Make the mountain dance. Make Mt. Diablo take three steps.

~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

“Mountains are mountains,” says Yunmen. Yes, but how do we move the unmovable? How do we make a mountain take three steps, or allow it to dance?

In 1851, three years after California became a state, the U.S. government sent surveyors to establish an “initial point” atop Mt. Diablo, in Contra Costa County. The east-west baseline and north-south meridian running through that initial point remains the reference point for all property corners in most of northern California and all of Nevada. A year after the first survey was made, a second party put in a survey marker 3-1/2 feet to the southwest. By mistake, the true initial point was forgotten, until my brother-in-law, John, pulled some historical records and recovered it nearly a century and a half later. He established that Mt. Diablo was actually three feet further to the northwest than assumed by most surveyors pulling from the top of the mountain. He made surveyors move the mountain by a step.

From a Zen point of view, the mountain, of course, never moved. It was always in the right place. “Mountains, rivers and the great earth, where are they to be found?” asks Yunmen. Closer than we think, I suspect.

As a koan, “Make the mountain take three steps “ has been getting closer for me over the years. When I first worked on it, the koan was “Make Mt. Fuji take three steps.” At about that time, I actually climbed Fuji on a dark summer night with hundreds of other pilgrims. We sat on the edge of its barren cinder-cone, watching the sun come up in the east. There is even a word for it in Japanese: goraiko (御来光), the “honorable coming of the light.” Over the years, the mountain has come closer still. When the koan moved to Hawai’i it became: “Make Haleakala (on Maui) take three steps.” And then to Sonoma-Marin: “Make Mt. Tamalpais take three steps.”

I grew up about six crow-flying miles from Mt. Diablo (3,849’), and like its initial point, there was nothing in our local landscape that was not somehow reflected by the mountain. Riding bikes down Warren Road, our lane, we felt we were riding right into it. If it was cold out, and rained, there might be a slight dusting of snow on the peak; a most glorious sight. 

When I first began sitting Zen with high-school friends, we rode in Dana’s old Dodge pickup truck, double-clutching our way up the steep hill in the early morning dark, to gather at our Spanish teacher’s house. “Dawn Wind Zendo” said the wooden sign outside his front door. The small house sat atop a high knoll overlooking the Diablo Valley and the vast mountain to the east. Even now, I can hear the wind coming off the mountain rattling the shutters, “katta, katta, katta.”

The birds have all vanished into deep
skies. The last cloud drifts away, aimless.
Inexhaustible, the mountain and I
gaze at each other, it alone remaining.
(trans. David Hinton)

The above is a favorite Li Po poem, Ching-T‘ing Mountains, Sitting Alone. But to explain how it perfectly captures the intimacy my young friends and I felt with Mt. Diablo in the goraiko, the coming of the light, at the Dawn Wind Zendo, is to say too much. Explanation makes the mountain smaller; it makes us smaller. It is better to say nothing and just allow the mountain to dance.

Art: Snowcapped Mt. Diablo; thank you Thomas Smith, Gado Images, using DALL-E AI graphics software.