Once the mountain lion is thrown into the mix, the bridge becomes a life saver since the jumping platform provided is the only viable escape from certain death.

But, in no circumstances, does the bridge ever cease to be a bridge. The height, width, mass, weight, and, for that matter, the intended purpose of the bridge, remains the same.

Climbing Mountains

A mountain is not a mountain when you over-analyze it. You make more of it than is necessary because you are looking for a deeper meaning while ignoring the simple answer of what a mountain is.

A person can pass by a mountain for a decade or more and never see it as anything more than a mountain. There is no reason to perceive it as anything different since a mountain is a mountain.

One day, feeling both bored and adventurous, the person choices to taking up the hobby of mountain climbing. Walking the various trails in the mountain and reaching the points in which the mountain side may be scaled can be rife with dangers, hazards, and setbacks. The environment of the mountain may be unkind and present one impediment after the other to reaching the top of the mountain.

While the struggles the mountain presents may prove surprising, the sources of the struggles were always there. The mountain always was a mountain. The hazards it presents simply went unnoticed until the person's relation to the mountain - going from passerby to mountain climber -- changed.

Through not giving up, the mountain climber is able to gain the necessary skill that comes with experience. This makes climbing the mountain a lot easier. The climber simply accepts the hazards of the mountain as being part of the natural order. Many hazards cease to present a problem because the person is capable of dealing with them. What is the problem? The mountain is just a mountain.

The mountain is and always was a mountain. And the person always was the person.


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