Spirituality wraps itself in ridiculous guises. Gurus atop mountains; sayings paradoxical to the point of nonsense; otherworldly or overblown claims; practice seemingly contrived for practice’s sake. I want to jot down a few thoughts about that last manifestation, spiritual practice. Li Po’s poem seems to be an end for it; not quite a goal, but the limit of the thing, the limit being that which defines what something is in the world. But initially, the poem also looks too sparse to be anything, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as inflated, high-sounding language which could lead the audience astray.
If I didn’t have a specific problem on my mind, I probably wouldn’t even try to understand what’s below. As it stands, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks wondering about how reading works or doesn’t work. (You can see some of those thoughts in the June post on Nietzsche.) I read far too much, and it’s hard for me to remember the sheer number of details which wash over my small brain. I don’t even know that I want to remember all of them — what I usually want is a better sense of what’s relevant, what takes priority, what I need to be sensitive to. That’s certainly not the height of enlightenment. At best, it’s an attempt at a refined wisdom. At worst, it devolves into claims of superiority over petty details.
I do believe there’s a vastly higher use for reading, not unconnected to grappling with what’s important. But a prerequisite or corequisite for that use might involve a most radical, unconventional simplification. The birds have vanished down the sky — no civilization, only one living thing, when these lines begin:
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain (from Poetry) Li Po (tr. Sam Hamill) The birds have vanished down the sky. Now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.
The birds vanish. No heed is given them as they disappear entirely into the sky. The sky becomes something else, itself — now the last cloud drains away. Without birds, without clouds, it ceases to be something natural, and is perhaps removed even from the laws of physics. The sky simply stands a perceptual field, drained of all content. If it shows blue or is lighted, it is a field which is a predicate more than a being. It is like a color (“blue”) or a condition (“bright”) which can be used to build a perceived object.
Mind becomes aware of how it creates the world as the time of the poem progresses. The sky will turn black. Again, this is beyond civilization, beyond the natural. To go further, we sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains demonstrates a profound awareness of death. This is not quite Socrates’ joke toward the end of the Phaedo, where he says the afterlife could be a realm where red is really red, where there are only predicates and no beings. It isn’t a joke. What underlies the power of human reason is human finitude just as much as any so-called eternal truth.
To clear the mind and become aware of how much the world is a percept is itself a grand truth. Grand truths are overwhelming mysteries, nothing more. Before death, the mountain is felt. It too can be thought a perceptual field, but it won’t reduce as the sky did. It holds something which stands outside of our existence while supporting our existence. Yes, this sounds a lot like transcendental idealism, but transcendental idealism resolves something like this: geometry and physics can be known because, in a way, they’re built into our perceptions. The sciences are certain, general laws of ethics can be had, there are aesthetic claims which can be advanced.
This poem challenges your going back to the world and attempting to apply your rational powers to it. If you truly understand how contingent everything is, how do you deny the power of that mystery? Of course, you have to go back to the world — you will become a skeleton upon that mountain, or you will leave it sitting where it is. Not an ethical teaching, but a disposition is advanced. The attitude with the most potential simply undoes the most artificial, useless conventions, just as it can set aside those aspects of the natural world which are unnecessary. It is an attitude of great humility, appreciating that knowledge goes far because we can know so little.