“THERE Is a Mountain” is one of those sixties songs that provides the soundtrack for a television ad. As a silver Toyota RAV4 SUV drives up a mountain, then down a mountain, then onto city streets, then up a mountain again, we hear the chorus of a song by the Scottish singer Donovan. Those of a certain age will remember the lyrics emanating from their car radios in 1967, long before there were things called SUVs: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” Perhaps unknown to the advertising agency that came up with the commercial, the song – or at least its inspiration – is even older than the sixties, and it has a somewhat different meaning. During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese Ch’an [Zen in Japanese] master Qingyuan Weixin famously wrote: “Before I had studied Ch’an for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance, I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.” First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
The Ch’an master is asking Buddhist practitioners, whether or not they drive SUVs, to continually ask themselves: Is the mountain really there? And in the course of one’s practice, that question can, and perhaps should, be asked about every mountain. But over the course of the past century and a half, that question has been asked repeatedly about a particular mountain, indeed, the most famous of all Buddhist mountains, Mount Meru. This is the story of the rise and fall of that mountain, a casualty of Buddhism and science.
Classical Buddhist cosmology describes multiple worlds that pass in and out of existence over four cosmic phases: nothingness, creation, abiding, destruction. After the period of nothingness, or cosmic vacuity, this is how a world forms: At its foundation is a vast circle of wind, surmounted by a vast circle of water, surmounted by a vast circle of golden earth. In the center of that earth is a great mountain, called Meru or Sumeru. It is surrounded by seven mountain ranges of gold, each separated from the other by a sea. At the foot of the seventh range, there is a great ocean, contained at the distant perimeter of the world by a ring of iron mountains. In this vast ocean, four island continents are situated in the cardinal directions, each flanked by two island subcontinents. The northern continent is square, the eastern continent is semicircular, the southern continent is triangular, and the western continent is round. Although humans inhabit all four continents, the “known world” is the southern continent, called Jambudvipa,where the current average height is four cubits and the current lifespan is one hundred years; on the northern continent of Uttarakuru, the average height is thirty-two cubits and the inhabitants live for one thousand years. The four faces of Mount Meru are flat, and each is composed of a different precious stone: gold in the north, silver in the east, lapis lazuli in the south, and crystal in the west. The substance determines the color of the sky for each of the four continents. The sky is blue in the southern continent of Jambudvipa because the southern face of Mount Meru is made of lapis.
According to Buddhist doctrine, the beings who wander in the realm of rebirth are of six types: gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings; each has a place in this world system. There are three types of gods: those of the Realm of Desire, those of the Realm of Form, and those of the Formless Realm. In the Realm of Desire, the gods of the Four Royal Lineages inhabit the upper reaches of the four slopes of Mount Meru. The gods of the Heaven of the Thirty-three inhabit its summit. Four other types of gods inhabit celestial domains at differing heights above Mount Meru.
Of the other five types of beings in samsara, the demigods inhabit the lower slopes of Mount Meru. Humans are found on the four islands surrounding it (although whether someone thirty-two cubits tall who lives for one thousand years is “human” would seem to be a question). Animals occupy the four continents, the skies above them, and the oceans that surround them. Ghosts are said to inhabit a realm beneath the ground as well as regions of the southern continent. Buddhist texts describe an elaborate system of eight hot hells and eight cold hells, as well as neighboring hells, all located at various depths beneath the southern continent, our continent, of Jambudvipa. This, in brief, is a description of a world system; there are billions of such worlds in the Buddhist universe.
This cosmography, with Mount Meru at its center, would provide the site for the first encounters between Buddhism and science, encounters not of compatibility but of conflict. In 1552, the Spanish missionary Francis Xavier described his mission to Japan: “And for the greater manifestation of God’s mercy, the Japanese are more subject to reason than any other pagan race that I have ever seen…. They did not know that the world was round, nor did they know the course of the sun.” It is important to note that the spherical earth that the renowned Jesuit saint describes remains the center of the universe; he refers to “the course of the sun” that orbits the earth. The Church had yet to accept a heliocentric universe; Copernicus had published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium just ten years earlier.
The location and existence of Mount Meru would be regarded as a ridiculous fable by Christian missionaries over the next three centuries. It was a particular target in Sri Lanka in the early nineteenth century. The missionaries’ strategy was to disprove Buddhist doctrines with modern scientific knowledge and then convert disillusioned Buddhists to the Christian faith. Among these missionaries to the island, Daniel George Gogerly (1792-1862) and R. Spence Hardy (1803-1868), both of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, took the lead in describing and debunking Mount Meru.
Their argument was basically that the European (that is, Christian) description of the universe was right, and the Buddhist description was wrong. This championing of the heliocentric universe by Christian clerics for the conversion of idolaters (as Buddhists were regarded) perhaps seems ironic in light of the notoriously strained relations between certain astronomers and the Church in previous centuries. In Sri Lanka, however, science was regarded as a powerful weapon because it could be used to demonstrate empirically the errors of the Buddha.
