Category Archives: Religion

The Master reads philosophy

The Master must have felt what was going on in my mind. He had, so Mr Komachiya told me later, tried to work through a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had laid down the book with a cross face, remarking that he could now understand that a person who interested himself in such things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly difficult.

— Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (trans. R.F.C. Hull)

Question mark

The opinions which follow have for me various degrees of probability or certainty, but all go accompanied in my mind by a question mark. If I express them in the indicative mood it is only because of the poverty of language; my needs would require that that the conjugation should contain a supplementary tense. In the domain of holy things I affirm nothing categorically. But such of my opinions as are in conformity with the teaching of the Church also go accompanied in my mind by the same question mark. I look upon a certain suspension of judgement with regard to all thoughts whatever they may be, without any exception, as constituting the virtue of humility in the domain of intelligence.

— Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest (trans. A.F. Wills)

The aimer and the aim

Should one ask, from this standpoint, how the Japanese Masters understand this contest of the archer with himself, and how they describe it, their answer would sound enigmatic in the extreme. For them the contest consists in the archer aiming at himself and yet not at himself, in hitting himself and yet not himself, and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit. Or, to use some expressions which are nearer to the heart of the Masters, it is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved centre. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes ‘artless’, shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.

— Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (trans. R.F.C. Hull)

The seer and the seen

Because the illuminating vision does not inquire what meaning the ‘seen’ might have in relation to the seer, it permits each existent to be its true self, according to its origin. It grasps things as they are ‘meant to be’. For to the degree that their formless origin is inaccessible and inconceivable, things in their concrete forms become the more accessible to us. Bathed in the light of their origin, they themselves are illuminated. The more mysterious their ground, the more revealingly do they stand before us. The more silent they are about the ultimate questions, the less silent they are about themselves. This enables the visionary to let them go their own way without saddling them with his own preoccupations. Far from taking them as mere manifestations of a primal Ground, which at this state is inaccessible and incomprehensible, he lets each thing be itself. […] Occasionally he can intensify this contact to the point of complete union. It then seems to him that things do not come to him in his vision, but that they come to themselves, and that only then do they attain full reality, as if Being were beholding itself in everything that is, as if it embraced and sustained the process of seeing. He then no longer feels himself as the subjective pole, confronted by things as objects; he feels Being as the one pole, of an essentially inconceivable nature, and himself, together with everything that happens, as the other pole of concrete existence, which, like himself, proceeds from the origin.

— Eugen Herrigel, The Method of Zen (trans. R.F.C. Hull)

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zen_buncho-tani2

zen_buncho_tani1

Buncho Tani

Prisoner of God

‘God, you are my God; I have sought you since daybreak…’ Slowly I am letting the phrase of the Psalm seep into me. There are not many of us in the chapel at this morning hour. I often come here at the end of the night’s great silence. I leave my body on the ground and make myself ready for you. At the start of our relationship I used to talk to you a lot. Now, more and more, I stay quiet before you. Are you not aware of what I am about to say, even before it comes to my lips? I keep silence in your presence. It is not that I really know you: but that is how I love to be. Do with this moment whatever seems good to you.

Strangely, God, these sources of distress do not touch me in that secret depth where I meet you. Am I running away from the reality of my everyday life? I do not believe so. I believe rather that you are the sole reality. That may be why our relationship seems so little affected by what is going on outside. Is ‘relationship’ the right word, though? I am silent for a lot of the time with you. You talk seldom — or rather, you talk in a strange manner: you come to confirm, in a kind of way, the words that are familiar to me from the Bible — by an inner certainty, as if you were addressing them to me, yes to me, that very day. Silent God. I love to listen for your word.

God, I have to speak to you today; you must hear me. What is happening? Are you just an illusion? — you, who have slowly made me accustomed to your presence; you, who used to be enough for my happiness… But am I mistaken? My brothers, the brothers whose life and destiny I share — they can’t all be wrong and I alone right. But then, who are you, if you’re not life in full flood? And as for me, what value does my life have, if it’s not a constant walking in your footsteps? What sort of life is a stationary life, God?

It’s over. The enthusiasm, God, in which you were one with ongoing life — that enthusiasm is shattered now. And you yourself, these days, when I come to present myself before you at dawn — you seem absent too, God. And yet you’re still the same. You haven’t changed because I’ve ceased to hope. Am I now going to have to wear myself out with your absence? Could you be an imaginary God, like water that runs away? Or rather is it that I am now unable to hold you in the hollow of my hand, to drink you? God, I may be unable to live without expecting anything of the morrow. But how can I live without you?

