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  • Solo
  • Robert Bringhurst (bio)

Afterthoughts from the Zen Poetry Festival, Enpuku-ji (), Montreal, 12 March 2011.

Some people love to climb rocks; they enjoy the exposure. Others are fascinated by summits and delight in ticking them off. For some of us, though, the rock is just part of the mountain; it is the mountain that draws us up; the exposure is something we learn to endure; and a summit is just another corner, where changing your direction is the only choice you have.

I cannot remember a time when I did not feel pulled—almost yanked—upward by mountains—but I can remember not having the skill to get pulled very far. Once, when I was young, my parents sent me to a camp in western Alberta where climbing was taught, and once I tried joining a club with a similar purpose. On both occasions I met people with skills I wanted to learn, and they kindly taught me some things. But camps are camps, and clubs are clubs, and the people who frequent such places have social agendas as well.

When people go into the mountains in groups, their identities are in part absorbed and replaced by that of the team. They often assume, and usually teach, that the group is an indispensable vehicle and a requisite form of protection, like helmet and shoes. But as part of a group you are not face to face with the mountain, nor with your life and eventual death, in the way that you are when you go out alone. And climbing for me has never been a recreation. So from early on, I turned to books for advice and started testing this advice on solo expeditions.

People say you cannot learn from books alone, and I agree. You have to bring experience to books—and you cannot always do this, especially when you’re young. Then you have to work the other way around, taking your reading out into the world to see how it fares. This is good to do with poems, novels, books on metaphysics and ethics, botanical textbooks, rock-climbing manuals, and much else. You test some pages out and then go back and read some more and then go out again. If the books are any good and you are tolerably lucky, it will usually work. The reason it will work in mountaineering is straightforward: the mountains are real. [End Page 200]

Mountaineering as I understand it is a form of meditation, and meditation is a form of mountaineering. I would not encourage anyone to go into the mountains alone if they would prefer to go in a group. I would not encourage anyone to do zazen alone, either, if they would rather sit in a group. I only wish to say that such solo journeys are possible. One can find one’s own way—or get truly lost—because in both cases the mountains are real.

It is true that you can do yourself real harm by meditating without a guide, just as you can by venturing carelessly into the mountains and getting trapped by a change of weather or by falling off a cliff. Close friends of mine have lost their lives in both pursuits. One who seemed to me especially alert and robust strayed into a spiritual crevasse during unguided or misguided meditation and soon committed suicide; others have frozen or fallen to their deaths. Still other friends, however, have died while eating dinner or walking down the sidewalk or waiting for a bus. There are no paths where danger does not lurk.

I do not for a moment believe one can learn what Zen is by reading a book. From books alone, it seems to me, one can actually learn nothing of any significance. Nor can one write a worthwhile sentence if all one knows are words. Words form groups the same as we do. Then, like humans, they start talking day and night to one another instead of addressing the facts at hand. To make any book useful, as writer or reader, one needs a little room between oneself and one’s companions. In other words, one needs both a life and...