Monastery in Ladakh, 2008

Terrance Keenan’s book, St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, has been my companion while traveling for the last few days. An enigmatic mix of Zen wisdom—part personal memoir, poetry and recovery confessional—Keenan has offered me a rich variation on that unique conversation that can happen with a book.

Early on Keenan describes the source of the entity he has named St. Nadie. When he was still quite young, he had the realization that there was “something more behind who I thought I was. I had no words for it. No one I knew had any words for it—this profound sense there was nobody home. Not emptiness exactly, but not individuality either. My experience of it was deep but erratic…I have spent my life trying alone to understand this nobody within.”

Blending the presence of saints from his Irish Catholic upbringing with the Spanish word for nobody, St. Nadie became a private name for his personal search. When he encountered these words on the gate to the Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji monastery in upstate New York, the Zen resonance with that personal “nobody” was clear:

Along the Way
goes no one,
this autumn evening.

In one section of the book he offers a way of viewing ways of knowing. Quoting a scientist friend of his, Keenan shares this point of view:

Science is a method of knowledge by description and that, on the whole, scientists think that the language we use to ask questions and formulate answers, the terms and mathematics of science, mean this or that…”They don’t, he said, “They never did…There is the math. There is the world. And there is the structural correspondence. That’s it.” He recognizes this is a conditional way of knowing and a limited one. He says that it is inadequate to communicate literal experience, or what he calls knowledge by acquaintance (after, I suppose, Bertrand Russell). He suggests that poetry and art are all we have to communicate what we know by experience.

He goes on:

The language of poetry, the act of poetry, is maddening and wonderful—uncertain. There is a plurality of possibility—and impossibility. For me, poetry has become the voice of my inner nobody, of St. Nadie. Recognizing the differences in the ways of knowing is not to give one ascendancy over another but to recognize that understanding the reality of human experience is not satisfied by either or both. There is no one thread, no complex whole, no one answer in the way we want the real to be.

I like the simple elegance of this middle ground. It is one that aligns closely with my view.

More to come…(a phrase that is becoming a mantra for me.)

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