— Michel Benoît, Prisoner of God (trans. R. Clarke)

The pillar of fire

‘Beyond them there ran out a beach. Some thirty or forty yards of shingle. The river narrowed a little and the point took the force of what current there was. Even on a night as calm as that there was a murmur over the shallow stones. Henrik was standing at the very tip of the shingle spit, in about a foot of water. He was facing out to the north-east, where the river widened. The moonlight covered it in a grey satin sheen. Out in midstream there were long low banks of mist. As we watched, he called. “Hører du mig?” With great force. As if to someone several miles away, on the invisible far bank. A long pause. Then, “Jeg er her.” I trained my glasses on him. He was standing, legs astride, his staff in his hand, biblically. There was silence. A black silhouette in the glittering current.
   ‘Then we heard Henrik say one word. Much more quietly. It was “Takk.” The Norwegian for “thanks”. I watched him. He stepped back a pace or two out of the water, and knelt on the shingle. We heard the sound of the stones as he moved. He still faced the same way. His hands by his side. It was not an attitude of prayer, but a watching on his knees. Something was very close to him. As visible to him as Gustav’s dark head, the trees, the moonlight on the leaves around us, was to me. I would have given ten years of my life to have been able to look out there to the north, from inside his mind. I did not know what he was seeing, but I knew it was something of such power, such mystery, that it explained all. And of course Henrik’s secret dawned on me, almost like some reflection of the illumination that shone over him. He was not waiting to meet God. He was meeting God; and had been meeting him probably for many years. He was not waiting for some certainty. He lived in it.
   ‘Up to this point in my life you will have realized that my whole approach was scientific, medical, classifying. I was conditioned by a kind of ornithological approach to man. I thought in terms of species, behaviours, observations. Here for the first time in my life, I was unsure of my standards, my beliefs, my prejudices. I knew the man out there on the point was having an experience beyond the scope of all my science and all my reason, and I knew that my science and reason would always be defective until they could comprehend what was happening in Henrik’s mind. I knew that Henrik was seeing a pillar of fire out there over the water, I knew that there was no pillar of fire there, that it could be demonstrated that the only pillar of fire was in Henrik’s mind.
   ‘But in a flash, as of lighting, all our explanations, all our classifications and derivations, our aetiologies, suddenly appeared to me like a thin net. That great passive monster, reality, was no longer dead, easy to handle. It was full of a mysterious vigour, new forms, new possibilities. The net was nothing, reality burst through it. Perhaps something telepathic passed between Henrik and myself. I do not know.
   ‘That simple phrase, I do not know, was my own pillar of fire. For me, too, it brought a new humility akin to fierceness. For me too a profound mystery. For me too a sense of the vanity of so many things our age considers important. I do not say I should not have arrived at such an insight one day. But in that night I bridged a dozen years. Whatever else, I know that.
   ‘In a short time we saw Henrik walk back into the trees. I could not see his face. But I think the fierceness it wore in daylight was the fierceness that came from his contact with the pillar of fire. Perhaps for him the pillar of fire was no longer enough, and in that sense he was still waiting to meet God. Living is an eternal wanting more, in the coarsest grocer and in the sublimest mystic. But of one thing I am certain. If he still lacked God, he had the Holy Spirit.
   ‘The next day I left. I said goodbye to Ragna. There was no lessening of her hostility. I think that unlike Gustav she had divined her husband’s secret, that any attempt to cure him would kill him. Gustav and his nephew rowed me the twenty miles north to the next farm. We shook hands, we promised to write. I could offer no consolation and I do not think he wanted any. There are situations in which consolation only threatens the equilibrium that time has instituted. And so I returned to France.’

— John Fowles, The Magus

Fire-poker zen

Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.

101 Zen Stories

I should be glad of another death

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

— T.S. Eliot, from ‘Journey of the Magi’

I pray like a robber

My only recourse is the expedient of placing at the service of truth what has been given me by the Father of Lies.

I pray like a robber asking alms at the door of a farmhouse to which he is ready to set fire.

Léon Bloy

Till we have faces

‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than that which you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

— C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces