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The Zen pass

Tuesday, 19/02/2019 12:12


Once, in an early morning in spring, from Hue, we crossed Hai Van pass to reach Da Nang. Crossing the winding, rocky road covered in mist and frost, the driver pulled over to the roadside by a small makeshift tea shop sitting flutteringly in the wind on the top of the pass for the engine to rest for a while and let us, travelers from plains, to admire the picturesque mountainous scenes.

Getting past the “Most Colossal Frontier Post,” ruined by time, on Hai Van pass, I found myself in the middle of the earth and the heaven. So real that I just seemingly could roll up the clouds to take a far-reaching look down to Lang Co beach and those mountains and passes hidden in the dusky mist and drifting clouds hanging on lonesome branches of trees turning red like heated by the dawn. It was just when, out of nowhere, the overture in the series “The Dreams of Red Mansions” filmed in 1987 started to sound melodiously, slowly at first in the smooth and mellifluent, rising and falling voice of the singer, bringing the feeling like flying over far far-away mountain passes. Then, the whole orchestra kicked in with mighty notes, bringing a rapid and passionate melody in the harmony of all instruments. The melody then died down gradually before coming to an end in a long-lasting note vibrating from a string of an instrument. The meditation appearance of Hai Van pass looked even longer, stretching, immense and floating mildly and gently.

Later, every time when I have chance to travel from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to other provinces in coastal Central Vietnam or the Central Highlands, I always try to book the ticket in a time frame that makes it dusk or dawn when the coach inches up the spiral pass, for me to admire ribbons of mist floating above remote dark and lonesome mountains.

Only by traveling in that time of the day have I come to understand why well-known figures in the old days chose to gather or live in places in the middle of forests and mountains. Winding and hilly road sections look free and seem to sleep soundly and dreamlessly. The pass is all surrounded by the fresh cold of night dewdrops covered by young leaves. Some dewdrops overflowed the leaves and gathered to form the upstream source of water carrying the sacred “qi” (vitality) of heaven and earth, connecting the high-above and the mundane, helping white clouds touch red worldly dust. Old pine trees with lumpy skin cast their shades chanting scared lines of sutra down to the deep canyons. Rocking birds never have to startle when seeing human beings, so horrible in appearance to them, be they Bao Si or Xi Shi – (considered) beauties of eternity.

In that space, it is not easy for people to stir up their minds. No matter how much they want to get noisy or get things bustling, they stay silent for fear of awakening that quietness of the remote mountainous space. Perhaps, this is why in this environment it is easy for people to stay away from greed and get deep in meditation and think about the ultimatum of things that have been long covered in the dust of mundane desires. Perhaps, it is also the reason why wisdom of the sects of Asian Zen meditation overflowed from those places in the middle of forests and passes. Sakyamuni Buddha found the path to enlightenment and then achieved nirvana under a Bodhi tree in the middle of the forest. Bodhi Dharma stayed and practiced Zen for nine years in a pagoda on Zhong Yue Mountain. Dōgen Kigen studied and practiced Zen on various mountains, from Hiei Mountain North of Kyoto to Tiantong Shan in Zhejiang of China before getting enlightened, making contributions to the Sōtō Zen sect in Japan.


However, Zen passes help bring to life not only ideologists, but also divine poets with lines of poem helping enlighten people. Li Bai, Wang Wei, Basho, Ryokan, King Tran Nhan Tong, Nguyen Du, and more… perhaps crossed thousands of miles of mountain passes as such, shaping their personalities in clouds and wind. Also, their literary works might come to life and become immortal during those journeys.

Just imagine that thousands of years before, in one early evening, Li Bai stopped to take a break in the middle of a pass. He then admired the waterfall of the Lu Mountain (Lushan) rushing world of water from the heaven to the middle of the forest to compose poems. And for Wang Wei, he closed his eyes fast to “hear” the moon rising from the quietness, so strange that it awakened mountain birds. Basho along the pass of solitude to the far-flung region of Oku saw mountain girls sleeping soundly mingled in the immense universe of all beings. He wrote, “In roadside stall/ Slept mountain girls/ The moon and clove…” More familiar to us, the Vietnamese, just imagine the scene when Buddha-King Tran Nhan Tong enjoyed meditation in leisure in the “breezes blowing gently through pine trees.”

Easy enough, mountains and passes attract mist and wind to them, passing on inspiration to people to achieve the meditation state. Therefore, mountains and passes are also in the meditation state, lying quietly in the middle of the earth and heaven like playing with the unreal.

The words may be a little colorful; however, they are not exaggerated and groundless, for mountain passes in the medieval sense of beauty, especially in watercolor paintings, were often embedded with deep reflection typical of Asian Zen.

As a typical formula, mountains and forests in ancient Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese art of painting are often far-off in the background, enhancing the depth of the paintings, formed by light strokes of brushes, often blurred or unclear, opposite to classic European paintings. Among mountains and passes lying endlessly one after another behind the lamprey in the middle of the paintings are empty spaces implicitly showing the meditation state. Those are empty spaces in no shapes and without words reaching the highest state of the emptiness – the deep root and also the dissolution of all things.

Zen passes, though the mountains and passes are huge, running one after another and covered in endless mist and fog, seemingly ready to cover all spaces, just exist in a flash of time in the universe and will eventually reach the emptiness of “anitya,” ever-changing and disappearing like a wisp of thin smoke floating by and dissolving into the quietness. Bearing that deep thought, no wonder mountain passes have to “shave their heads” to take refuge in Buddhism, chanting sutra. The passes, therefore, are engrossed in practicing Zen, no different from those scholars keen on living in and admiring the beauty of mountains and springs. Or else, the passes are only different in their way of practicing Zen, bringing to people’s eyes a zig-zag and mysterious path of Zen.

I suddenly recall the breathless feelings, seemingly only nervousness and sensation can tell, each time I cross a long and high pass. The coach that is more than ten meters long has to turn right and left continuously along the winding path up and down the pass, winding itself to slowly climb up the pass that is covered in the wonderful coat of clouds and blowing wind. Along the steep pass, the coach must snake through treacherous and bumpy sections before reaching the peak and people on it must learn how to cope with and overcome hardships and dangers. Just like in order to be enlightened to mildly enter nirvana and rid oneself of all pains, one has to learn how to let go, get rid of anger, ignorance, and the self, however hard it is.

Reaching the peak does not mean the end of all the twists and turns of steep mountains. The path ahead still runs on, lengthy and full of dangers. It is just like deep understanding of things in the middle of the wild forest and mountains does not mean the ultimate enlightenment. Getting to the peak simply means the person has stepped out of the mundane world to embark on a new journey to leave the deep jungle to return to the worldly life, to leave the fairy land to return to the worldly life, then to reach the ultimate enlightenment: Leisurely attaining peace of mind amid life of mundanity, ignorance, lust and sorrows. The journey is seemingly mellow, immense, but just like a car going down a mountain pass which has to apply brake all the time, one has to repress the remnant of the self still existing in his mind, trying hard to avoid seduction like the car avoid the inertia force, along the long, long path leading to ultimate enlightenment...

When the car darting down Hai Van pass that year, I turned round, trying to get in my eyes half of the worldly things left in the quiet mist. Then, I clearly saw that the pass was not the pass as it had been any more, the mist not the mist as it had been any more… Strange enough, now looking back upon and jotting down that experience, I startle to remember the words of Zen Master Wei Xin in the Song dynasty in China: When can we smile and say it is clear that passes are passes and mist is mist, still?

Translated by Huu Duong


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