Opening the Mountain

ON OCTOBER 22, 1965, three poets “opened” Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, by walking around it and chanting at stops along the way. Forty years later, the ritual begun by Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen has become a tradition. Wherefore? Up we can understand. The peak-bagger climbs mountains that he may beat his chest. But around one?

In Opening the Mountain, Snyder is quoted by Michael Farrell Scott as saying he originally meant the walk to “consecrate Tamalpais as a sacred mountain for future generations to do the same kind of pilgrimage on.” Borrowing from Indian, Tibetan, and Japanese influences, the poet trio in 1965 stopped at points that felt significant, chanting sutras, mantras, and a charmlike Dhâranî for Removing Disasters. Thus their “opening” or “intentional ceremony” was a veneration inspired by the Tibetan practice of circling revered objects clockwise, whether plant, person, or mountain.

Following the poets’ example, the Tamalpais walk-around — as led by coauthor Matthew Davis — covers “less than fifteen miles” as it rises over 2,500 feet to the summit and descends to the starting point. The circumambulators mime “the way of the sun” by keeping the mountain always on their right. Solar significance extends to Davis’s choice of calendrical dates. A volunteer who has made more than 140 circuits of Tamalpais, he usually leads the walks on the Sunday closest to the current solstice or equinox. Opening the Mountain provides trail maps with the ceremonial outing’s traditional ten stops, phonetic transcriptions of Japanese chants, and monochrome photos of terrain along the way.

Although Shinto influence and Buddhist practices of walking meditation underlay the poets’ original impetus, Snyder urges others to be as creative as they like: “The main thing is to pay your regards, to play, to engage, to stop and pay attention. It’s just a way of stopping and looking — at yourself too.”