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Why Are Mountains Still Sacred?

by Dr. Adrian Cooper

Mountains are among the most extraordinary and fascinating environments on Earth. Their epic scale in the physical landscape, and in our memories and imagination, has been a part of human consciousness since the dawn of history. There has never been a period in human history when mountains have not challenged us, nor failed to inspire.

Given the extreme character of mountains, it is natural for travelers, pilgrims, tourists and others to turn to literature as a way of making sense of mountains. Words on a printed page are often found to be a mirror of the experiences which readers encounter with mountains. For writers too, they often produce their work to make sense of their encounters with profound ordeal or inspiration.

Within both the physical and emotional challenges of mountain landscapes, there are a host of beguiling paradoxes. Simultaneously, mountains have an overwhelming physical immanence, as well as a transcendence which is reflected within the literature of mountains. Often, that literature draws from an ancient religious or mystical tradition. Psalm 121.1 captures this truth where it tells the reader “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where shall my help come?” In the same way, the epic Sanskrit poem called Kumârasambhava, by Kâlidâsa, tells us that the Himalayan mountains are “a source of endless jewels which snow does nothing to diminish”. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Po also captures this paradox of mountains being both a physical reality, as well as a transcendent realm:

Why, you ask, do I live up in these blue mountains?

I smile and do not reply. Leave me in peace.

Peach blossoms drift on waves of flowing water,

There is another sky, another earth, beyond the world of men.

Alongside the paradox of immanence and transcendence within mountain landscapes, there is a further paradox surrounding the fact that mountains inspire both fear and fascination. Whether it is from avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes or other natural terrors, mountains are undeniably landscapes of fear. And yet, who can resist mountain travel, whether it is to walk, ski, climb or explore? The Taoist sage Ko Hung captures this paradox brilliantly in his P’ao-p’u tzu nei-p’ien 17.1a:

All the mountains, whether large or small, are haunted by supernatural beings: Great ones on the great mountains, little ones on the little mountains. And if one does not take appropriate precautionary measures, they will afflict one with sickness, injuries, vexations, terror and anguish…. Great trees will crash down on him without there being any wind; rocks will fall without warning and strike him dead. Or, yet again, seized with panic, he will throw himself into the depths of a ravine, trying to avoid the attacks of tigers, wolves and poisonous animals. One does not venture into the mountains lightly.

Ko Hung is undeniably wise to warn us of the dangers of mountains. His words were true when he wrote them around 320AD. They remain true today. However, that other great Taoist mystic, Hsieh Ling-yun is also right to describe mountain landscapes as offering endless serenity:

In the mountains, all is pure, all is calm

All complication is cut off.

Rare are they who know to listen;

Happy they who possess wisdom.

If the cold wind stings and bothers you,

Sit in the sun: it is always warm there.

Its hot rays burn like flames.

While, opposite, in the shade, all is frost and snow.

Alongside these paradoxes of immanence and transcendence, and the fear and fascination of mountains, a third paradox arises where mountains can simultaneously clarify our thinking as well as confound our groping attempts to understand the landscapes and our responses to them. Again therefore, it is literature which can offer us a resource to try and deal with this challenge. Words offer us a structure to our fleetingly clear understanding of mountains alongside our more frequently clouded view of their complexity. Toward the end of the eighth century AD, the Tang Dynasty poet Han-shan captured this paradox of clarified thought alongside confounded understanding:

Men these days search for a way through the clouds.

But the cloud way is dark and without sign.

The mountains are high and often steep and rocky;

In the broadest valleys the sun seldom shines.

Green crests before you and behind,

White clouds to east and west

Do you know where the cloud way lies?

There it is, in the midst of the Void!

Even when pilgrims and other travellers are away from the mountains, they often find that memories of the peaks will inspire them to encounter their challenges with heightened resolve. Lama Anagarika Govinda saw this when he met pilgrims who returned home from their journey to Mount Kailas in Tibet.

They return to their home with shining eyes, enriched by an experience which all through their life will be a source of strength and inspiration, because they have been face to face with the Eternal, they have seen the Land of the Gods.

In one sense, extensive mountain travel makes us more familiar with the physical geography of individual mountain landscapes. Simultaneously though, the Japanese writer(s) of the Manyoshu was ultimately right to concede that mountains will often “baffle the tongue”.

Each of these paradoxes causes us to return to the mountains and to try and make sense of our feelings. With time, many mountain travellers find themselves becoming anthologists – drawing from an increasingly rich array of words, from many traditions, to help them deal with the mountains in their way. Whether or not they consciously think of those experiences as being ‘sacred’, they remain undeniably overwhelming, extraordinary, fascinating and irresistible. For many, their mountain travels are their ultimate pleasure and cause of continued and life-changing reflection and reward.

Often, it is single moments of experience which travellers take from mountains as lasting memories. In The Prelude, Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, he recalled a night ascent on Snowdon:

The Moon hung naked in a firmament

Of azure without cloud, and at my feet

Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.

A hundred hills, their dusky backs upheaved

All over this still ocean; and beyond,

Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,

In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,

Into the main Atlantic, that appeared

To dwindle, and give up his majesty,

Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.

In more concise fashion, the Japanese poet Kobo Daishi offers us a memory of one of his treasured mountain memory moments from Mount Koya:

Spring flowers and autumn chrysanthemums smile upon me,

The moon at dawn and the breezes at morn cleanse my heart.

 Mountains are intensely private landscapes, as well as being inevitably public. They are landscapes which challenge our most personal beliefs and assumptions – about ourselves and the world in which we live, and yet we can only make sense of those challenges by appealing to literature which often has its roots in the very deep and sacred past.

Ultimately, mountains are full of energy which is revealed in many beguiling ways. Bible black nights near a summit, bathed in moon light, might reveal looming silhouettes. Equally, overwhelming dramatic volcanic explosions remind us of our puny vulnerability against such forces. Each in their way are treasured memories and inspirational in our lives. In all these ways, mountains remain sacred.

Adrian Cooper has been fascinated by mountains all his life. He has led meditation workshops on their inspirational sacredness in 98 nations across six continents. In all those workshops, Adrian embraces diversity. 

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