That Mount Meru does not exist could be proved from any number of perspectives. In his Legends and Theories of the Buddhists Compared with History and Science, published in English in 1863 and in Sinhalese in 1865, Hardy writes:
An objection is sometimes raised by the Buddhists, that as there are some parts of the world not yet visited by Europeans, these parts, if visited, might prove that the Buddhist is right, and the European wrong. But this cannot be. There are probably some parts of the province of Bintenne [in Sri Lanka] not yet explored by the white man; but he has been on every side of it, and knows that it can only be of a certain size; and it is the same with other unvisited lands; he has been all around them, and can tell exactly their extent.
The Buddhists did not remain silent. In 1839, a Buddhist author had written a rejoinder to a polemical tract composed by Hardy (no longer extant), in which the Buddhist raises a series of familiar objections against a round and rotating earth: Why don’t cups and saucers fall off tables and water fly from lakes and wells? Gogerly responded to these and other objections in his Kristiyani Prajnapti (“The Christian Teaching”), first published in Sinhalese in 1848. There he explains that the world is round and not flat because a ship leaving Ceylon and sailing west does not eventually reach the ring of mountains that contains the vast ocean, as the Buddhists would hold, but in fact eventually reaches Ceylon. The prominent Buddhist monk Bentara Atthadassi (died 1862) wrote an extensive rejoinder to Gogerly, pointedly entitled Bauddha Prajnapti (“The Buddhist Teaching”). He was contemptuous of the British claim that Mount Meru did not exist because no one had ever seen it; the continent of Jambudvipa is so vast that supernormal powers are required to reach Mount Meru.
The Christian missionaries were unmoved by such claims. Indeed, Hardy focused on the Buddha’s geographical error as a fatal flaw.
There can be no doubt that Buddha taught the existence of Maha Meru…. An attempt may be made to set aside the consequences of this exposure of Buddha’s ignorance, by saying, that this is a kind of mistake that does not invalidate his doctrines; Buddhism may still be true as a religious system. But this is a fallacy that I am most anxious to set aside. If Buddha said that which is false, under the supposition that it is true, he betrays ignorance, imperfect knowledge, and misapprehension.
In 1873 in Sri Lanka, a famous debate between Buddhism and Christianity was held in the town of Panadure. The Buddhists were represented by the monk Gunananda, the Christians by the Reverend David Da Silva. In the course of his speech on the errors of Buddhism, Da Silva stood before the audience of five thousand, held up a globe, and asked why Mount Meru did not appear upon it, concluding that “Men at no period ever saw such a mountain, nor have they known by science that there could be such a mountain. One who said that there was such a mountain cannot be supposed to have been a wise man, nor one who spoke the truth.”
In his response, Gunananda did not offer the predictable answers: that Mount Meru was located in unmapped territory or that supernormal sight was required to see it. Instead, he attacked the Christian’s science, pointing out that the globe was based on Newton’s principles, but not all Englishmen agreed with Newton: it is noteworthy that Gunananda does not enter into the specifics of scientific evidence here. For him, it is simply enough to note that even the English cannot agree on whether the earth rotates on its axis in orbit around the sun. Therefore, why should the Buddhists of Sri Lanka yield to the view of one Englishman over another? Gunananda seems unencumbered by the question of the relative importance of the two figures in the history of science.
Gunananda turned next to empirical evidence. We humans occupy an island continent called Jambudvipa, located to the south of Mount Meru. If “the grandest and most stupendous rock on the face of the earth” is not situated to the north, “how does the Reverend gentleman explain the invariable direction of the mariner’s compass?” Gunananda won the debate by the acclamation of the audience.
Top left: The world system of Mount Meru, ranging from the lowest hell realm to the highest of the form heavens; Top right: Mount Meru with the sun and moon circling; Bottom left: the continent of Jambudvipa, the “known world” to the south of Mount Meru; Bottom right: a depiction of Mount Meru as the heart-mind of the Buddhist practitioner
Above left: The Buddha is often depicted in the caves at the base of Mount Meru, above the heaven of the Four Royal Lineages, or in the highest heaven of the form realm. Above right: A depiction of Mount Meru as the body of the meditator with the four lobes of his cloth collar representing the four continents and his head and hair signifying the mountain.
Below: The realms of the Mount Meru world system include desire realms (Kamadhatu), form realms(Rupadhatu) and formless realms (Arupadhatu).
