The Third Mountain

The Third Mountain

By Mohammad Hadi Forouzesh Nia*

[Vincent Van Gogh, “A Pair of Old Boots,” 1886]

1. In Compendium of the Fire Lamps, we read a Zen koan by the ninth-century Zen Master Qingyuan Xingsi or Qingyuan Weixin which runs as follows:

Before I studied Zen, mountains were mountains, and water was water.

After studying Zen for some time, mountains were no longer mountains, and water was no longer water.

But now, after studying Zen longer, mountains are just mountains, and water is just water

What is stated in this koan is a comparison between the three stages of reaching enlightenment. In the first stage, a student is still limited by the conventional reality according to which mountains and water have a certain substance that is knowable to the human mind, and they exist in the external world. In other words, in this stage, mountains and water are reducible to their existence in the outside world and a number of qualities (extension, color, usability as a place of retreat, etc.). However, in the second stage, a Buddhist student starts following the path, and upon some reflection, understands how mountains and water are essentially empty and lack any self-existence outside what they appear to a viewer. In other words, in this second stage, mountains and water are reduced and exhausted in a boundless “emptiness” which reminds a scholar of western philosophy of the ancient concept of “apeiron.” Yet, in the third stage, an enlightened Buddhist goes even further. At this stage, he neither reduces mountains and water to some kind of substance, nor their qualities, appearances before the mind, or emptiness. Rather, the enlightened being views mountains and water, but this time in their autonomy and irreducibility to any form of being or appearance. Here, mountains and water are nothing but this ultimate irreducibility – which is brilliantly expressed in the use of the word “just” before “mountains” and “water”.

Stated differently, in this third stage, mountains and water transgress any conception or understanding and withdraw into some chasm to which no understandings and definitions may hope to lead. As Bodhidharma notes in his Zen teachings “Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space.”

This wisdom of the third stage as a stage of non-reduction is of course not limited to this single koan and is stated elsewhere in various forms in the literature of Zen. As an example, a koan from “The Gateless Gate” can be read as demonstrating the state of a Zen Master in the third stage:

A monk asked Joshu why Bodhidharma came to China

Joshu said: “An oak tree in the garden”.

Here, the Enlightened Zen Master neither reduces the oak tree to naïve everydayness nor reduces it to an unbound emptiness that devours everything. Rather, he views it “just” as “An oak tree”, and wonderfully answers the question by showing how this was exactly why Bodhidharma came to China; to teach this very irreducibility of every object to anything else. Therefore, avoiding two extremes of reduction, the Zen master shows the monk the Third stage, “the middle path.

2. If we take koan to be statements, tales, metaphors, or riddles aimed at encouraging a disciple to let go of conventional thinking and attain enlightenment, we will easily recognize how similar statements are also of great importance in other religions. As an example, in Islamic mysticism, we encounter similar tales and metaphors called “shathiyat”, which is the plural form of the Arabic word “shath” meaning movement and not stopping. Hence, shathiyat can be taken as statements attempting to prevent a disciple from being dogmatic-minded and drowned in the conventional way of thinking and pushing her in a path of excitement and enthusiasm leading to ultimate enlightenment.

Due to the domination of a dogmatic Islamic Caliphate in Islamic lands during the golden age of Islamic mysticism (Third, Fourth, and Fifth centuries A.H.) and the compulsion of a uniform and reactionary interpretation of Islam by Islamic rulers, shathiyat saying mystics were sometimes condemned to the most severe punishments as a result of their controversial statements which sounded blasphemous to the ears of rulers. A prominent example of this trend is witnessed in the tragic fate of Mansour Hallaj (ca. 858–922), who during a famous shath said “I am the Truth” and was brutally hanged for that later on.

Despite being extracted from Islamic texts and being apparently very distanced from Buddhist mysticism, Islamic mysticism – with shathiyat seen as its zenith – strangely resembles its Buddhist equal. The resemblance is so explicit that one can even call shathiyat Islamic koans.” For example, in his “Virtues of Mystics,” Mohammad Dara Shikoh (1615–1659) quotes the following shath by Dhul-Nun al-Misri (796–859 A.D.) which reminds us of the Xingsi koan:

Dhul-Nun al-Misri (peace be upon him) said: three times I traveled and brought three wisdoms with myself. From the first journey, I brought a wisdom accepted by the layman and the wise alike. From the second journey, I brought a wisdom rejected by the layman and accepted by the wise. From the third journey, I brought a wisdom rejected by the layman and the wise alike.

Similar to the mountains and water Koan, in this shath the mystic passes through three stages: In the first stage, his worldview is a pre-reflective one (conventional knowledge). In the second stage, the mystic acquires a wisdom that starts to deviate from the conventional worldview. This is the reflective stage for reaching which one must let go of the naïve everyday approach based on which every object is just what it is and what it does for himself. In this stage, the mystic finds some deeper truth to objects. Objects themselves disappear and they become merely manifestations of a deeper truth. It is in this second stage that Hallaj exclaims “I am the Truth;” because he views himself just as another manifestation of the deeper truth, which devours everything else. But the third journey is a return to the first journey (one can even say a return to home) with new enlightenment. Here, mountains and water are neither reduced to what they appear before my mind, nor to truth or emptiness or anything else. Mountains and water are just what they are. This is a radical view that both refutes a naïve realism of everyday life and a scientifical/knowledge-based approach.

In the same book, the following shath is quoted from Bayazid Bastami (804–873 C.E.):

For thirty years I am speaking to the lord, and people know that I am speaking to them.

