KNAU commentator Scott Thybony has – for decades – pursued an interest in sacred places of the wider Four Corners region. And it was on a trek to a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado that he realized just how well Zen and mountains go together. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Thybony delves into the mystic with the story of Stone Woman … and the reason for snow.
Storm clouds surge above the highest summits as we move steadily upwards against a backdrop of cliffs and the rubble of cliffs. No one talks, and as we head beyond treeline I think about a stone woman. She appears in a chant we do twice a day, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be thinking about her. I’m not even sure I’m supposed to be thinking. The ten of us move deeper into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado led by a Zen priest and a guide named Wolf.
For me, Zen and mountains have always gone together. So when a chance came to accompany a group from the Crestone Mountain Zen Center on a five-day-trek, I took it. Being the only non-Buddhist I’ve had some catching up to do, which has meant hours of sitting in the dark under layers of wet clothes and wetter boots, trying to meditate.
We make the final push to a pass topping out at almost 12,500 feet. The head of the Zen center stands facing a spine of peaks running far to the south. He goes by his Buddhist name, Zenki, “Or, you can call me Christian,” he said when we first met. A scrim of snow extends below the cloud-hidden summits, and after a long moment he says, “There’s a reason for the snow”.
Those near him, mostly in their 20s and 30s, wait expectantly for whatever revelation might follow. He keeps silent until someone finally asks, “What’s the reason?”
He answers simply, “Because it’s cold.”
Groans follow, and a woman says, “He’s good at demystifying things.” The heavy packs we’ve carried at a fast pace on steep, high-elevation trails have also done their part to demystify the experience. On the other hand, the Sutra of Mountains and Waters keeps me guessing. We chant it each morning, and one passage in particular stays with me:
The blue mountains are always walking.
The stone woman gives birth to a child at night.
After leaving the pass our group descends to an alpine lake, where we set up camp in a grove of spruce. As evening thickens the storm clouds return, and we gather to meditate, layered in down and fleece and rain gear. Grauple pelts the tarps, and a shift of wind carries the rain inside. Wolf sits as solid as a Buddha statue with his back true and legs tucked into the proper knot. Next to him, I keep shifting in a futile effort to find a comfortable position until the bell rings and movement ceases.
In the dark I face the silhouette of Hermit Peak set high against the night sky, while thunder rolls through the glacier-carved valley below. We sit unmoving as the storm builds and the air grows charged. Then, from out of nowhere, tears run down my face, taking me by surprise. Needing to keep still I let them fall, unsure what triggered them. Thoughts begin to flicker, momentary flashes, and at that moment the first lightning forks onto the far summit and a deep rumbling fills the valley. A heavy stillness follows. And suddenly a searing flash illuminates the entire grove as lightning strikes nearby with an explosive crash. No one moves, waiting for the next hit. Then a bolt discharges on the high ridge beyond, followed by another. We sit in the dark as still as boulders perched on a mountainside.
On the last morning we begin walking out of the mountains, and again I find myself thinking about the stone woman. By now I’ve learned she has something to do with the form emerging from emptiness, a hard image to grasp. So I fall back on geology, and think of her as a cliff weathering at night, a single rock falling into darkness.