The first of the four attitudes comes from a sutta called Pabbatopama Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 3.25 which you can find at the following link :
The Sutta begins with the Buddha speaking with supporter and practitioner King Pasenadi of Kosala. The Buddha asks the king where he is coming from and they have a little chit chat, then the Buddha poses this question :
“What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the east. He’d approach you and say:‘ Please sir, you should know this. I come from the east. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’ Then a second trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the west …a third from the north …and a fourth from the south. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the south. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’
Should such a dire threat arise—a terrible loss of human life, when human birth is so rare—what would you do?”
The king responds :
“Sir, what could I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”
This, right here, is living like the mountains are closing in. This is our attitude to develop. Now the Buddha drops the hammer :
“I tell you, great king, I announce to you: old age and death are advancing upon you. Since old age and death are advancing upon you, what would you do?”
And so the king repeats :
“Sir, what can I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?
Old age, Sickness, and Death are advancing on us, like mountains closing in from all sides, unstoppable, inescapable. This is a realization most people avoid having until they themselves are old or close to death. The answer by the king to the question shows that he is a wise practitioner of Dhamma.
What do normally we do when mountains are closing in…panic? become a hedonist? find religion? We often notice the incoming mountains all too late. A dedicated and sincere Dhamma practitioner understands this line of the King. This is what it means to live like the mountains are closing in.
lets take a closer look at the pali words that make of the King’s response, and our attitude for today:
- dhammacariyāya -conduct in line with the Dhamma; ethical conduct; moral behaviour
- samacariyāya – living in spiritual calm ; wholesome conduct; harmonious behaviour; good behaviour
- kusalakiriyāya – performance of skillful actions
- puññakiriyāyā – performance of meritorious deeds
a closer look at the parts of the words:
cariyaya – conduct, behavior, state of life
kiriyāya – doing, performing
sama – calm, tranquil
kusala – skillful, wholesome
puñña – meritorious action
So we have words here that appear synonymous and all cover essentially the same basis in action and way of life. The first one I think covers all the rest “dhammacariyāya – Conduct in Line with the Dhamma”. We will actually see that this is a throughline across all four of the attitudes. It is something you see across many suttas as well, here is one example :
“Of two people who practice the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma, having a sense of Dhamma, having a sense of meaning — one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others, and one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others — the one who practices for his own benefit but not that of others is to be criticized for that reason, the one who practices for both his own benefit and that of others is, for that reason, to be praised.”
— AN 7.64
If you are honestly and sincerely living the Noble Eightfold Path, doing your best to live and act in line with the teachings, then you are practicing the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma.
samacariyāya – living in spiritual calm ; wholesome conduct; harmonious behaviour; good behaviour
someone unfamiliar with the teachings may question why spiritual calm and virtuous behavior come together in one word here. The Buddha tells us how the development of sila : moral or virtuous behavior, leads to a mind filled with much less restlessness and remorse. This is why sila is seen as a prerequisite for practicing for deep states of meditation.
When one performs kusalakiriyāya and puññakiriyāyā , skillful and meritorious actions, it uplifts the mind, gives it a joy and contentment. It is a mind like this that can do well in meditation, that acts as a basis for spiritual calm. With that calm one can face the mountains closing in with clarity and mindfulness.
The Divine Messengers and Mindfulness of Death Practices
The final aspect to cover with regards to the Mountains closing in, is that of the Divine Messengers of Old Age, Sickness, and Death. We can see them discussed in a very important sutta of the same name Anguttara Nikaya 3.36 – Divine Messengers
In this Sutta the Buddha explains how a person who does bad deeds goes to the hell realm and ends up in front of King Yama who questions him. The person is asked if they saw the Divine messengers, and they say they did not. The idea here being that averting our eyes and intentionally ignoring the divine messengers, those mountains coming in crushing all in their wake, is the cause for people doing the opposite of what the King proclaims in the only thing to do.
Instead of living and acting in line with the Dhamma, they live and act in line with Mara, the king of death, and commit unskillful or evil acts of kamma that will spawn bitter fruit in the future.
So the message is clear here, do not avoid old age, sickness, and death. Do not intentionally avert your eyes, put your head in the sand, and live unmindful to the realities of existence. Every day when you look to the horizon, see that the mountains are closing in, and act accordingly.
Live like the mountains are closing in.
The Buddha exhorts us to continually reflect on five things, no matter who we are. In this sutta –
We are subject to old age, sickness, and death. We will become separated from everyone and everything we hold dear, and we are the owners of our actions. One who reflects on these facts daily will keep in sight the mountains closing in, and will not waste time and act unskillfully.
And once you’ve reflected on these five long enough to become comfortable doing so, maybe you can add mindfulness of death practices that will allow you to see and act with even more clarity and tranquility. You can find my five part series here :
to close I’ll place the set of verses the Buddha states at the end of the Pabbatopama sutta :
“Suppose there were vast mountains
of solid rock touching the sky
drawing in from all sides
and crushing the four quarters.
So too old age and death
advance upon all living creatures—aristocrats, brahmins, peasants,
menials, outcastes, and scavengers.
They spare nothing.
They crush all beneath them.
There’s nowhere for elephants to take a stand,
nor chariots nor infantry.
They can’t be defeated
by diplomatic battles or by wealth.
That’s why an astute person,
seeing what’s good for themselves,
being wise, would place faith
in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha.
Whoever lives by the teaching
in body, speech, and mind,
is praised in this life
and departs to rejoice in heaven.”