We need structure, wrote the inventive composer John Cage, so we can know we are nowhere.
Talking with a friend this morning about the unfinished and unresolved business of life. We end, as we began, without answers or a satisfying plot line or a neat denouement that ties up all the loose ends. All through our lives there are puzzles and mysteries, difficulties and stuckness, breakthroughs and more stuckness. We think we have found answers in faith or sober living or abstract principles (we think we know what we believe) and then another void is revealed, a new conundrum presents itself. We join a faith community, we return to the church, we decide on a political stance, we feel we belong in a particular neighborhood or place — and then we are faced with doubt or changes, we see strangers moving into our street, we hear a sermon that gives us indigestion, someone laughs at our certainties. We find that we don’t believe what we believed a year ago, that we are not able to keep promises we sincerely meant at the time, that we can’t go on in the same groove –we are called out into the desert or wilderness to go on searching, we find ourselves in a realm of unknowing.
In the early mornings I sit up with a mug of tea reading about Thomas Merton’s journey into Buddhism, his desire to become a good Buddhist without renouncing his Catholicism. His life a scandal and enigma to many.
Unknowing, the gift of knowing we know so little. We stop giving advice, we stop thinking we can rescue or set others straight, we stop thinking we know better. Others may need their muddle and confusion and stuckness, they may need to stay with brokenness. We’d love to make it nice, be of use, help them get over it, remind them of rainbows and happy-ever-after endings. Say things that are encouraging and useful. But life isn’t like that. Compassion is at its heart unsentimental, hard, truthful, able to hold the hardest and most bitter of truths, able to look death in the face.
And there is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic, the student of Buddhism, nearly at the end of his own Asian journey (he will die on this journey, accidentally electrocuted in a Bangkok hotel room, his questions unresolved) and he encounters the serene smiling statues of the Buddhas at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka:
All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya… everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely… my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.
Knowing we are nowhere, that we shall stay unknowing.