Friday, January 29, 2016


Having no destination,
I am never lost.

I am an iconoclast and a heretic. I reject all claims and assertions of supernatural religion and authority. In the words of Thomas Paine, my own mind is my own church. So, it is no surprise that I have a soft spot—no, not that one—for other iconoclasts, heretics and freethinkers. Ikkyū [pictured left] was one such man. He was a 15th century Japanese Zen Buddhist monk. He not only revitalized Zen but also had a profound influence upon the Japanese tea ceremony

Now, Zen has always sought to cut through the crap so as to arrive at a direct, immediate and largely intuitive experience of life, but Ikkyū’s radical approach was really something to behold. He was an iconoclast extraordinaire. In any field of any endeavour we need the man or woman who says, ‘But the Emperor has no clothes!’ That is why I’ve always loved the American comedian Groucho Marx, who spent his entire life deflating the pompous, the pretentious and the phony. We need more people like that.

Here’s the second most profound piece of metaphysical wisdom---there is nowhere to go. I’ve told you this story before, but I’ll tell it again. A young man is on his way home. He comes to the banks of a wide, and very deep, river. He finds he is on the ‘wrong’ side of the river. The river is fast flowing, with numerous rapids. There is no bridge or other means available for crossing the river. The young man sees an elderly Buddhist monk standing on the other side of the river, so he yells over to the monk, ‘Oh, wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?’ The monk ponders for a moment, looks up and down the river, and yells back, ‘My son, you are on the other side.’ Yes, wherever we want to 'go', we are already there. The young man wants to get to the other side of the river, only to be told that he is already on the other side of the river. To reach the other side of the river is to see that this very side here is the other side. When there is no separation in our mind between one side and the other, then in that very moment we are one with the very livingness of life flowing through us and all things. 

The author at a Japanese tea ceremony.

And the first most profound piece of metaphysical wisdom is this. Well, it follows directly from the first. It is this---truth is right where you are. People strive for worldly success and for the approval and admiration of others but those things will not take you away from yourself—not for long, anyway. Truth—also known as reality and life—is right where you are. All we need to do is to see things as they really are in all their directness and immediacy. That’s where mindfulness comes in.

Listen to these words from Ikkyū:

Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning -- already gone --
thus should one regard one's self.

The folly and blind hope of supernatural religion is that we are going to live forever in one place or another, with one such place supposedly being more attractive than the other. I do not believe that. We come from dust and to dust we return. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In one sense, we remain part of life’s self-expression—for life cannot other than be. That, as I see it, is the true meaning of those words, ‘The spirit returns to God who gave it’ (Ec 12:7), but I am in absolutely no doubt that at the point of death our consciousness as a separate, thinking, feeling individual together with what we call our personality, comes to an abrupt and very final end. If you want to believe otherwise, that is your prerogative. As I see it, we are, in the words of Ikkyū, like ‘vanishing dew’, a ‘passing apparition’, a ‘sudden flash’. In the words of Shakespeare, taken from what is my favourite play of his, The Tempest:

…       …       …       …     We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Ikkyū is, however, saying more than that. He is making a comment about how we should regard ourselves. Most of us take ourselves far too seriously, thinking that we will be remembered long after we are gone. A few of us will live on longer in the memories of others. As George Eliot expressed it in her poem 'The Choir Invisible':

Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men's search
To vaster issues.

That is very sweet sentiment but the plain and simple truth of the matter is this---most of us will be completely forgotten in two or three generations. How's that for a reality check?

Lake Ashi, Kanagawa Prefecture, Honshū, Japan.
Photo taken by the author.

Ikkyū had much to say about so-called sacred texts. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most sacred texts contain some helpful advice on the art of living—along with a lot of unhelpful and divisive nonsense. The task is to separate the wheat from the staff. Listen to what Ikkyū has to say about sacred texts:

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

…       …       …       …

I've burnt all the holy pages I used to carry 
but poems flare in my heart.

The concept of ‘original mind’ in Zen is a most important one. Imagine for a moment that you had not been brought up in the faith or belief system of your parents or particular culture. Indeed, imagine that you had not been inculcated in any way to believe this or that about life. You would then have a mind which was entirely culturally free and unconditioned. Such is the nature of your ‘original mind’. Is it possible to have such a mind today? Well, people such as J. Krishnamurti say that it is indeed possible for the mind to decondition itself entirely. For my part, I am still working on the task.

I love what Ikkyū has to say about poetry. My late father used to say that there was more wisdom in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám than in The Bible. Maybe. Maybe not. I think Dad was telling me more about what he didn’t or couldn’t believe as opposed to which work contained more wisdom. After all, The Bible contains some great poetry as well, and the Book of Ecclesiastes has a similar tone to much of its writing as the Rubáiyát, although the latter does seem to be promoting a more earthy approach to life and its fleeting pleasures.

Take a good look at the religious fanatic. It does not matter which religion he or she is fanatical about. The fanatic has completely lost their original mind. He or she can no longer see and appreciate things as they really are. Everything gets filtered through, and distorted by, their belief system. Yes, the same thing can happen to the atheist and nonbeliever. However, Ikkyū is making the point that any study of sacred or spiritual books, as well as meditative practices, can result in your losing your original mind. One good way of deconditioning your mind, and returning bit by bit to your original mind, is to spend more time communing with nature. That is very good advice.

Well, I haven’t burnt all the ‘holy pages’ in my home library. There are still hundreds and hundreds of books on religion and spirituality, as well as on many other subjects, on my bookshelves. However, I have burnt something, and that something is this---the mindset that says, ‘This, you must believe’, ‘The Bible says …’, ‘God has spoken His final word in …’, and ‘There is only one way … .’

You are never lost when you know the way home. And where is ‘home’? Well, it is right here, where you are now. Look around you. Look within you. What do you see? What do you feel? It is life. You are an expression of the spirit of life. That life did not begin with your birth. It will not end with your death. Recover your original mind, and start seeing and experiencing things as they really are.






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