…giving up one’s own certainties can open up a door toward a deeper intimacy with things, especially with people.
For some years after, I was fortunate enough to work as a travel writer, penning narratives about unfamiliar places, aspiring to be a junior emulator of the likes of Pico Iyer and Bruce Chatwin. I did it in part because I was seeking the same liberation from my own perspective that I’d tasted in the Andes.
Lawrence’s romance with the elemental consciousness of peasant farmers seems outdated now. But while his idealizations may have missed the mark, there was something he was pointing to that surely does still hold: giving up one’s own certainties can open up a door toward a deeper intimacy with things, especially with people. In the aftermath of my experience in the Andes and subsequent experiences as a traveling author, I had thought this was about a state of not-knowing that comes from a dose of unfamiliarity.
In time, however, I began to realize it was actually about meeting people in a new way, a way beyond the confines of the ordinary self I knew so well. When I wasn’t so sure of myself, of who I was, it seemed a new kind of connection could happen.
Years later, when I eventually found my way to Buddhist practice, the desire for immersion in alien territory dwindled. Instead, the practice itself in a sense provided it, by undermining my preconceptions. Slowly, I found I could start to meet my teachers—as well as life in general—in a space of not-knowing, and that it could be liberating to do so. And better than liberating.
Perhaps all humans—traditional and modern—have a longing to move past the confines of the quotidian self and feel themselves a part of the whole. Many at some point in their lives seek self-transcendence. One difference between traditional and modern societies may have been that traditional societies generally recognized transcendence as lying at the core of life’s concerns, and sought, in Karen Armstrong’s phrase, to live their lives “in the ambit of the sacred.” All manner of activities—sports, art, agriculture—were invested with sacred significance. We moderns have not only emptied these activities of transcendent significance, we have even gone some way toward emptying religion of transcendence.
But we still seek to escape from the prison of the self. Among other cultures and peoples who seem different to us, there is some measure of relief from the predictable patterns of the ego, some openness and fresh air. As long as the situation is not too threatening, encountering otherness pulls one out of the familiar and the world becomes bigger. As Zen master Chizo (Jizo) once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
A sense of defamiliarization is a recurring feature of spiritual life, and it can come to us in many ways—in art, in travel, in practice. However it comes, it offers an opportunity for openness and intimacy, both, if one can allow oneself to fall into them.
But it also speaks to a concern that is especially emphasized in Zen, namely that there is something miraculous in our ability to understand each other at all. And yet we do—not just in a literal sense, but sometimes in a complete and full sense of things. Tolstoy writes about how the writer’s task is to convey to the reader the entire inner world of a character. How is it even possible that across so much time and space this can be done, and done with such power?
In the Zen tradition, many koans memorialize moments of intimate meeting. Some contemporary scholars refer to the koans as “encounter dialogues.” In Zen training, each koan becomes the occasion for a meeting between teacher and student, an opportunity for an enactment of the kind of encounter the koan enshrines: namely, one in which the reality of Zen’s dharma—of the fact of our shared buddhanature, our intrinsic “infinite empty oneness,” as the Zen master Yamada Koun called it—is made clear.
One of the koans from the classic collection The Gateless Gate tells the story of the Buddha, his close disciple Maha-kashyapa, and the flower. Here Zen seems to place the mystery of understanding at the heart of spiritual life. Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it between his fingers; Kashyapa smiles. Whatever the apocryphal provenance of this story, it is regarded in some ways as Zen’s origin point, for it is the first instance of the “transmission” of Zen. It is taken as the moment when Buddha transmits his dharma to his successor Kashyapa. And what that transmission turns out to be is nothing if not a moment of complete meeting, of full mutual recognition: Buddha’s and Kashyapa’s realities are not just similar, they are identical; they are one and the same. To be able to meet so intimately and “absolutely” is a little miracle in itself. Yet in Zen, the ordinary is miraculous (“What a miracle—I carry wood, I draw water!” said the adept Layman Pang), and the miraculous—in this case, a complete meeting between two people, of a kind memorialized and enacted in so many of the Zen koans—can in time become quite ordinary. And yet it remains a marvel.
Written by Henry Shukman. Far from Home: Not-knowing is most intimate was originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2016.