Part Two of The Elephant on Mount Fuji
A pilgrim was once walking the roads of medieval Japan, on his way to attain enlightenment at the top of Mount Fuji. As he walked, he wondered how to make the ascent, for this was an ancient time, even before GPS and smartphones, hard as that is to imagine. As he drew near to the base of the mountain, he happened upon a beautiful shrine beside a charming brook, crossed by a delicate bridge. On the porch of the shrine sat an old man in the robes of a monk. This man, our pilgrim reasoned, will surely know the correct way up.
“Sit down, young man” said the aged monk. “Rest your weary bones and drink tea with me!”
With a sigh the pilgrim sat down, took off his sandals, and began to massage his aching feet. Meanwhile the old man lit a small charcoal fire and began to boil the water for tea.
They sat some time in companionable silence, sipping tea, and admiring the beautiful view of Mount Fuji, which managed to both peek through the cherry blossoms in their first flowering, while simultaneously towering intimidatingly over the plain.
The pilgrim was the first to break the silence.
“Grandfather, I am on pilgrimage to Mount Fuji, for I seek enlightenment.”
The old man nodded encouragingly.
“Can you tell me what the best way is? It looks awfully steep from here, and I don’t really have any idea where to go.”
“Well,” said the old man. “Let me tell you a story. I was once a young man, full of vigour, and possessed of a certain naïve trust; not unlike yourself. However, unlike you, I have made a great study of Mount Fuji, and can tell you that there is no one best way to go.”
The pilgrim bowed his head respectfully, waiting to hear more. But the pause became a little uncomfortable, at least for him. The old man sat, gazing out at the beautiful mountain, sipping his tea, seemingly in great content.
Eventually, he blurted out his pressing question.
“Which path did you end up taking?”
The monk regarded him for a long moment, before seeming to come to a decision.
“Follow me,” he said, standing up and walking into the shrine. Casting a longing look at the mountain, and noting that the shadows would shortly begin to lengthen, the pilgrim got stiffly to his feet, and followed.
The shrine was a simple structure, containing a low writing table, a rolled up tatami sleeping mat, and, on all the walls, racks and racks and rack of scrolls.
“Welcome to my library. Here I have collected all the works, great and minor, about the different paths up Mount Fuji, from the well-known to the recherché, known only to initiates. I can safely say that I know more about the paths up Fuji-sama than anyone ever has. I can tell you what scholars have written, show you maps, and, if you desire, amuse you with anecdotes. I know, quite simply, all there is to know. I have also amassed a considerable body of knowledge on the general topic of mountaineering – because, of course, Mount Fuji is not the only mountain in the world, although deeply hallowed by venerable tradition of course.”
The pilgrim was impressed. There were more scrolls here than he had ever seen in his life. But he wasn’t convinced that the old man had answered his question, in spite of the confidence with which he spoke.
“So which route did you choose, in the end?”
The old man looked at him in surprise.
“None of them, of course. There are, after all, many paths up Mount Fuji, and who am I to say that one is any better than another? I settled down here, built a beautiful shrine, set to work collecting information about the mountain and its paths, and am always ready to dispense advice to those who seek the enlightenment of walking up Mount Fuji.”
“And your advice is?”
The old man looked a little annoyed at this, but quickly regained his composure.
“It is as I have already said: There are many paths up the mountain. Who can say which, if indeed any of them, is the correct one?”
“So your advice is, in essence, not to continue my pilgrimage any longer?”
“Precisely. Perhaps this is the greatest enlightenment of all. Join me here, and I will teach you all there is to know about the various routes. But there is no need to actually ascend the mountain to do this – because what extra information could you possibly attain by doing so?”
It was the young man’s turn to be thoughtful. To remain here in this beautiful place amongst the cherry blossoms, with its lovely shrine, fascinating library, and delicate bridge across the charming brook would indeed be delightful. And, frankly, Mount Fuji did look alarmingly high. And what, precisely, was he expecting to discover there?
However, reluctantly, he turned around, walked back out to the porch, and began to lace his sandals back on.
“I thank you for your advice grandfather, but it occurs to me that the point about the many paths up mount Fuji have in common is that you have to walk up them to get to the top of the mountain. And it seems to me that in order to undergo the transformation which leads to enlightenment, you have to in fact walk one of them, rather than know things about them.”
“Suit yourself,” shrugged the old man, and bustled off to wash his tea cups as the young man picked up his bundle, straightened his shoulders, and set off for the sacred mountain.
