Still it can be cultivated

March 23, 2015

… several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability … when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” – John Keats, 1795-1821, from a letter to his younger brothers, George and Tom, written on 21 Dec 1817

Now Keats’ definition of Negative Capability is the best definition I have come across for zen meditation. It’s curiously exact.” – Stephen Batchelor, from “Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism: A Changing, Living Organism,” Upaya Conversations, 17 May 2013, 27:40.

In the Korean Zen tradition, one generally meditates on the koan What is this? This question derives from an encounter between the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638–713 C.E.), and a young monk, Huaijang, who became one of his foremost disciples:

Huaijang entered the room and bowed to Huineng. Huineng asked: “Where do you come from?” “I came from Mount Sung,” replied Huaijang. “What is this and how did it get here?” demanded Huineng. Huaijang could not answer and remained speechless. He practiced for many years until he understood. He went to see Huineng to tell him about his breakthrough. Huineng asked: “What is this?” Huaijang replied: “To say it is like something is not to the point. But still it can be cultivated.”” – Martine Batchelor, “What is This?,” Tricycle magazine, Fall 2008

I try to practice something like zen awareness every day.

Ideally I sit some, walk, do tai chi, and even bring some awareness to my daily activities. If I can’t do all that, I do what I can. On the busiest days there may be only a few minutes of resting awareness before rising from bed in the morning, and maybe a few more before falling asleep at night. But whether I do a little or a lot, I invariably feel like Huaijang during the years before he answered his koan.

What is this? I don’t know.

Not only don’t I know, I feel like I don’t even know how to ask. How do I sit? Walk? Be aware? I don’t know.

“The practice is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you ask repeatedly, What is this? What is this? You have to be careful not to slip into intellectual inquiry, for you are not looking for an intellectual answer. You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment.” – Martine Batchelor

Slipping “into intellectual inquiry,” and “reaching after fact and reason,” are exactly the lifelines that my mind keeps throwing me. “Catch!” it says. “Try to figure this out.”

Why not? 50+ years as a scientist has taught me how to figure many things out. Even when math and science have brought me face-to-face with things that are provably beyond all figuring, like knowing all the digits of pi, or finding an analytical expression for a three-electron wave function, I have learned workarounds that seem to make ‘figuring things out’ a viable option.

So how should I deal with all of those things that I haven’t figured out yet? Reach after “fact and reason”? If that doesn’t work for me, decide that someone else will figure them out some day? Or drop into “negative capability?”

It feels like there is a fork in the road where the questions one encounters either moves you towards intellectual inquiry or towards negative capability, but I have no idea where that fork is located. And maybe that’s the point. It’s not on any map, yet the path can still “be cultivated.” Simply walk in the footsteps of Huaijang and Keats. Accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” but continue to ask the question, “What is this?”

More reading on koans:

Zen master Seung-Sahn on Kong-Ans: Mind-to-Mind Connection


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