Things I Wish I'd Said or Done
The older we get the fewer the opportunities we have to display our genius. In our youth every situation gave us the chance to dazzle audiences with our brilliant intellectual footwork. Back in those long lost days, time was interminably linear and sequential and we could practice the intellectual "Texas Two-Step" for days on end; but now, as the snake of age wraps around our ankles, everything seems to happen all at once, limiting our ability to prance and pose. A few more coils and we begin to understand:
You know all you can know when you finally know that you know nothing at all.
Yet, even in our own little Private Idahos we glimpse moments of universality the veritas of something we call wisdom that can be seen in the testaments of others. We recognize the authors of these words: Buddha, Christ, Shakespeare, Rumi, Kabir, et al, even including that ubiquitous guy or gal, Anonymous. Their crystallizing words always seem to fix a moment of fluid time into a still form that we instantly recognize. You, too, may have your own list of poignant comments. If so, by all means, pass them along. Send in your cards and letters - cyberspace equivalents of course - and maybe we can produce Episode Two of the present essay or perhaps a companion essay entitled Things I'm Glad I Didn't Say or Do. It doesn't matter what the author may have meant by a particular phrase, it only matters what it means to you. And if you don't immediately see the wisdom in that, just go see Mulholland Drive and ask David Lynch what it means. He'll enlighten you with the same insight:
Whatever you think it means, that's what it means.
Off we go.
Questions are often asked about the experience of Satori. Answers are not so easy to phrase as the questions; but I once stumbled upon a phrase by Rumi that I wish I had said.
It is like a key turning in a lock and the lock makes a soft opening sound.
Another powerful metaphor is attributed to Jesus from the so-called "Lost Gospels." The apostles asked him where they might find him after he had gone. His answer is particularly interesting in that it hints of the personal effort required from each individual and also of the realization's spontaneity.
Cleave the wood and you will find me, lift the stone and I will be there.
All of us have admired the supreme confidence exhibited by our various heroes, of which there are many examples in literature. There's a famous story in Buddhism that concerns the Buddha's transmission of wisdom to Mahakashyapa during a gathering one day; and while I concede that the moral of the story is not generally discussed in terms of the confidence of a Buddha, the imagined scene has always brought a smile to me: a goodly number of disciples are gathered waiting for the Buddha to begin one of his marvelous sermons. There is a tingling anticipation in the air as the work of the day is finished. The murmur of the crowd begins to subside. People settle in for an exciting evening of mental stimulation which might even include being engulfed in the Samadhi of the Buddha - by proximity alone! The Buddha rises and quiet descends on Vulture Peak. The Buddha holds up a flower, catches the eye of Mahakashyapa, winks at him and without saying a word sits back down. It is a great illustration of that non-verbal level of communication that is still the only true confirmation we ever get with each other when discussing things of an indescribable nature. Few of us have the confidence to leave it at that. Buddha did.
My meditation Master never speaks to me. (What else should I expect from a meditation master?) Well, sometimes, he utters something but even a grand compilation of all such utterances would still comprise the shortest sermon in the world. I spend hours writing and crafting my phrases, page after page, and he responds:
It is in the doing of a thing that we understand it.
Period. He is also an avid golfer, a disease with which I, in my old age, have also been infected. After much pleading from me he graciously agreed to write detailed practice instructions on both meditation and golf. The following letter contains those instructions given to me in full:
Become the ball.
Another of our national games has brought us a more famous yogi who has provided most American males with their first encounter with Zen. He is of course Yogi Berra. When asked for directions one day he enlarged upon that famous advice of Christmas Humphries. The path has two rules only: begin and continue. Said Yogi, consulting his map:
When you get to the fork in the road, take it.
Zen is a strange blend of intuitive and counter intuitive tendencies. It operates in the realm that inspiration comes from. All of us are familiar with the tales of the scientist who stumbles upon his key discovery in an apparently non-related circumstance. Insight comes like the apocryphal apple falling on Newton's head. In meditation, for instance, we are instructed to, give it all we've got, persevere, concentrate, be dedicated; but at the same time have no goal in mind, ever. Don't anticipate, don't preordain. It is probably the hardest balancing act we will ever have to perform, to generate the required energy to achieve nothing. No goal at all. It is the highest Zen commandment to:
Act without conscious intent and be delighted in epiphanies and surprises.
Knowing full well that:
One cannot leap a great chasm with a few small jumps.
Yet, on the other hand, and there is always another hand, when we work on our selves and the illusions of our attachments and desires it is good advice to remember that there is no silver bullet.
Like swans leaving the lake we must abandon doubts and desires one at a time.
Wisdom is discovered within these methods, and wisdom is a funny thing. When our children ask us, "What is wisdom?" we sometimes suck a lot of saliva into our throats, cough a bit, swallow hard, and in the old days light a cigarette - then mumble something about experience. Yet, we all know that the accumulation of experience, the accumulation of knowledge, the accumulation of anything has nothing to do with wisdom. So what is it? Beats me, but I know what it feels like, it feels like realization. But the best definition I've ever seen comes from old Plato.
Wisdom is but remembrance of things we knew before we were born.
As a species our ability to gather our collective self together and kill has no parallel in the animal kingdom. That we do this is a commonplace. Why we do this is a mystery. What separates us from other animals in this regard? It is our memories. And how frightening is that when we look again to such areas as the Middle East and ask the question that presents itself when the emotional fire has boiled away still more lives leaving only the pale hard distillate of hate.
How long will we kill for memories?
That concludes this evening's light entertainment. If any words of wisdom made it to your notepad, send them along.
Wait! I can't resist that most famous of all Zen statements issued by Elvis Presley when engaged in Dharma combat with his master about the existence of life after death (see David Lynch above).
Return to sender, address unknown.
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts