Some Notes Circling Around a Silent Center


I.   There is a Zen story:  A young monk comes to the Zen master and says, “I am a new monk in the monastery, please show me where I can enter the Way.”

The Zen master thought a while, then said, “Do you hear the sound of the stream outside?”  “Yes,” the monk said.  “Enter there,” said the Zen master.

Then there’s these words of the (Risen) Christ in John’s Gospel:

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.”

Sure looks like two different “Ways,” two different visions.  Not really possible to blend these two into one, is it?  Neither conceptually nor emotionally, as long as we are in the field of language and ideas.  Lets try a zen approach, putting it like this:

If you say these two Ways are the same, you are as blind as the proverbial 


If you say they are different, you have no more vision than a boulder.

So…what do you say?

So…maybe ….. “Not one, not two, stop counting.”

Or maybe you could pull out a coin:  two sides, one coin….both two AND one.

Not so sure about that approach…feels like a manipulation of image and words in order to make it seem like you KNOW the reality.  Been there, done that.

There is a dualism here in these two visions that may be intractable…as long as we are in the field of language, concepts, ideas, etc.  The fact is that dualism is intrinsic to this field.  We cannot “think” our way out of this bag!  The moment we think of nondualism, we have created another dualism!!  The pair:  dualism/nondualism and we have another dualism!…and so It goes round and round….   Conceptually we find ourselves in a kind of hall of mirrors where it is impossible to see what is real.  Linguistically we are trapped in an inescapable cage of dualism, always THAT TWO, and remember what is the most fundamental dualism of all, the one that lurks in the foundations of all our ideas:  being/nonbeing, presence/absence.  And how do you cross THAT chasm!?  

According to ancient Taoism, in every presence there is also absence; and in every absence there is also presence.  Authentic Taoism provides a key here, but perhaps we already have too many words….

My ancient Chinese friend and Taoist master, Zhuangzi (3rd century BCE), gives us some advice:

“At first Tao had no name.  Words are not eternal.  Because of words, there are distinctions….  Beyond the six realms of heaven, earth, and the four directions, the wise accept but do not discuss.  Within the six realms, they discuss but do not pass judgment….  When there is division, there is something which is not divided.  When there is questioning, there is something that is beyond the question….  Great Tao is beyond description.  Great argument uses no words….  Tao that is manifest is not Tao.  Words that argue miss the point….  Knowing enough to stop when one does  not know is perfection.  Who can understand an argument that has no words and Tao that cannot be expressed?  One who can understand this may be called the treasure house of heaven….”

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

Lets conclude this rumination with the thought that whatever is your “Way,” it must pass through your heart if it is authentic and not an ersatz way.  There you may uncover the Ground of all the real Ways, but then you will have No-words because you will be Nobody.

II.  I recall Han Shan, 6th-7th century CE Chinese poet and recluse, and one of my absolute favorites of all time and of all traditions.  When I grow up, I want to be like Han Shan!  But enough of this “bromance,”….  I was thinking of this poem of his:

“In my first thirty years of life

  I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

  Walked by rivers through deep green grass

  Entered cities of boiling red dust.

  Tried drugs but couldn’t make Immortal;

  Read books and wrote poems on history.

  Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:

  I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.”

Trans. By Gary Snyder

Marvelous, succinct account of a spiritual journey….

“Red dust,” a fascinating term.  It’s close to what the Gospel of John calls “the world,” but more concrete and more colorful.  Imagine a major ancient city in China, about two thousand years ago, hundreds of thousands of people.  The wide red – dirt streets filled with people and animals, teeming with activity, busyness…people in hot pursuit of their own ends, seeking their “good” in whatever way they conceive it.  Some in wealth, some in power, some in pleasure, some in relationship, some in just survival, some in possession, some in religion, some in longevity, some in influence and status, etc.  Two other images are also recalled at this point:  in the  Old Testament the Tower of Babel, and in the Gospel the man in one of the parables who builds a bigger and bigger barn in order to enhance his capacity for possession and wealth.  (Both Han Shan and the Bible seem to think that this is the essence of civilization!  A scary thought….)  

I remember Robert Bellah, the eminent Berkeley sociologist, once saying that the real reason for someone buying s $70000 car instead of a $20000 car is that then this person can say, “I am different from you.”  In other words that’s also the real point of acquiring that $70000.  Such is the realm of “red dust.”

Another interesting term: “drugs”….Snyder’s felicitous translation of the Chinese which refers to elixirs and magic potions.  Taoism, by Han Shan’s time, had degenerated into something very different from its ancient roots in Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi 8 or 9 centuries earlier.  

The next line hints at the Confucian path.

The ancient master, Zhuangzi, gives us  this morsel of authentic Taoism, and this  is in harmony with where Han Shan ends up:

“Do not seek fame.  Do not make plans.  Do not be absorbed by activities.  Do not think that you know.  Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite.  Wander where there is no path.  Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing.  Be empty, that is all.

The mind of one who is perfect is like a mirror.  It grasps nothing.  It expects nothing.  It reflects, but does not hold.  Therefore, the perfect person can act without effort.”

Trans. By Gia-Fu Feng

III.  Wilderness.  You would think there is no controversy about this notion of wilderness.  But, alas, you would be wrong.  It sure surprised me to find the depth and extent of the arguments.  And I am not referring to the long-standing and well-known battle between environmentalists and folks who want to exploit the environment either for pleasure or for wealth.  No, what is surprising is the intensity of the argument within the so-called environmental movement.  Trust me, “environmentalism” seems to cover a wide array of positions and visions.  I won’t go into that here; I might reflect on that in a later posting; but I do want to touch on one point.

Old time environmentalists have been under attack the last few decades from academics and so-called “progressives.”  Again, I want to reflect on that in a bit more detail later.  The old timers, from Thoreau and Muir to Stegner and Berry, have been accused of romanticizing “pristine wilderness,” of being insensitive to indigenous peoples, of creating a false  notion of our relationship to the wilds, etc.  What is missing from the current intellectual class of critics is the real sense of what modern humanity needs at the core of its being.  No one claims that old time environmentalists were infallible, but their vision has a deep truth for us.

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again . . . can we have the chance to see ourselves ….. in the world part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.”

Wallace Stegner

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry

Gimme that ole’ time environmentalism!!

IV.  Do not confuse  paradoxes with  contradictions.  Our lives contain both; but the former lead into the depths and mystery of who we are, while the latter…well, these are the things we seldom see in ourselves…more likely we see them in others….and if we do catch a glimpse of the contradictions we create, perhaps we are person enough so that we can laugh at ourselves and our foibles and self-images.  Certainly social life exhibits the contradictions of life all around us, but it is amazing how blind we can be about our own condition.

The other day I am in a car, and I notice a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.  It proclaims: “St. Francis Yacht Club.”  Wow, I think to myself.  I didn’t realize that St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of yacht clubs!!  This is beyond comment!  Then I remembered that in Incline Village by Lake Tahoe the parish church there (Anglican I believe) is St. Francis of Assisi….this is the home of  billionaires, hedge fund managers, ceo’s, etc.  I don’t know what to say!  Do any of those people go to that Church?  It would certainly be one of those prophetic and epiphanic moments if that Church were empty every Sunday.  Otherwise the contradiction is just bizarre.  Also, there is St. James Village, a gated community of wealthy people near Tahoe.  Wonder if any of those folk have read that famous Letter of St. James?

Paradox.  Something quite different.  Unless we peer into the heart of the paradoxes of life, we will never catch even a glimpse of the depths of our being.  Zhuangzi again illumines our way:

The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits.  When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas.  When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a person who has forgotten words?  He is the one I would like to talk to.

Rendition by Merton

Alas, this blogger has not forgotten words!

V.  To conclude, let me share a poem written in China over a thousand years ago by Po Chu-I, and translated by the very talented David Hinton.  The poem has a serenity and a depth hardly ever found in western literature:

Note:  “Way” = Tao

Li the Mountain Recluse Stays

the Night on Our Boat

It’s dusk, my boat such tranquil silence,

mist rising over waters deep and still,

and to welcome a guest for the night,

there’s evening wine, an autumn ch’in.

A master at the gate of Way, my visitor

arrives from exalted mountain peaks,

lofty cloudswept face raised all delight,

heart all sage clarity spacious and free.

Our thoughts begin where words end.

Refining dark-enigma depths, we gaze

quiet mystery into each other and smile,

sharing the mind that’s forgotten mind.