So, yesterday there I am re-reading my long ignored copy of “Zen in the Art of Archery.” I turn a page and find a rent receipt from August 1968 stuck in the book.
College days. Beginning of my junior year at San Jose State. Had recently gotten back from Europe, where I’d spent the second semester taking classes in Zadar, Yugoslavia. I’d rented an apartment with a couple of other hippie potheads. That explains the reference to three cleaning deposits.
Well, fuck me! I think, sitting there in my meditation sanctum, a rarely-used tiled shower stall where I retire every morning with a big cup of coffee to read and contemplate the mysteries of the cosmos. Plus the all-too-familiar ramblings of my own mind, which usually drown out the mysteries.
I’m pissed. Who the hell do I think I am, writing such Zen-ish crap at the age of nineteen just so I could drive myself even crazier at fifty-seven? What irks me, seriously, so much that I feel a few tears starting to form, is that this sentence precisely captures my present existential dilemma.
“There will be light when there is no darkness and through darkness we cannot find the light.” That’s it in a nutshell. That’s the koan I’ve been wrestling with for the past thirty-eight years, and I’d completely forgotten that I’d given it to myself on the back of a rent receipt in 1968.
I wondered whether I’d copied down that line from Eugen Herrigel’s classic description of how he set out to learn archery while he was living in Japan and ended up learning Zen. I’ve scanned through every page, including his concluding treatise on “The Method of Zen.”
Can’t find it. Nor does the sentence pop up on a Google search. I could have read the line somewhere else. Or, as seems likely, I was using the receipt as a bookmark and used the back of it to write down an idea that came to me.
Regardless of the source, this line encapsulates my personal koan. It wasn’t given to me by a Zen master. I gave it to myself. I believe each of us has a koan of this sort, a deep down in the gut paradox that simultaneously drives us crazy and is the lifeline that we cling to for sanity.
That’s where my tears came from. From 19 (and even before) to 57, this koan has been tearing me philosophically, spiritually, and mystically to pieces. Also, keeping me from falling apart. In seventeen words it sums up the essence of everything that I’ve been writing, reading, and pondering for almost four decades.
Sitting on my meditation cushions, it blew me away that with GPS exactitude my extensive inner journeying from 1968-2006 seemingly has brought me around with pinpoint precision to the identical philosophical position from which I started.
Blooming buzzing confusion.
There’s that word. Seemingly. I clutch onto it. It’s something to hold onto. Hope that what appears to be going around in circles actually is some sort of spiral. An upward spiral, I wish. But even downward would be better than circularity. I want to get somewhere. Heaven is best, but I’d prefer Hell to nowhere.
“There will be light when there is no darkness and through darkness we cannot find the light.” Oh yeah, Brian, you got that right. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon. I’m sure I knew that back in 1968 too, but there are lots of ways of knowing.
Thinking knowing. Feeling knowing. Perceiving knowing. And the Zen sort Herrigel writes about: knowing that isn’t knowing because it isn’t something apart from you that you can know. It is you.
Not this, not that. None of the above, because it isn’t above or below. Somewhere else. Not dark, not light. Something else.
Herrigel asks the Master how the target is hit without the archer’s taking aim. He gets this reply:
“You are under an illusion,” said the Master after awhile, “if you imagine that even a rough understanding of these dark connections would help you. These are processes which are beyond the reach of understanding. Do not forget that even in Nature there are correspondences which cannot be understood, and yet are so real that we have grown accustomed to them, just as if they could not be any different.
“I will give you a puzzle which I have often puzzled over. The spider dances her web without knowing that there are flies who will get caught in it. The fly, dancing nonchalantly on a sunbeam, gets caught in the net without knowing what lies in store. But through both of them ‘It’ dances, and inside and outside are united in this dance. So, too, the archer hits the target without having aimed—more I cannot say.”