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Vol. 2 No. 2 (2021): Mediating Mountains

Mountains and Waters of No-Mind: A Transcultural Approach to Moments of Heightened Awareness and Non-Substantialist Ontology in Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder

February 29, 2020


This article explores the epic poem Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996) by Gary Snyder and a Song/Chin dynasty Chinese landscape painting. I illustrate how the poem and the painting, together with Henry David Thoreau’s autobiographical narrative A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958), form a complex web of intertextual and intermedial references. All four works, I argue, tell similar narratives of spiritual journey and paths through mountain and river landscapes; all four speak of moments of heightened awareness in the sense of Buddhist “no-mind” (Chinese: wu-shin; Japanese: mushin). I show how they converge in exhibiting ontologies of non-substantiality, emptiness, and becoming. Taking the philosophies of Zen Buddhism and Taoism as a theoretical frame, I argue that the American transcendentalist and Beat works poetically and narratively convey relational rather than substantialist views of Being and life. They depict the world as a dynamic and open field of tension between two non-oppositional forces from which we as subjects are not essentially separate in a dualistic way. I substantiate my argument by drawing on the French sinologist and philosopher François Jullien, who refers to the Chinese understanding of landscape (“mountains and waters”) in his critical treatment of (European) philosophy’s centuries-long subject-centered epistemology and substantialist “ontology of Being.”


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