By Ian Finlay
When the Buddha was asked whether there was a God or not he famously observed a ‘noble silence’. Later, when asked why he had not answered, he explained that any answer given would be confusing, that he would have been ‘taking sides’ in the debate that was going on at the time. Perhaps though, that silence was answer in itself, for we live in a world that craves certainty, understanding, explanation and meaning for our lives. This is perhaps why every people, from the most ‘primitive’ Amazonian Indian or New Guinea tribe, has had a religion, a system that explains existence.
And most religions explain everything very well. There are creation myths and we are told what happens when we die, but I would argue that the deepest truth, and the real religion (re-connection) is not knowing, that somehow if we hold ourselves in this moment, where we have no answers to anything, then we are close to the source of life itself, from where all creation springs.
Of course it is not only religions that attempt to give meaning to our lives. Science is a modern attempt to explain our universe and is no doubt successful in explaining many physical mechanisms. But as a retired professor of physics said to me the other day, ‘we don’t really know anything – even if the big bang theory is right, what came before the big bang?’ His comment reminded me of the old , ‘if God made the universe, then who made God?’ Such questions always bring me up short, for I realise that there is no answer to them, that there is always a step beyond, that the thinking mind alone cannot answer the most fundamental questions. Where did we come from? Where do we go when we die? Why do we have this inner consciousness, a world of feelings and emotions that so often appears to reflect the outer world that we also barely comprehend? As The Incredible String Band sang, ‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that.’
Richard Dawkins mentions the childhood awe that he felt as a boy when he contemplated nature, ‘tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way’. He says these feelings are common amongst scientists and rationalists and describes them, perhaps somewhat disparagingly, as ‘quasi mystical experiences’. It was this sense of wonder that led him to science and I certainly relate to that, for I too find nature amazing, the tiny eels in the streams that have swum all the way from the Sargasso Sea, the migrations of butterflies, the orchids that mimic female bees to get pollinated. Or just being in the wild wood where I spend much of my time, aware of the gentle swaying of hundred-foot-tall trees in the wind. I am filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of being that goes beyond narrow definitions of self, and I would not be ashamed to call it mystical experience. Very often, it seems, these experiences can only come when the thinking mind is dropped and we can be and act with spontaneity. Building a stone wall, one can search and dig for exactly the right stone but when the builder disappears so often the right stone appears, and the wall will seem to build itself.
Zen koans point to this experience. I once worked on the koan ‘how is life fulfilled?’ I struggled for days, thinking it was about my life, how is my life fulfilled. Then the penny dropped, it was not about my life, it was about life, and life is fulfilled all the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Or once I was sitting outside my hut in a tropical rainforest waiting for my interview with my Zen teacher, the Japanese master Hogen Roshi. I sat thinking, working out everything I was going to say to him, then hearing his bell and walking barefoot across the forest floor, my head full of the answers I was going to give him. Reaching his hut I bowed low then gasped in horror as I noticed a huge leech gorging on my toe. The teacher knocked it off with a piece of wood and it went looping off across the clearing. I burst out laughing, all my thoughts and answers completely blown away. Such a lesson, so much more real than any thoughts I might have had about Zen and enlightenment. ‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that.’ Or perhaps, of course, so much less!
In fact working with Hogen-san was a continual challenge to be in the here and now, to accept the totally unexpected, and the examples I could give are many. We always used to go for a run in the early morning and once came across a children’s playground, whereupon we all had to follow Hogen as he climbed to the top of the slides and slid down and played on the swings! Or on another occasion we were running backwards down a Devon lane at 5.30 in the morning. The rest of us all heard the sound of a motor approaching, but Hogen, who suffered from the cold and was wearing earmuffs, did not, so to our horror a somewhat shocked local milkman suddenly found a Japanese Zen master sprawled across the bonnet of his truck. No harm was done and a laughing Hogen picked himself up and carried on. My memories of Hogen are of tremendous presence coupled with absolute unconditional acceptance and compassion, but also a childlike quality which reminds me of Jesus’s saying about becoming as little children before we can enter the kingdom of heaven.
But one does not have to go to a tropical rainforest to find a leech as a good teacher, nor have bizarre experiences in Devon lanes. The teachings are all around, the cry of the buzzard, the plaintive note of the curlew or sweet song of the thrush. Like the wakeup bird in Aldous Huxley’s Island they can all bring us back to our true nature and the mystery of being. These sounds of nature seem particularly effective for me, and I am often brought back into the wonder of this present moment as I walk the hills and woods of Wales. The power of nature as opposed to the wisdom of men has been acknowledged by the mystics through the ages, especially in the east.
