While Life Goes On All Around
When spiritual pilgrims went to visit the great Indian saint Vimala Thakar and unexpectedly got to see her, they asked her the purpose of life. “To live,” she said.
A Zen Master couldn’t have said it better.
When I was in high school I read—with what I remember as an utter lack of understanding—Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a noble title if I ever heard one, and a book that continues to sell well, but at this point in my life I think man’s search for meaning is the whole problem. Meaning is a man-made concept. It doesn’t exist in reality. And our search for it prevents us from encountering our lives.
At a crucial moment in my mid-thirties, a therapist discussed with me my anger about religion. A woman friend had brought it up; she’d noticed it in our casual encounters, and he agreed, I was very angry. I might have said that my anger was about the fact that I couldn’t find a religion that seemed right, one that really cohered, but I think the real problem was that I didn’t measure up. I couldn’t find a religion that would accept me. I felt rejected.
And yet I didn’t believe nothing (pardon the double negative). There was something I believed. I went home and, in my notebook, wrote a statement of my belief, that God was the force of creation in the universe. The birds and the flowers and the trees, cyclones and earthquakes and cancer. That force had nothing to do with morality, or purpose, in our lives. God just was. Past that there wasn’t much to say.
Not long after that I read, for the first time, the opening of the Tao Te Ching. It practically brought tears to my eyes, it seemed so right to me. It wasn’t that there was someone else who felt the same way I did. It was that there was a whole ancient tradition that felt that way. What seemed an advanced and subtle understanding had existed for thousands of years. It was really an attitude toward the question, one that was age old.
Tao can be talked about, but not the eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
As the origin of heaven and earth, it is nameless:
As “the Mother” of all things, it is nameable.
So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.
These two flow from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.
The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.
People often don’t understand what I mean when I say all of this. It’s as if I believe in God but not the one they do. I believe in God but I don’t believe in God. That more or less is my situation. I believe in God but there’s nothing to say. Even saying that makes no sense. It’s like saying I believe in reality. It’s not a matter of belief.
But when I’ve looked at God’s inner essence (as Wu puts it above; that’s how I think of meditation), I’ve experienced it not just as benign, but as love. Overwhelming love.
And it was meditation that brought me back to religion in the first place, not at the level of meaning, but at a deeper intuitive level.
I don’t believe that God ordains what happens—life just unfolds—but that we’re never apart from God, no matter what does happen. In Him we live and move and have our being. St. Paul got that right. He maybe should have stopped right there.
There’s an anecdote I love in the book Zen Shin Talks by Sensei Ogui. He was taking a plane not long after September 11th, and a woman who was on the plane to him was scared to death. When she found out he was a priest, she asked if he could say a prayer for them (not realizing, apparently, that as a Pure Land priest he didn’t really pray, much less believe in an entity that we call God. Though Amita Buddha comes pretty close). He said he would, then did something or other, and said, “All right. It’s okay if the plane goes down.”
The woman was furious. “That’s not what I wanted. I wanted you to pray that the plane wouldn’t go down.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s beyond my powers.”
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