The Wisdom of The Mountain

I am taking my first trip to China in May, so I have been researching the country and its culture. In the process, I came across a parable called “The Wisdom of The Mountain”. This parable highlights the importance of valuing diversity of perspective. It argues that to truly see all sides of an opportunity you should seek out the non-traditional viewpoint.

I think the advice is exceptionally wise. In my own career, I can attest that the minority perspective often meant the difference between success and failure of a project. It is easy to hear what the majority says, particularly when it aligns with your pre-conceived ideas. But, the Achilles heel is often recognized by that soft, lone voice you have to strain to hear. It’s been my experience that you often risk failure if you choose to silence or ignore that important voice.

The Parable

In ancient China, on top of Mount Ping, stood a temple where Hwan, the enlightened one, dwelled. Of his many disciples, we know only Lao-Li. For more than 20-years, Lao-Li studied and meditated under the great master. Although Lao-Li was one of the brightest and most determined disciples, he had yet to reach enlightenment. The wisdom of leadership was not his.

Lao-Li struggled with his lot for days, nights, months, even years. And then one day, the sight of a falling cherry blossom spoke to his heart. “I can no longer fight my destiny” he reflected. “Like the cherry blossom, I must gracefully resign myself to my ignorance.” At that moment, after more than 20-years of study, Lao-Li decided to climb down the mountain and give up his hope of enlightenment.

Lao-Li searched for Hwan to inform him of his decision. He found the master sitting before a white wall, deep in meditation. Reverently, Lao-Li approached Hwan. “Excuse me enlightened one,” he said. But, before Loa-Li could continue the master spoke. “Tomorrow I will join you on your journey down the mountain” he said. And Lao-Li left to pack his belongings.

The next morning, before the descent, the master looked out into the vastness that surrounded the mountain peak where they stood. “Tell me Lao-Li,” he said, “What is it that you see?”

“Master, I see the sun beginning to wake just below the horizon. I see hills and mountains that go on for miles. In the valley I see an old town and a lake.” Hwan listened to Lao-Li’s response. He smiled and then took the first steps to start the descent.

Hour after hour, as the sun rose and crossed the sky, they walked. As they approached the foot of the mountain, Hwan again asked Lao-Li to tell him what he saw.

“Great wise one, in the distance I see roosters running round the barns, cows asleep in the flowering meadows, old people resting and children playing in a brook.” The master stayed silent and walked to a large tree where he sat at the trunk.

“What did you learn today Loa-Li?”, he asked. Silence was Lao-Li’s response. At last Hwan continued – “The road to leadership is like the journey down the mountain.” It comes only to those who realize that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not what one sees at the bottom. Without this wisdom, we close our minds to all that we cannot view from our position and as a consequence limit our capacity to grow and improve. But with wisdom there comes an awakening. We recognize that alone one sees only so much – which, in truth is not much at all. This is the wisdom that opens our minds to improvement, knocks down prejudices and teaches us to respect what at first we cannot view. Never forget this last lesson Lao-Li – What you cannot see can be seen from a different part of the mountain.”

When Hwan stopped peaking, Lao-Li looked to the horizon and pondered not at what he saw, but about what he could not.


I love the parable about the Wisdom of The Mountain. To me it provides a practical reason to value diversity of thought. I always want to know as much about the rocks in the river as possible before I try to navigate down it. And listening to people who are looking at the river from a downstream position, or who have been down the same river previously is a good way to maximize the probability of success.

In one respect, that is the basis for the Strengthening Brand America Project. It tries to bring you the collective wisdom of private sector marketers and economic development professionals that have successfully journeyed down the river. Their insights, watch-outs and encouragement is helpful in maximizing your probability of a successful outcome for your community.

What is Your Experience?

First, did you like the parable? What was your take away from it? Does your experience align with the main message? Do you have an example where the minority perspective helped you avert a disaster or reach a better outcome? Of course, even though my trip to China is with a commercial tour company, if you have any tips on how I can get the most out of my visit please share.

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4 Comments so far

  1. Trudy Parsons

    February 29, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this. A good friend of mine uses the example of a lake. While we sail across the water we tend to put our attention to what we see before us; what we must also consider is what is happening below the surface, for it is that activity that can cause us to capsize.

  2. Steven Mason

    February 29, 2012

    Ed, I agree completely with the message of your parable: diversity of thought. But I am going to step away from your own meaning and make a broader point here.

    Unfortunately, “diversity” doesn’t mean “diversity of thought” in our politically correct world; rather, it means diversity of race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. And that PC meaning of diversity is fundamentally collectivist, because it assumes that you can look at someone’s race, ethnicity or sexual orientation and say they will think in a certain way. That denies their individuality in service to their unchosen characteristics: i.e., race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

    If diversity meant diversity of thought (your definition), oh, what a wonderful world it would be! And diversity of thought stems from a Renaissance perspective, a commitment to understand multiple disciplines of inquiry, an ability to objectively look at different points of view: an ability entirely independent of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. An ability often not present when consensus is valued over in-depth debate.

  3. Miki Ellsworth

    March 1, 2012

    The North American  culture values and benefits from the diversity  of its peoples beliefs, backgrounds and lifestyles. How can any business not consider that diversity needs to be reflected in its own core beliefs and structure in order to be relevant to its clients? With the globalization of the economy, such factors  increasingly weigh in on the business climate.

    Can any business afford to miss the mark because of its own inherent shortcomings?

    Diversity  broadens your vantage point.
    Diverse opinions are key to decision making.
     They are a hedge against the odds & probability of shortsightedness. In fact diverging views offer us insight.
    What a disservice we do to ourselves, others and our collective causes when we rush to judgement. It’s always simpler to form a consensus of the like minded. Those with opposing  positions are often hesitant and uncertain in their solitude. Different views should be welcomed and appreciated, not weeded out. It is  always easier to jump on the bandwagon than to voice an arbitrary or unpopular view, or one that is just simply not mainstream.

  4. […] thought I would follow-up my last post about visioning, entitled The Wisdom of The Mountain with a quick story about the processionary caterpillar. They move through trees in a long […]

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