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Zen in the Art of Climbing Mountains

Zen in the Art of Climbing Mountains. Neville Shulman. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Boston, Rutland, Tokyo, 1992. 117 pages, black-and-white photographs, foreword by Chris Bonington. $12.95.

Zen in the Art of Climbing Mountains is the account of Neville Shulman’s inner struggles in climbing Mont Blanc—the obstacles of ignorance, fear, weakness, doubt, and despair that he had to overcome to reach the summit and, more importantly, to attain the spiritual realization it brought him. Middle-aged, out of shape, and a total novice to mountaineering, Shulman felt something lacking in his life and on impulse responded to an ad to join a guided trip up Mont Blanc. In his mind the climb assumed the proportions of a major Himalayan expedition —as well it might to a beginner—and he prepared himself for it according to the principles of the Japanese Zen he had been studying and practicing.

Shulman joins his group near Chamonix and describes the training ice climbs they make on lower glaciers before setting out on an ill-fated bivouac that ends in a storm. Despite that inauspicious beginning and numerous mishaps due to his own inexperience, Shulman manages to reach the summit of Mont Blanc, where he has the following experience:

Through the climb I have gained enlightenment. It is true satori Zen. Even if it is only temporary, I feel uplifted, my heart swelling to fill my body … I am experiencing the high of sheer spiritual joy. It is a feeling of ecstasy that spreads rapidly throughout my body; I feel myself lift skywards and start to float over the summit itself.

Throughout the preparations, the ascent, and the descent, Shulman reflects on Zen philosophy and quotes from various Japanese masters. Curiously, he does not quote from the master best known for his thoughts on mountains —Dogen, author of The Mountains and Rivers Sutra. This may be because Shulman apparently adopts the approach of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism and views the ascent of Mont Blanc—and the path to enlightenment—primarily as a dramatic struggle, a contest between himself and the mountain which he is determined not to lose; Dogen, on the other hand, is a chief expositor of the Soto school that sees the process of enlightenment more as the quiet cultivation of insight and awareness leading to a sense of oneness with mountains and the realization of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality.

Shulman’s single-minded focus on reaching the summit and attaining satori results in an intriguing, but rather self-centered, account of his climb. He tells us very little about his companions—we never learn their names or hear them speak—and most of the photographs are of Shulman. This is strangely at odds with the goals of Zen, which are to take a person beyond the individual self or ego. In fact, the author’s writing about Zen tends to be somewhat self-conscious. On the other hand, this very quality of the book serves a useful purpose, frankly exposing the inner doubt and turmoil, hope and ecstasy, that more experienced climbers often experience but are reluctant to express.

Edwin Bernbaum