“Why should I have returned?
My knowledge would not fit into theirs.
I found untouched the desert of the unknown,
Big enough for my feet. It is my home.”
~ W.S. Merwin, “Noah’s Raven”
To disengage from the comforts of the known—the proverbial arc floating in the oceanic expanse of the unknown—is an intriguing move that is grounded in the Zen tradition. Stepping away from our views, life doesn’t change, for we are always moving through the vastness of the unknown, whether we choose to be aware of it or not.
It is our acceptance of reality: of death, decay, a fluctuating infinity, and the foundation of the wilderness, that leads to a transformation of the heart and mind.
Merwin’s “Noah’s Raven,” describes what it might be like to come back to the known after mingling in the presence of vastness. The raven has just returned from his quest to find an island hidden somewhere in the unknown. There is a recognition of something intimate here, within the raven’s greeting of what he cannot fathom—the roiling sea and the ceaseless winds, he comes to find his place in the wildness.
In letting go, he is home; an undeniable sense of connection ensues in which the largeness has an intriguing fit to it.
I enjoy these lines because they fall into the realms of the meditative mind. In being here, now, in claiming vastness and letting go of our tightly held ideas about who we are and how the world should function, we find home—a place big enough for our feet to settle. If there is a chance to encounter this freedom, why go back? Here is how a Zen Roshi puts it,
“This is probably the core of freedom, to rest in the uncertain, before certainty has been constructed. Not knowing is something the mind often dreads. It’s easy to dread not knowing. As a child whenever the teacher asked something I would say “I know, I know” and life seemed to be a test in which if I were clever I could get enough right answers and I could find something to rely on.”
The quote above is an introductory paragraph to one of the first koans, Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know.” In this public case, Bodhidharma is asked to visit the emperor, a man who, at the time, was one of the most powerful men in the world. Dressed in a patchwork of tattered red robes, Bodhidharma approached the emperor to answer his questions about the master’s teachings:
The Emperor asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the number one principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
“Who are you, standing in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma.
The Emperor didn’t get it.
I remember working with this koan for the first time during my senior year of college. I was struck by the way in which Bodhidharma—this wild man from India—approached the grandeur of the emperor, treating him as though he was no more important than a fallen leaf. But then, this shallow interpretation, this “I know, I know” began to fall away into the abyss of “I don’t know.”
I took the line with me on long walks through campus, around the lagoon and on the beach in the evening time, up into the mountains and then I would let it rest on top of my water bottle or against the pot while I cooked dinner. Sitting with “I don’t know” and allowing it to permeate into my identity felt good. Not knowing meant coming to terms with the life that was here, and my acceptance of this allowed me to have a new relationship with the moment. I noticed things more, which led to a natural sense of gratitude for the life that was here.
Later in the week, I had the opportunity to sit with a koan group and discuss Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know.” During the meditation session thoughts of the crackling fire and the outside winter chill intermingled with an occasional query as to where the big, beautiful house cat was lurking about and moments of stillness.
Then “I don’t know” entered.
It moved through my mind until I had a visceral sense that my feet were grounded into a thick, jungle endowed mud—the best kind for football games and rolling. I wiggled my toes and felt the greatest joy—a child relishing the texture of goo and a chance to run through it all without anyone to chastise; anyone to know. But there was another layer to it, I felt connected to a base, one in which everything was eternally grounded. I didn’t know how or why, and that was a good thing.
Something to think about:
“Each of you has your own light,
if you try to see it you can’t,
the darkness is dark, dark.
What is your light?”
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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