The Mountain Path – Part 3: The Journey Down

26 Apr

“Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.” (See endnote number 1)

A few articles back, I started an examination of the three stages of the path up the mountain. Stage one; The path Up The Mountain ( ) and stage two: The View At The Top ( ).

Like all journeys, this examination will end. It is time to look at the path down the mountain. No one contemplating Ikkyu’s saying really thinks about the path down. The path down is almost an afterthought. Except for true mountaineers, as evidenced from this excerpt from Jon Krakauer’s great book, Into Thin Air:

Reaching the top of Everest is supposed to trigger a surge of intense elation. . . But the summit was really the halfway point. Any impulse I had toward self-congratulation was extinguished by overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead. (See Endnote # 2)

I was also guilty of that omission. It was not until a many years ago when I re-read Albert Camus’ Myth Of Sisyphus, that the idea even dawned upon me. Sisyphus was the Greek Titan that defeated death. In punishment for his impudence, for all eternity Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a stone up a mountain. Upon reaching the top, the stone would only fall back again. In analyzing the ordeal of Sisyphus, Camus noted:

. . . then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward the lower world when he will have to push it up again toward the summit.
He goes back down to the plain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me.
That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious.
One must imagine Sisyphus is happy. (See Endnote # 3)

It is that passage that first gave me pause to think about the journey down the mountain inferred in Ikkyu’s quote. What can we learn from the path down the mountain? How is it characterized?

Here are my thoughts as to the characteristics of the path down the mountain:

  • Zanshin – The martial state of mind of Zanshin (the remaining mind) plays an important role in this part of the journey. Having endured the path up the mountain and achieved the goal at the top, the journeyman must keep the intangible aspects of the goal with him throughout his days. He must draw upon it in times of need. He can use to to enrich the good times. He must never forget the experience.
  • Responsibility – This is the objective manifestation of the subjective Zanshin. Having achieved the goal, the journeyman agrees to bear the burden of the successful journey. As the journeyman is better for having achieved his results, he must conduct himself in accord with that betterment at all times. For example, one may have endured the path of attaining a black belt, and subsequently achieved the goal. From that day forward, regardless of whether training in the martial arts continues, one must always conduct oneself as a black belt.
  • Moving on the path (the next mountain) – this aspect is very important. One must eventually move on to the next mountain. A failure to do so will result in stagnation. Given the conquering of the previous mountain, I submit that the next mountain will always be a more difficult mountain. If not, it would seem to be a waste of effort to climb a lesser mountain. To climb a lesser mountain falls into a human pitfall described by the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche: “Our vanity would like what we do best to pass precisely for what is most difficult to us.” (See Endnote # 4)
  • Symbols and/or Entitlements – having achieved the goal, one may be entitled to distinguish oneself from those that did not by way of a symbol or entitlement. These aspects, in my opinion, are somewhat superfluous and superficial but are present nonetheless. Examples include wearing the black belt, or a college degree, a title, etc. As to entitlements I recently saw an interesting entitlement. I was watching coverage of the 2017 Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka, Japan. The coverage included a mini-documentary of newly promoted Yokozuna Kisenosato. Having attained Yokozuna status, Kisenosato is the first to eat at his training center. He eats alone and when finished the remaining wrestlers can then eat in accord to their rank. Simply put, “The pilgrim wants confirmation.” (see Endnote # 5).

With that, I’m going to move onto my next mountain. I’m sure over time I’ll have some new thoughts and ideas on this topic, but for now there’s a new mountain waiting.

Respectfully submitted,

Sensei John Szmitkowski

1. Though not referenced as a source of the quote at the time, the quote seems to come from the Zen-master Ikkyū (1394-1481). It is; however, also found in other sources and contexts. Two examples are:

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same”, a Chinese proverb, and

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.” A Hindu proverb.

2. Krakauer, John, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account Of The Mount Everest Disaster, (Anchor Books, New York, NY, 1997) p. 332 (last paragraph in Chapter Thirteen). Please note, page references are to my the E-book which has adjustable type and may be different depending on the setting, thus they and may not be exact. Please see the Chapter reference in the body of this article.

3. Camus, Albert, The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays, (Translated By Justin O’Brien) E-Book. p 121-124.

4. Nietzsche, Frederich, Beyond Good and Evil, Maxims and Interludes, Maxim # 143.

5. This quote is from another book I highly recommend by Jack Hitt, Off The Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down The Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 1994 & 2005) Chapter Eleven, page 733. Please note, page references are to my the E-book which has adjustable type and may be different depending on the setting, thus they and may not be exact.

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