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Partially frozen fountain at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

I am in a bit of a detached and quiet place these days, a state of mind that is drawing me to Zen concepts, Zen words.

One of my daily rituals when I arrive at the studio is to flip open Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. This one, number 65, showed up for me this morning:

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.

When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.

If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.

And this passage is from Terrance Keenan’s St. Nadie in Winter (more excerpts from that book here):

The “practice” at the Zen Center of Syracuse is a lay practice. It is founded on the simple understanding that if Buddhist practice cannot help ordinary people live ordinary lives more completely, then it is not much good for anything. One should not have to become a special case or live in extraordinary circumstances in order to grasp the fundamentals. Zen emphasizes ordinary day-to-day things because when we grasp the essential emptiness in the least thing we simultaneously apprehend it in the universe.

So simple but the resonance of these two thoughts feels particularly useful, grounding, a return to the center.


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.)