I’ve been reading a thought-provoking book with the most wonderful title I’ve ever seen, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968). It contains a collection of articles and essays by Ven. Thomas Merton as well as some back-and-forth dialogue with Suzuki Daisetsu, who begins the exchange with his comments on Merton’s selection of teachings from the Desert Fathers (published as The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960)).
I’ve always enjoyed the Desert Fathers, their words, their actions, their lives… the very idea of them. Much of their wisdom reminds me of things my Buddhist teachers have also said, so long as I remain flexible and am willing to interpret references to God or to Satan a bit more metaphorically than the monks themselves would have been comfortable with. I realize that Christians could say I’m missing the main point in doing this, but I hope I’m getting at least the shape of it, and anyway, what else can I do? I feel the same way when reading Merton. Often in his writing seems so close to Buddhism that it’s a bit of a shock when he introduces God into the discussion. But the book has so much to explore that it’s worth a few shocks, and it fascinates me that despite doctrinal differences these contemplatives would say and home in on such similar things. My only regret is that Merton does not focus on what Christian monks do about it.
Anyway, here’s the passage that caught my attention the other day (pg. 120):
One has to “wish” for this one realization alone and give up wishing for anything else. One has to forget the quest for any other “good.” One has to devote himself with his whole heart and and soul to the recovery of his “innocence.”
This speaks to me in many ways, not least because lately I have been thinking about life and death and what I really should be doing with the time I have left. By recovery of innocence Merton is talking about a radical change, a “complete upheaval and transformation of one’s whole life,” a recovery of Eden, or rather, of the mind that existed in that metaphorical place and time before there was knowledge of good and evil. What characterizes that recovery is a transcendence of the self. You can see here what he is referring to (pg. 127):
The knowledge of good and evil begins with the fruition of sensible and temporal things for their own sakes, an act which makes the soul conscious of itself, and centers it on its own pleasure. It becomes aware of what is good and evil “for itself.” As soon as this takes place, there is a complete change of perspective, and from unity or wisdom (identified with emptiness and purity) the soul now enters into a state of dualism.
Soul, of course, is a problematic term for Buddhists. Just take it to mean consciousness, and then compare with the way Sonam Thakchoe describes the function of conceptual elaborations, prapañca, in his The Two Truths Debate (Boston: Wisdom, 2007, pg. 108):
Although the subjective and objective elements are interlocking and mutually dependent, the operation of prapañca leads to the conceptual bifurcation of those elements into subject and object. Just as the subject is split off from experience, and is erroneously conceived as distinct from the cognitive act itself, so also the objective element, conceived as the external world of objects, is equally divorced from cognitive experience. This error leads consciousness to view itself as an immutable ego standing against the world of changing phenomena — it solidifies the idea of the self as substantial and independently existing.
Particularly in the context of certain sutras, this recalls some of the earlier musings about feeling, which I continue to see as a critical pressure point for practice. If you look at the Twelve Links, what do you find? Contact, feeling, craving, grasping… A person can’t really do much about contact, but they can control both feeling and their response to it.
Merton continues (back on pp. 120-121):
The innocence and purity of heart which belong to paradise are a complete emptiness of self in which all is the work of God, the free and unpredictable expression of His love, the work of grace. In the purity of original innocence, all is done in us but without us, in nobis et sine nobis. But before we reach that level, we must also learn to work on the other level of “knowledge” — scientia — where grace works in us but “not without us” — in nobis sed non sine nobis.
I had a really nice summation paragraph, but WordPress lost it somehow. One thing that struck me is that, although it may seem a bit mundane at first, there is a relationship here to kyudo in that we must use technique (knowledge) to transcend technique, and in so doing to recover the innocence that comes from knowing that this concrete conception of self is not only unnecessary (who releases the arrow?), but was never really there in any substantial way to begin with. Or at least that’s the direction my investigation is going at the moment. We’ll see.