The Mountain: Random Thoughts on the “Zen of Tarot”

In 1967, Donovan Leitch recorded a song titled “There Is A Mountain” that reflects at least obliquely on the philosophical detours (and occasional dead-ends) we encounter when attempting to abstract the objective nature of reality to suit our personal belief system. It features the refrain “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” A Wikipedia search yielded the following information.

The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan writes:

“Before I had studied Chan (Zen) 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.”

Mountaineer George Mallory apparently agreed with Qingyuan Weixin. In 1923, the New York Times asked him why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, obviously expecting Mallory to impart some eloquent, heroic vision of “man against nature.” Instead, Mallory simply replied “Because it’s there.” Those of us who read the cards would do well to heed Mallory’s laconic remark as a Zen-like study in the economy of thought. I’ve always been a proponent of pithy reductionism in reading, at least in spirit, but now I have a conceptual framework on which to hang it: “More Weixin and less woo.”

As I see it, the “mountain” that must be acknowledged in the world of tarot is the documented body of historical observation that has grown up around the practice of cartomancy, mostly over the last two hundred years. The culture of instant gratification we now inhabit has little patience for the careful, disciplined thinking that went into capturing this knowledge for posterity. There is a strong modern urge to treat the literature as an irritating and irrelevant obstacle to intuitive learning than as the underlying bedrock of our art. Those writers of tarot books who advise disregarding the traditional knowledge base are at best cynical and at worst duplicitous: just rely on your feelings, they say, and don’t bother with books (but buy my book, of course).

The greatest disservice to a literal comprehension of the minor cards of the tarot was probably rendered by publication of Arthur Edward Waite’s tarot deck. It offered easy-to-digest storytelling fodder that could be transformed into all manner of gratuitous fluff, often departing from the author’s original theme in markedly imaginative ways, egged on by the artist’s pronounced flair for commonplace anecdotal vignette. The merry-go-round certainly didn’t stop there, with almost every new deck in the “RWS style” layering on it’s creator’s unique interpretive outlook, often to no worthwhile effect.

The kind of visually associative reading these decks inspire strikes me as “the blind leading the blind:” the gullible querent being led by the only marginally wiser reader down rambling byways of free-form tale-spinning, bereft of anything more intellectually convincing than the reader’s own self-indulgent fancy. The so-called “New Tarot” of recent vintage, with its disavowal of layered symbolism, is a hotbed of pointless change in this regard: the “baby” goes right out with the “bathwater.” Like the scientific fascination with genetic engineering, just because something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. Don’t give me a marvel of creative rescripting when all I want is a “better mousetrap.”

Although the curmudgeon in me grumbles “license to kill,” I’ve publicly dubbed this interpretive carte-blanche “starry-eyed self-hypnosis” and “being adrift in our own minds,” while a well-known tarot author of my acquaintance once labeled it a divinatory “free-for-all.” It begs the question: Are we standing on the broad “shoulders of giants” when we decipher the cards or merely floating in a warm-and-fuzzy, palliative haze of our own imagining? Is there a reliable foundation upon which to alight or are we just “winging it” under the elastic but overly permissive umbrella of “feel-good” empowerment? Personally and professionally, I seek a measure of analytical validation (aka knowledge-based substance) in my readings and not solely the inspirational encouragement or affirmation that I’ve characterized as symptomatic of the “Pangloss syndrome.”

In his book Tarot on Earth, Tom Benjamin opines that, no matter how we“cut the cards,” whatever homegrown method we use to pry meaning out of mute bits of printed cardboard is somehow “right,” regardless of informed insights to the contrary offered by established precedent or tradition. Even if one rejects all ground-rules and boundaries and the only star by which to navigate becomes intuition unalloyed with “book learning,” the assumption that no intellectual compass is needed by which to steer a course is right up there with “It’s all good” as a travesty of uncritical thinking and one of the great falsehoods of our fraying “New Age” world-view. It supposes that everyone — regardless of credentials — is an “expert” in their own right and no-one is accountable for upholding widely recognized standards of proficiency or excellence in interpretation. If something “feels” valid from the intuitive reader’s subjective vantage point, then it must be the truth. There are many historical figures far smarter than most of us who have already been down that road and they occasionally left a written record of their explorations; to categorically dismiss that wealth of knowledge and wisdom in favor of our own subconscious noodling seems both perilous and uninformed.

As mentioned above, I’ve taken to calling this blind faith in the cult of personal omniscience the “Pangloss syndrome.” In Candide, Voltaire’s philosophical “road-trip” narrative, the rather hapless “hero” of the title had a traveling companion and spiritual advisor, Dr. Pangloss, who was fond of saying at every unfortunate turn of events, “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Believing that anything we say in a reading is germane to the occasion (and moreover, correct) because we unequivocally “feel” it to be so smacks of the same kind of hubris that Dr. Pangloss exhibited. I can almost hear the unspoken justification: “My motives are pure, so my methods must by association be flawless. Don’t bother me with facts, I’m on a roll here.”

I’m not talking about disproportionate “empathy,” which can too easily push us into positive spin where none is warranted, but heedless optimism of the enabling kind that condones rather than cautions. The upshot can be a dishonest reading that gives false hope when what is needed is sober examination of options. While the goal of empowerment (but emphatically not “enabling”) is still uppermost in my mind, there is a tipping point beyond which it can spill over into disingenuous cheer-leading. While there is no help for sitters who only come to have their fondest wishes affirmed by the cards, most clients are self-aware enough to recognize that we usually have to accept the “pits” along with the “cherries.” The reader’s challenge is to adapt to this reality with sensitivity and restraint when making a somber diagnosis. The purpose of such artful side-stepping isn’t to ensure that we don’t offend our clients to the point that they will never come back, but rather to send them off with information they can work with in a constructive way. Feeling “beaten about the head and shoulders” is no way for them to depart a reading session.

Assuming I live long enough, my personal path will most likely veer even further toward the Tarot de Marseille and its non-scenic “pip” cards, unless I remain firmly ensconced in the Lenormand universe where I now spend much of my time; the Lenormand cards are far less vulnerable to New Age psychological revisionism. Unfortunately, at least in English there are few trail-maps to the TdM “mountain,” and none of them with any historical stature to speak of, so I will just have to keep scrambling and backsliding until I reach the top. Maybe, like Donovan, I will find that “the caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.” It will almost assuredly be the butterfly I lost sight of back in 2011 when I began dividing my attention between the Thoth deck with its semi-scenic (“glorified pip”) minor cards and the spoon-fed pap of the RWS.

Originally published at on May 21, 2019.

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