Here, the mystic has attained what could be conceptualized as “third stage enlightenment;” for he neither merely sees people nor merely sees the lord. Rather, he sees some kind of lordliness in people. Therefore, while speaking to people, he sees them as transcending everyday interactions, or people-like qualities. In other words, people are not reduced to what we instinctively take them to be (mothers, fathers, friends, coworkers, etc.), but equally, they are not taken to be mere manifestations of some deeper truth (attributes or manifestations of “the lord”). They transcend both extremes of reductionism and stand somewhere in between, not being reducible to anything else. They are just people.

In a similar Shath, Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) says:

Do not see the people without the lord and the lord without the people.

As noted in several quoted Zen koans and Islamic mysticism’s shathiyat, the ultimate reality to which a disciple is enlightened is a third stage. A disciple must first pass through two initial stages during the first of which objects are taken to be self-existent and present in the outside world, and during the second, objects lack self-existence and are merely manifestations of some deeper truth. Finally, it is in the third stage that the disciple finds the ultimate truth of objects to be neither of the two, but the mere just-that-ness of every object, which leads to some form of transcendence of objects from their network of relations. In both Buddhism (especially in the Mahayana school) and Islamic mysticism, this middle path, or third stage is viewed as the ultimate destination.

3. in The Third Table, Graham Harman, the founder of “Object-Oriented Ontology” summarizes the principles of his Object-Oriented Philosophy as follows:

First, Philosophy must deal with every type of object rather than reducing all objects to one privileged type: zebras, leprechauns, and armies are just as worthy of philosophical discussion as atoms and brains. Second, objects are deeper than their appearance to the human mind, but also deeper than their relations to each other, so all contact between objects must be indirect or vicarious.

After this initial definition, Harman goes on to quote the famous British scientist Sir Arthur Stanely Eddington and his two tables allegory. In the 1927 introduction to his 1927 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, he describes the allegory as follows:

I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my chairs to my two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me – two tables, two chairs, two pens.

As he clarifies later, what he means by two tables is two views regarding the same table. In the first view – the pre-scientific one – I find the table to be a 

Strange compound of external nature, mental imagery, and inherited prejudice – which lies visible to my eyes and tangible to my grasp.

But once I enter the realm of “Science,” I recognize the naïvety of the pre-scientific position and find out that the table actually 

Is mostly emptiness. sparsely scattered in the emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed.

Hence, in the second position (the scientific view) the table disappears and is substituted with a deeper force and the so-called table is only a manifestation of it. Eddington, being a representative of the modern scientific worldview, only takes this second table to be real and refutes the first table as something fictitious.

Harman, refuting the perception of the both first and second table as the real table, takes a third table to be the only real table. According to him, the first table (the pre-scientific one) is an instance of an ancient trend in philosophy that he terms “overmining.” For Harman, overmining is reducing the object to how it appears before the mind, larger objects or a network of objects that it constitutes, or to outward effects that it has on other objects. So, when in our daily interactions we take the table to be something on which we dine, we are overmining the table. Similarly, the second table is also an example of a parallel trend which is traditionally used for explaining objects, that is “undermining.” According to Harman, undermining reducing the object to 

An effect or manifestation of a deeper, underlying substance or force.

In this sense, Eddington’s second table is viewed as a clear example of undermining.

Against both extremes, Harman suggests a third table. He writes: 

The third table lies directly between these other two, neither of which is really a table. Our third table emerges as something distinct from its own components and also withdraws behind all its external effects. Our table is an intermediated being found neither in subatomic physics nor in human psychology, but in a permanent autonomous zone where objects are simply themselves.

Harman’s third table, then, is neither the everyday pre-scientific table nor the scientific one and not even a combination of the two (what Harman later calls “duomining”); rather, it is a table in its ultimate autonomy from every definition, perception, or relation with any other object. Elsewhere, Harman goes further and equalizes the object with mere withdrawal and incomprehensibility:

Each thing is an inexhaustible surplus.

And for Harman, this is the only real table.

4. Harman rejects mysticism for what he takes to be an attempt to gain direct access to reality as it is – which he shows to be impossible. However, if we instead define mysticism as an openness to reality without any attempt to reduce it, we will see that his metaphysics of objects not only resembles the old theological tradition of negative theology but as described, advances the same position as quoted koans and shathiyat. In all examples, overmining and undermining extremes are rejected and a third view is proposed based on which nothing is posited about objects other than their mere withdrawal. In other words, objects are always more than what could be stated about or done with them. 

In this sense, we can not only propose an Object-Oriented reading of Zen koans and Islamic shathiyat, but even further we will be able to speak about some form of an Object-Oriented genealogy of religion starting from the most basic stages of the evolution of religion (being the most reductionist stages) to more refined levels in which the autonomy of every object is appreciated and hence, every object transcends banal everydayness or scientific inquiry, which inevitably creates an atmosphere of mystery, sanctity, and divinity around objects equally. As Hakuin said:

All beings are intrinsically Buddha.

And just as Shah Mohammad Delroba said:

People are totally Allah and Allah is totally the people.


* About the author: Mohammad Hadi Forouzesh Nia is an Iranian writer, translator, Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, university lecturer, and psychotherapist. He is interested in Buddhism, Object-Oriented Ontology, Islamic Mysticism, Lovecraft, and other things. Currently, he is working on “Object-Oriented Psychology”  which is an application of OOO in psychology. Forouzesh Nia can be reached at: frooziman@gmail.com.

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