And that, it seems to me, is the limitations of modernity when considering spiritual questions. It is good at finding out facts about religions. But it misses the point: Christianity (along with other spiritual paths) is not, in fact, a body of knowledge one can master. It isn’t like the multiplication table. It is a path you walk on, and the knowledge one acquires is not primarily factual, propositional knowledge, but something… different. It leads to transformation of one’s whole frame of reference, of one’s whole person.
Enlightenment, after all, is only available to those who make the laborious ascent up the mountain, rather than those who know all about the paths, but sit in comfort drinking tea on the plain.
Perhaps it’s even worse than that. To sit in comfort, reflecting that there are “many paths up Mount Fuji” might seem like a very humble, non-judgemental attitude. And perhaps, if it encourages you to actually engage seriously with one of them – to learn the deep wisdom of a particular path – then that’s all to the good. But it seems to me that it isn’t taking any of them seriously on their own terms.
I wonder how much progress one can make by taking bits and pieces from the different paths? A bit of Sufi dancing, a bit of sitting meditation, a bit of Yoga, a bit of reading the nicer bits of the Bible… You can spend a whole lifetime visiting different trailheads, but never make any progress up the mountain. Progress up the mountain – being trained in a disciplined spiritual way – is difficult. It calls something from you.
Maybe it’s possible to fully immerse yourself in two traditions, like Leonard Cohen did – becoming a Buddhist monk for years, but never letting go of his Jewish heritage. And if you’re doing that, then more power to your elbow. It looks like an arduous undertaking. You can spend a lifetime getting to grips with one of these great traditions and not reach the end of it. Two… seems like a big ask.
The fundamental assumption of our culture that there are many ways up Mount Fuji makes it hard to dig in to a tradition. When it gets tricky, or looks like it is going to ask something from you that you don’t fancy giving, well, after all, there are many ways up the mountain after all, and who can say whether this particular way is the correct one?
If enlightenment requires mountain climbing, then it is indeed going to be hard. Not abusive, not legalistic. You don’t need that sort of noise in your life. But it is going to mean looking beyond the easy answers that our culture provides. It means practicing discernment – looking deeper than “what is happening” to try to see “what is really going on.” It is going to challenge you deeply. And if it doesn’t – then you either (a) aren’t doing it right or (b) aren’t engaging in a tradition worth bothering with. And if you’re engaged with one of the great traditions, then my money is on (a).
That’s why climbing Mount Fuji is a good metaphor: if it isn’t hard, it isn’t going to transform you. Perhaps that’s why it can take suffering to even get you up off your rear end and lacing up your hiking boots. You’ve got a pretty good thing going on – why disturb it? Until that one day when it suddenly stops working and you’re looking down into the steaming caldera where your sense of yourself and how to live used to be, and you think to yourself: You’re gonna need a bigger self.
But the one “correct” way? How on earth could you tell? Recall the story of the king and the elephant. He thought that he had found the one true way of seeing what was really going on. He thought he had found a method for determining the best route up the mountain. But, as it turns out, he too was engaged in his own route up the mountain, and in exactly the same position as everyone else.
That’s the wisdom of the reminder that there are a lot of ways up the mountain. The journey is going require humility from us. And one aspect of that is a cognitive humility which says: whatever “God” is, whatever the ultimate nature of reality is, we are never, ever going to be able to capture it with our words. Whatever we say will be inadequate. Whatever really, fundamentally, necessarily is, is going to be beyond our final grasp. Or, as we say in my tradition: If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.
The underpinning for all of this is a kind of existential trust. That whatever the ultimate underlying reality is, it is for us – for you.
But how does one actually go about it? How do you go about getting the wisdom and spiritual insight from one of the paths up the mountain without being subjected to some sort of mind-control trip? As journalist Nikki Gemmel put it: “Yet how does organised religion cater for the spiritually minded who also happen to be deep thinkers – the questioners, the rebels, those chafing against strict traditional gender demarcations?” I know a lot of people who have had very bruising experiences in church, crushed by the conformism, and unpopular because of their difficult questions. How do you go about losing the bathwater but keeping the baby? How can you deconstruct and reconstruct your faith? I’m going to begin to engage that question next time.
Finally, here is a prayer from my tradition. It was written by Thomas Merton, a Benedictine monk from the middle of the last century who did a lot of work to build bridges between Eastern and Western religion. You might like to make it your own.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
 Augustine of Hippo 354-430 CE
 Nikki Gemmel, “Unorthodox and Shtisel: down the Netflix rabbit hole”, The Australian, 30/5/2020, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/weekend-australian-magazine/unorthodox-and-shtisel-down-the-netflix-rabbit-hole/news-story/20cfdf643035a8a7657705175a231ec7 accessed 2/6/20