You’ve travelled up a thousand steps in search of the dharma,
So many days in the archives, copying, copying
The gravity of the Tang, the profundity of the Sung make heavy baggage
Here! I’ve picked you a bunch of wildflowers,
Their meaning is the same,
But they are much easier to carry.’
Or as the contemporary western singer/songwriter Robin Williamson put it, ‘All that the wise men can say, the birds sing’.
But being and working with nature is not romanticism. Every time I walk through my woods I am confronted by death. A dead woodcock, entrails spilling out, part eaten by a fox, or small mammals, maybe victims of owls or polecats, always give me a slight shock and remind me that as I get older my own time here is running out. I have lived much of my life as if I was eternal, planning for the future, but now I am aware that I must face the great mystery of my passing. How will it be? How will I go? It is not that I want to go, far from it. I love this life now perhaps more than I have ever done, but I also feel less concerned at the thought of leaving it. I certainly have no particular faith in the certainty of the resurrection or anything else but I have a strange confidence. If I can fully accept this moment with all its mystery and unknowing, I will somehow be able to accept future moments with all their mystery and unknowing.
In fact it has come to me that certainty is a form of death, or suicide, that it precludes any form of growth, of real living. I even find myself uneasy at all the things I thought I believed in. Recently at a gathering to discuss climate change and ecological destruction I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable. We all agreed how terrible it was, how we are facing catastrophe and those who disagree are indoctrinated by consumerist advertising and the oil industry. But what about us, I thought, Is it not possible that we have our own indoctrination, our own agendas?
It seems we cannot know anything for certain and everything is subjective to our own consciousness and way of seeing things. We do not even know what the ‘I’ is that does the knowing. We talk of the ‘I’ as a third person (I am doing it myself), as if there are two ‘I’s’, one that does the seeing and another that can dispassionately observe the first ‘I’. Most people like to feel they know who and what they are, there is a great sense of security in that knowing, and I freely confess that for much of my life I have been one of those people. In fact it was very much my own desperate insecurity that led me to study Zen and the mystics. Long periods of the most severe depression, terrible confusion and feelings of isolation and despair, not knowing who I was at all. Those feelings have long left me, but I do still suffer from bouts of extreme insomnia, which, while terrible while they last, do seem to act as a reminder that I am not in control, that I am not, perhaps, quite as sorted as I thought I was! A lesson in humility, that all my attainment and wisdom, the incredibly wise things I am writing about at the moment (!) have to be given up, for the intellectual understanding even of the so-called deepest truths is a trap and no substitute for the actual experience of not knowing.
Now I increasingly find that this not-knowing is a place of adventure, creativity and honesty. It is a place where we accept the here and now, things as they are without labels, where we can die and be reborn each second. This seems to me to be what many scriptures from different traditions are talking about, that creation is not something out there, separate from us, but something we can continuously participate in. All we have to do is let go, have the courage to forget all that we thought we knew, to climb to the top of that Zen pole and take that one step further, to let ourselves go into that ‘cloud of unknowing’ (if I may mix metaphors from different traditions).
It is there that the real revelation occurs, where we leave certainty behind and enter the great mystery, where ‘love knocks and knowledge stands without’ (St Buenaventura). It is there that we not only come to know nothing, but truly know ‘no thing’, as we ‘pass beyond everything into unknowing’ (St John of the Cross). In that place we might be ‘holy fools’ or the ‘little children’ that Christ spoke of. There we would no longer be condemned to live a half life with our security and set beliefs, but dwell in a total not-knowing, regaining the lost Eden before we ate of the fruit of that tree of knowledge which can be such a dangerous thing. And there perhaps we might truly enter a kingdom of heaven where every moment is fresh and pure and revelation in itself.
But already I have said far too much. My words and thoughts are as last year’s dead leaves that are blown by the wind on the path. It is a sunny day. Shadows play across the garden as the wind stirs the trees. A bumblebee collects nectar from the fading camellia blossoms. The bluetits that nest in my wall are busy feeding their young. And somewhere a robin sings. Have we the eyes and the ears to see and to hear?
By Ian Finlay