Silver Cliffs and Iron Mountains

Description

Eventually you come to a place where you can’t go on and you can’t go back. You have arrived at the base of cliffs; you can’t scale them, you can’t get around them, and there’s no handy tunnel through them. The Japanese teacher Hakuin called this the Silver Cliffs and Iron Mountains. It’s a daunting place—that’s the point of it. And when you arrive here your life and your journey can become your own.

A talk by John Tarrant
Given during retreat at St. Dorothy’s Rest, Camp Meeker, CA
Transcribed by Ann Hunkins
Edited by Rachel Boughton

Eventually you come to a place where you can’t go on and you can’t go back. You have arrived at the base of cliffs; you can’t scale them, you can’t get around them, and there’s no handy tunnel through them. The Japanese teacher Hakuin called this the Silver Cliffs and Iron Mountains. It’s a daunting place—that’s the point of it. And when you arrive here your life and your journey can become your own.

Before this, we might live by tales that somebody told us, nursery rhymes that we learned by heart. Such tales take many shapes; in them, the past is rectified and the future determined. Should have, could have and would have appear in starring roles; automatic sequences and judgments fill the mind.

But now, standing at the base of this overhang, it doesn’t matter that you were once betrayed and tormented. It doesn’t matter that you have wasted your life, that you have succeeded beyond your dreams, and that you have done irreparable hurt to others. In spite of or because of it all, here you are at the place of last resort. Silver cliffs and iron mountains block your way. All your wriggling and being right, and all your complaining and being wrong, is not going to help.

Now it might become clear that, as the Diamond Sutra mentions, the mind of the past can’t be grasped, and the mind of the future can’t be grasped. But the real secret is that the mind of the present can’t be grasped, either. That which is, is that which is. No matter what you tell yourself, it’s just here.

Chogyam Trungpa has a great story about the barrier posed by the cliffs. He was a teenager and a prince in his culture, with a palace and a temple. He heard that the Chinese were invading and that this time it was really happening—they were actually taking over. His mentor lived not so many miles away in his own palace and the young Trungpa sent him a message. “What should I do?” he asked. “From now on, brother, everyone stands on his own feet,” came the reply. So Trungpa packed up whatever he could, and walked on foot across the border. He found a way through.

From this point of view the silver cliffs and the iron mountains are a happy place and coming there is a good moment. The world has found you out, the authorities have caught up with you, the things you used to get away with are not working anymore, the bank machines have kept your credit cards, and your schemes are laid bare. The rules and understandings by which you have lived are demolished, and you no longer have to struggle to uphold them. The opinion you have of yourself won’t stand up. What a relief. From now on you have a chance of being genuine.

The silver cliffs and iron mountains show you the beauty of your situation as it is. You are like the person with a cancer diagnosis who discovers that she wants only to go on picnics. Each picnic takes place in an eternal summer afternoon: swallowtail butterflies sip from the azaleas, grape vines hum quietly to themselves; cancer does not yet exist. And you don’t need cancer to find this out. You can inhabit this moment, surrender to life, eat the cucumber sandwiches right now. You can’t be in the past. You can’t be in the future. You can’t live in your idea of the present either. The beauty of the silver cliffs and iron mountains pushes all the other reasons for living aside.

When you stop thinking, It’s horrible, what are cliffs and mountains doing here? you can easily think, It’s wonderful to be here with these cliffs and mountains. Fortunately I can’t find a way through. This might go on and on and I’ll really enjoy it.

When you are blocked, repetition appears. With repetition comes the possibility of ritual and of the healing that ritual can bring.

A Silver Cliff is that place where you are sure you will be defeated. It might be that you can’t bear to look at it too closely, your curiosity is frozen. The Zen way here is to check it out. Perhaps when you don’t look, you are turning away from a call. Perhaps when you look you’ll find it’s not as impenetrable as you had imagined. You are not going to find freedom in areas where you are already wise and a Buddha. This is why Wumen said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.” Because the Buddha will just be in your way. And besides, what is he doing outside of you? So you will find that the Buddha is present where you are not wise and don’t feel competent — in the thoughts and feelings of your situation. Buddha is nearest in the place where you are the weakest. That’s a friendly discovery.

The silver cliffs and iron mountains can give you an interest in the thing that you are most afraid of. Then, once you’ve learned to enjoy the mountain scenery, it’s hard to go back to your old life without cliffs. The deep work, the inner work has confronted you. What defeats you also allows you to know your life, to really feel your life. That’s worth a great deal. You stay at the base of the cliffs until you don’t need to leave. When that time comes, you can’t find the cliff; there is no cliff anymore.

At the base of the cliffs you aren’t separate from your life, you won’t even need a good reason for living. You are free whether you are stuck or not. Your life is already here, you can’t keep it at a distance; and a reason for living would be an interruption. If you laugh, that’s good. If you weep, that’s good. If you feel sad, if you’re afraid, your mood is it’s own reason and the path is clear in front of you. And if you say, “Oh, yes, I notice I’m afraid. I notice I have the thought of meditating. I notice I’m meditating. I notice I’m still afraid,” then this will be different from running around saying, “It is terrible, we are all going to die.” Doom is just another thought, but it gets monotonous.

What you think of as the mountain is whatever can’t be avoided in your life. It’s the wall and the gate. If you can’t say yes to it, it remains shut. But if you can say yes to it, then you will be freed. Your footsteps will make their unique pattern on the streets. As the old Lama advised the younger Lama, you will be standing on your own feet. You will find it is a beautiful thing, and you wouldn’t want anybody to take that away from you. You will know for yourself the beauty of the silver cliffs and iron mountains, and you will be happy to have their company.