by William Page
Mountains are often a source of religious insight. Many sages and rishis have lived there. So there ought to be a mountain sutra. If there were, it might go like this:
The religious quest is like climbing a mountain. A Chinese proverb says, “If you don’t climb the mountain, you can’t view the plain.” You’ll never know what the plain looks like till you get to the summit of the mountain. And you’ll never know what the summit will be like till you get there.
During the climb, sometimes your view will be blocked by twists and turns in the trail. At other times you’ll get splendid glimpses of the panorama below. Sometimes the trail will be smooth and easy. At other times it will be blocked by obstacles: rocks, boulders, and fallen trees. Guidebooks, and the accounts of earlier climbers, will give you only an approximation of what the trail will be like.
Some mountains culminate in a single peak. Others have several peaks. Some end in a long ridge, others in a high tableland. Often there are guides available. Some of them, like the Buddha, Christ, and Sri Ramakrishna, have already climbed the mountain and can lead you to the summit. Others may have explored only the lower reaches and can tell you only about them. For the higher reaches, you need a better guide.
The religious quest may be likened to a mountain resembling a vast tableland. One climber approaches it from the north. When he gets to the summit he finds a snowscape. Another approaches it from the east, and at the summit he finds a grassland. A third comes from the south and finds a desert, while a fourth finds a jungle.
Each of them returns to the plains and describes the summit as he found it: a snowscape, a grassland, a desert, a jungle. They may quarrel about what the summit is really like.
If they had trekked inland, they might have arrived at a point where all those topographical features converge. Then they would have realized that the summit contains all of the features they observed, and more. A mountain may have many features, but they’re all part of the same mountain.
How long does it take to climb a mountain? That depends on the climber. Some climbers are young and energetic. They make a beeline for the summit, and practically run up the mountain. They’ll reach the summit soon, but may get exhausted in the process.
Others may adopt a more leisurely pace. They may keep pausing to admire the scenery, or take a rest, or note how far they’ve come, or estimate how far they’re ahead of others on the trail. They may have a more enjoyable climb, but it will take them longer to reach the summit. Every climber has his own pace.
There are armchair mountain climbers who never set foot on a mountain. They just read books and watch videos about them. They read about Maurice Herzog’s ascent of Annapurna and Hillary and Tenzing’s conquest of Everest. They know all about the Khumbu Icefall, South Col, and the Hillary Step. But they themselves have never set foot on a mountain.
There are also armchair devotees. They read tons of books about holy men and religious practices. But they never utter a single prayer, or meditate for a single moment, or touch a single bead of the rosary. It is for them that the Chinese proverb mentioned earlier was written: “If you don’t climb the mountain, you can’t view the plain.”
Don’t wear out your armchair: climb the mountain.
William Page has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Association of Thailand. He can be reached at email@example.com.