The Story of Tortoise Mountain
Tortoise Mountain is a Vipassana sangha, in the tradition of the Insight
Meditation Society. This lineage bases its practice in the texts known as the "Pali
Suttas." Pali is an ancient Indian language, and is as close as we can get to the
language that Buddha probably spoke.
Nevertheless, our group has been founded in the spirit of "One Dharma"
- that is, we are not exclusive, and we acknowledge that the other schools of Buddhism
have nurtured the inheritance of the founding Teacher in their own way. This openness to
other schools, then, is one reason why our group comes to have a name that is very
This name comes from a story of two Ch'an (Jap: Zen) monks, Yen-tou (828-887)
and Hsueh-feng (822-908), travelling together in Tang dynasty China. Their story
illustrates the importance of love in the Buddhist path. The founding teacher, the Buddha,
recommended that we develop clinging-free deliverance of the mind through love.
The story is told in Zen, that Yen-tou and Hsueh-feng were travelling on
pilgrimage. As they were crossing a mountain pass, they were snowed in for a week or so,
in a little village in Hunan, a village called Tortoise Mountain.
Yen-tou used the time to rest and sleep, and Hsueh-feng used his time to
meditate intently. Day and night for several days Hsueh-feng meditated and Yen-tou
rested. One day Yen-tou challenged Hsueh-feng about his obsessive meditating
, accusing him of imitating a clay statue.
"Another time, another day, you'll fool the sons and daughters of other
people's families!," Yen-tou said. He urged Hsueh-feng to get some sleep.
Hsueh-feng said, "My heart is not yet at rest."
Then Yen-tou said, "Oh, I see." He offered to listen to Hsueh-feng's
situation, to review his prior awakening experiences. "Bring forward what you know
and I'll look at it with you."
Hsueh-feng described his trouble to his friend Yen-t'ou - that his teachers had
approved his understanding, but that his heart was not at rest.
In response, Yen-t'ou said abruptly: "Haven't you heard it said that what
comes in through the six gates is not the family treasure! In the future if you want
to propagate the teachings, let it flow forth from your breast, covering heaven and
Suddenly Hsueh-feng snapped out of his trance, and he rejoiced, bowed, and
exclaimed over and over again, "Today Tortoise Mountain has finally gained the Way!
Today Tortoise Mountain finally has gained the Way!"
The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, ed. by Nelson Foster and Jack
Today, Tortoise Mountain is enlightened! by Ross Bolleter Roshi, in Mind
Moon Circle, the journal of Sydney Zen Centre, Autumn 1997.
Yang-shan's Mind and Environment by John Tarrant,
Inquiry into Tortoise Mountain's Enlightenment
Here some points that a student of meditation may enter into, embodying her
1. The point of waking up to our helplessness. The point of being sincere about
our condition. What is it like being 'snowed in'? To feel helpless? What do I do, think,
and feel when I am trapped?
2. The point about right effort. Why did Yen-tou suggest that his brother monk
shouldn't meditate so much?
3. His heart is not at rest. What in my life is like this? How does the restless
heart manifest in my daily life? What is the root of the restless heart?
4. The point of compassion. The quality of attention that Yen-tou showed to the
suffering of Hsueh-feng? How much suffering of others can I hold? How far would I go with
5. The wisdom point. What is the nature of the mind? What does Yen-tou mean,
"The family treasure doesn't come in the six gates"? Can I acknowledge my family
6. No holding anywhere; nothing worth holding onto as "I,"
"me," or "mine". Letting it flow out from my breast... what does this
7. How can a mountain, or a village, become enlightened? What did Hsueh-feng
mean? A central teaching of the founding Teacher, the Buddha, here.
Bullfinch's Mythology says: Vishnu is second in the Hindu Triad, the
preserving principle, and on his second decent to earth he took the "form of a
Tortoise, which form he assumed to support the earth."
About South Asian Indian mythology: Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a
Thousand Faces writes: "The dome of heaven rests on the quarters of the earth,
sometimes supported by four caryatidal kings, dwarfs, giants, elephants, or turtles."
Stephen Hawking in Brief History Of Time passes on this anecdote:
A famous scientist [was it the philosopher, Bertrand Russell?] once gave a public lecture
on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn,
orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and
said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported
on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before
replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young
man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."
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