It’s been an interesting few days. The fields are browning and high winds whip leaves through the air, stripping the birches and maples on the ridge. The wooden deck is covered with drifts of now-dried droppings from the overhanging scrub maples. I take one morning to sweep them into mounds around the roses; they will insulate against the cold that is to come. I wonder how they know to stop putting out new shoots or blooms.
Looking up into the woods, I wonder about the herd of deer now growing in number because they know the hunters can’t reach them here; I wonder how they know the boundaries of safe/unsafe. There’s a sense of calm and security, a feeling that we are protected as we transition through Autumn to Winter. I wonder how I know this.
Each year at this time, I pick up a book written by a Noble prize winner in literature. A little tradition that forces me to excite my neurons with something other than the brain melting serial crime stuff of Jonathon Kellerman, Laura Joh Rowland, or lately, Elizabeth George. This year’s pick was Doris Lessing but instead I found myself with Elie Wiesel’s Night, a hot cup of Rooibos chai, and a clenching in my stomach that I might be ruining our Thanksgiving family evening by walking into Auschwitz and Birkenau through Wiesel’s eyes.
Wiesel describes his deep desire to study the Kabbalah and his meetings with Moishe the Beadle, the unlikely person who teaches him. Moishe asks young Eliezer why he prays. Why did I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe? Moishe teaches him that “every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer…”
Man comes close to God through the questions he asks Him… therein lies the true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers…you will find only within yourself.
Why does Moishe pray? “I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.”
It’s no surprise to find Zen in Night. Wiesel is one of those realized persons who has broken through the illusions of the fabricated self, transcending all forms of conceptualizing the world.
Questioning is what took me to practice over and over. The first zen community I sat with was lead by Albert Low who studied with Yasutani roshi and then Philip Kapeleau roshi. His approach was sweet and subtle, encouraging and valuing. Keep asking, was his constant reply.
“What am I, anyway?” sounds a bit strange because it gives expression to the deepest search that we have, and so we cannot ask it in words but only with the whole of our being. It is not simply a philosophical or psychological problem that we can hold at arm’s length, but a concern underlying our whole life. A Chinese zen master (from the Mumokan) said that it calls for the concentration of “one’s whole body, with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and eighty-four thousand pores.” In the Bible the question came as a cry from the heart, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (The Butterfly’s Dream: In search of the roots of Zen by Albert Low)
The leaves, the roses, the trees , the deer don’t need to ask. They simply live – as Rilke wrote – “live long into the answers.”
Thank you for practicing,