The status of Mount Meru was also an issue in Japan. In his studies of the Buddhist scriptures, the brilliant Tokugawa scholar Tominaga Nakamoto (1715-1746) discovered a vast range of opinion on the size of Mount Meru. He assumed that at least one of these descriptions of Mount Meru had been provided by the Buddha. However, Tominaga was unconcerned that the cosmography described by the Buddha might be wrong. He argued that the Buddha simply made use of the prevailing cosmography of his time, one that had been created by the Brahmin priests of ancient India, using it as a convenient setting, no more than a backdrop, for his exposition of the path to liberation from suffering. The details of this cosmography were not of the Buddha’s making, and, in fact, the Buddha had no particular interest in them. Hence, whether this cosmography is right or wrong is irrelevant because the Buddha had no investment in its truth.
Heliocentric theory was introduced into Japan in the late eighteenth century, through the translation of Dutch astronomical texts. The Buddhist monk Entsu Fumon (1755-1834) studied this astronomy and set out to use its methods to demonstrate the accuracy of the traditional Buddhist cosmography. Although Entsu’s work is filled with detailed calculations, his ultimate appeal is to the omniscience of the Buddha; the universe is described accurately in Buddhist texts because those texts derive from the teachings of the Buddha, who is endowed with a divine eye that is not possessed by other beings. Thus, the eye of the Buddha perceives things that remain invisible to the human eye. The Buddha also had full knowledge of the past, present, and future, and set forth the Mount Meru cosmography to counter the belief in a spherical earth, which he knew would arise in the future. Entsu went so far as to make a mechanical scale model of the Mount Meru world, one that reflected the size and location of the mountains, continents, islands, and oceans, as well as the size and motion of heavenly bodies, as described in Buddhist texts. A version of this model was prominently displayed at the Japanese exposition held in Tokyo in 1877.
Discussions of the shape of the earth and the location of Mount Meru have also occurred in Tibetan Buddhism. In the June 28, 1938 issue of the Tibetan-language newspaper Melong, the Tibetan scholar Gendun Chopel (1903-1951), published an article entitled “The World is Round or Spherical” under the byline “Honest Dharma,” explaining to his readers that all of the great European powers as well as the other Buddhist nations of Asia had come to the conclusion that the world is round and that it is now time for the stubborn Tibetans to do so. He concedes that the Buddha taught that the world is flat but argues that he did so only to conform to the views of his audience; it was another example of his skillful methods (upaya).
Another Tibetan thinker who has taken up the question of the shape of the earth, and whether or not there is a large mountain at its center, is the most prominent of Tibetan thinkers, the fourteenth Dalai Lama himself. He has set aside issues of the Buddha’s skillful methods to conclude that the Buddha was wrong about the shape of the world. But this need not shake one’s faith, because the Buddha was right about more important things, such as the Four Noble Truths. The Dalai Lama thus has simply rejected the traditional cosmology, writing, “The purpose of the Buddha coming to this world was not to measure the circumference of the world and the distance between the earth and the moon, but rather to teach the Dharma, to liberate sentient beings, to relieve sentient beings of their sufferings.” Here, the Dalai Lama expresses a willingness to dismiss those Buddhist teachings that are contradicted by the discoveries of modern science. This is a position unusual among Buddhist teachers, and a position that has been widely praised by the Western scientists with whom the Dalai Lama has engaged.
The Dalai Lama’s position raises some interesting, and difficult, questions. If it is conceded that the Buddha could have been wrong about anything, is it possible that he could be wrong about everything? One might make a distinction, as the Dalai Lama does, between those teachings that are central to Buddhism and those that are peripheral. For him, the central mountain of the Buddhist world would seem to be peripheral. In this case, it might be possible to interpret Mount Meru as a myth, like Mount Olympus, the abode of the Greek gods. But no one believes in the Greek gods anymore. And Mount Meru is not just any mountain.
If there is a mountain, where is it and how does one see it? If there is no mountain, how do we explain its place in the sutras? Did the Buddha know that there is no mountain, but said that there was to accommodate the unenlightened? Or is it possible that the Buddha was simply wrong?
The Buddha is said to be omniscient. The nature of his omniscience is much discussed by the tradition, but the accepted view came to be that the Buddha could know everything in the universe that has existed, exists, or will exist (that is, he can know the past, present, and future), that he can know these things collectively as well as individually, and that he can know them simultaneously or sequentially. According to this view, he should have known whether there is a mountain or there is no mountain.
It might be suggested, as many have done, that Mount Meru is a remnant of an ancient worldview, one that can be safely discarded in the modern age. But which other Buddhist doctrines fall into the category of the disposable, and who decides? Once the process of deciding between the essential and the inessential is under way, it is difficult to know where to stop. How many Buddhist doctrines can be eliminated while allowing Buddhism to remain Buddhism? Can there be Buddhism without Mount Meru? Can you play chess without the queen? Mount Meru – with its four smooth faces of gold, silver, lapis, and crystal – is a slippery slope.
For the twenty-first century Buddhist, the challenge is not “first there is a mountain” or “then there is no mountain.” The challenge is to find a way to sing “then there is” in notes on a scale somewhere between belief and nostalgia.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.