Only Don’t Know: A Modernist Zen Meditation

Hildegard
I was not; now I am—a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says “no” to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene’er, o’ercoming fear, I dare to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro’ the gloom.
But I—I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho’ oft thro’ silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho’ oft thro’ fateful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th’ eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
But they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

My confession.

I’m pretty clear on some things. One is that our lives, precious, beautiful, and horrific beyond words, come to each of us once, and only once. There is no sweet by and bye or fiery pit, nor is there an endless or near endless cycle of rebirths carrying us toward some goal. Our human consciousness is almost certainly a byproduct of brain function, epiphenomenal, as the scientists like to say. And ephemeral as a whisper of morning dew.

And, this is critical: I take this analysis with that proverbial grain. I really believe it’s a good assessment of the way things are. It is based on looking hard at what information I have at hand. But, give me some more information that contradicts this, and I am committed to changing my view. (No anecdotes, please. No rumors. For contradictory views, it needs to backed up with data that third parties can also find. Thank you.) I can change my view, after some grousing, and complaining. Of course.

This said, I find words like “meaning” and “meaninglessness” are human things. Things and events are meaningful or not to us. I know this with my bones and marrow. But the universe functions on different rules which are not at all concerned with our feelings about it or its movements.

The project, I am committed to, or, perhaps better ,the invitation I’ve accepted as the purpose of my heart: is to live into it. This is a religious or spiritual project. It is about that sense of meaning and meaninglessness. It is about freedom. It is the great heart of our humanity and the gift we have been presented with out of the play of circumstances that created us as we are. We find it as we attend. To it. To this. To class it up a bit, let’s call it finding “this very moment.” That’s it. So of course there’s a question. To what purpose, exactly? What do I find here in this very moment that’s worth the trouble?

Issa sings it all in a verse composed upon the death of his child.

The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet..

Kobeyashi Issa

I dream of that just this, and I know in my bones that and yet. It is the path of my heart.

Religions, most all of them, somewhere in the mess that each is, offer us ways into that living into what “is,” and, at the same time into that “and yet.” As do some of the poets. Some, religions and poets, I’ve noticed, are better at it. Others not so much. And some, like Buddhism, and particularly Zen, even offer technologies of presence that are amazing artifacts of human ingenuity. They show us our possible ways into that “is,” and into that “and yet.”

What they, all of them, and, frankly, what is open to all of us, whether with a religion or not, take us to, is a great mystery. That is. That and yet. Mysterious. Strange. Wondrous.

Turning our hearts to the great matter, that is the matter at hand, we are invited into something that is beyond words or our lack of words. We are invited into the mystery that we are.

Rilke sings it to us. The whole thing. Or, really, he shows us the tail by which we can know the dragon.

Why, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,
this space of Being, a little darker than all
the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge
of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile) – : why then
have to be human – and shunning destiny
long for destiny?….

Oh, not because happiness exists,
that over-hasty profit from imminent loss,
not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart,
which could exist in the laurel……

But because being here is much, and because all
that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that
strangely concerns us. We: the most ephemeral. Once,
for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we too,
once. Never again. But this
once, to have been, though only once,
to have been an earthly thing – seems irrevocable.

And so we keep pushing on, and trying to achieve it,
trying to contain it in our simple hands,
in the overflowing gaze and the speechless heart.

Trying to become it. Whom to give it to? We would
hold on to it for ever….Ah, what, alas, do we
take into that other dimension? Not the gazing which we
slowly learned here, and nothing that happened. Nothing.

Suffering then. Above all, then, the difficulty,
the long experience of love, then – what is
wholly unsayable. But later,
among the stars, what use is it: it is better unsayable.

Since the traveller does not bring a handful of earth
from mountain-slope to valley, unsayable to others, but only
a word that was won, pure, a yellow and blue
gentian. Are we here, perhaps, for saying: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower……but for saying, realise,
oh, for a saying such as the things themselves would never
have profoundly said. Is not the secret intent
of this discreet Earth to draw lovers on,
so that each and every thing is delight within their feeling?

Threshold: what is it for two
lovers to be wearing their own threshold of the ancient door
a little, they too, after the many before them,
and before those to come……., simple.

Here is the age of the sayable: here is its home.

Speak, and be witness. More than ever
the things of experience are falling away, since
what ousts and replaces them is an act with no image.

An act, under a crust that will split, as soon as
the business within outgrows it, and limit itself differently.

Between the hammers, our heart
lives on, as the tongue
between the teeth, that
in spite of them, keeps praising.

Praise the world to the Angel, not the unsayable: you
can’t impress him with glories of feeling: in the universe,
where he feels more deeply, you are a novice. So show
him a simple thing, fashioned in age after age,
that lives close to hand and in sight.

Tell him things. He’ll be more amazed: as you were,
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.

Show him how happy things can be, how guiltless and ours,
how even the cry of grief decides on pure form,
serves as a thing, or dies into a thing: transient,
they look to us for deliverance, we, the most transient of all.

Will us to change them completely, in our invisible hearts,
into – oh, endlessly, into us! Whoever, in the end, we are.

Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us? – Is that not your dream,
to be invisible, one day? – Earth! Invisible!

What is your urgent command if not transformation?

Earth, beloved, I will. O, believe me, you need
no more Spring-times to win me: only one,
ah, one, is already more than my blood can stand.

Namelessly, I have been truly yours, from the first.

You were always right, and your most sacred inspiration
is that familiar Death.

See I live. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows less……Excess of being
wells up in my heart.

Ranier Maria Rilke

Just this.

Only don’t know. The great mystery manifest.

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