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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

A Cloud of Unknowing

Photo Credit: Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

I'm still shaking my head. Trying to keep up with a Zen teacher, to grasp a concept only to let it go, to see the light only to watch it snuffed out, this is exhausting work. But it is also, in its way, thrilling.

Talking about the ineffable Mystery that is Divine Oneness--"God," according to some vocabularies--leaves you empty-handed every time, and sometimes empty-headed. It can't be done. Like the poet, we can use words--we must use words--but those words only light the way by pointing, hinting, suggesting. Never by naming. Then suddenly the words themselves evaporate, leaving us alone on the darkened path to find our own way home, alone.

This is what makes the literal truths of fundamentalist religion so appealing to some. God is a person, specifically, a male person. The Bible is true, right down to the dimensions of the arc. Jesus died in a prdetermined arrangement whereby he was punished for our sins, saving us from God's wrath. Our job is to learn God's will and then to do our best to do it. It's all so clear, so black-and-white, so simple.

Zen Buddhism embraces a different truth: it's all so illusory. It offers none of the assurances that Christianity offers, that God's will can be known and that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Buddhism doesn't dispute any of that. It simply disregards it. Because the very nature of the world as we know it is that we cannot know it. Nor can we "know" God. We can only welcome our unknowing, embrace the impermanence of all things, and open ourselves to the Divine Oneness from which we draw our breath.

Buddhism, in all its forms, is about practice, not belief. That practice centres around meditation, a discipline of being still and present to the moment, with all its contradictions and complexities, opening to a kind of wonder, if not to an active wondering, the questions themselves providing guidance along the way. It invites awe, not certainty.

Konrad Ryushin Marchej, who goes by Ryushin, is a former medical doctor and naval officer, a former abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State, and now an independent Zen teacher. He speaks softly with a slight Polish accent and carefully sets boundaries around what he says so as not to be misunderstood--this, but only in this context; that, perhaps, but not generally. The words themselves cannot be trusted.

I tried to follow along, really I did, both in the recorded conversation and then in the hours of editing that followed, as I waded into the deep end to pull the essence from all the contextualizing qualifiers. Was there a core, a kernel, a nub? I feared I was violating the entrustment of my guest by seeking the pithy amidst the profound. But I had a podcast to produce and it couldn't be too long or too wordy or too esoteric. It had to be clear.

And then I reached the moment when I pushed my chair away from the desk, leaned back, and started to smile. It was my "Aha," my breakthrough, my insight. Yes, I could work all I wanted to make things clear. But nothing, ultimately, would do the trick. Because we weren't talking about anything we could ever see, much less understand. We were talking about the Ineffable, the Oneness we in our divided world will never know ... except in an opening of the heart that expands the mind, not to contain the truth, but to experience it.

So, now, it's your turn. To listen to my conversation with Zen teacher Ryushin, please click on the Play button, below. To learn more, click the Information button (i), which takes you to the show notes. And my advice to you? Listen lightly.

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