Friday, May 30, 2014

Profoundly Ordinary (and other Zen Oxymorons)

Insight into the great matter, sometimes reverently called the The Great Matter of Birth and Death, has likely been pursued for millennia, ever since humans became self-aware.

Enlightenment, satori, kensho, seeing into one's own nature, self-realization, illumination, awakening, seeing one's original face, epiphany, reaching God-consciousness, or, as Robert Aitken Roshi put it, noticing something important.

It can be a gradual shift in perception spanning decades or a sudden realization as quick as the opening of an eye. It can follow years of diligent meditation / zazen / mindfulness, or it can happen for no apparent reason at all.

Although much sought after, it is not infrequently, I suspect, the elephant in the room. After all, “Whoever knows does not speak; whoever speaks does not know.”

Which means whoever spoke those words (Lao Tsu) obviously didn’t know (?)

Which means the statement might be false. Which means … hmmm … entering a place where words fall apart.

On March 15, 1958 In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, Thomas Merton was suddenly overwhelmed with a realization “like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

Over at Monkey Mind in his post A Bit of What Kensho is and A Bit More of What it Isn’t, James Ford Roshi wrote, “…what we get is a discovery of our ordinariness. And, like for Father Merton, finding our deepest connection.”

Bodhidharma’s answer in the first koan of the Blue Cliff Record  to the emperor’s question, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” was, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The oxymoron ‘profound ordinariness’ might have been used by St. Augustine. (I’m flitting about here, fearful that this piece may descend into rational analysis in a place where rational analysis has no business being.)

His particular usage of oxymoron, found in the prayer to God, is as follows: "(You are) deeply hidden yet most intimately present, ... immutable and yet changing all things, ... always active, always in repose, ... you love without burning, ... you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will change without any change in your design” (Conf., 1,4,4) …

Augustine uses the oxymoron for glorifying God. The phrase "(You) deeply hidden yet most intimately present" contains contradictory and incompatible words. Yet it is with these contradictory words that he was able to express God. God is absolutely ineffable. Nevertheless, "if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable." (Doct.Christ., 1,6,6)

Speaking about shift in perception, here is an autostereogram (remember them?) The slightest change in view brings alive a vivid three-dimensional image from a bunch of coloured dots.


Hint: enlarge the image and experiment gazing at it slightly cross-eyed.

[Spoiler alert: It’s the image of a shark, cut into, not standing out from, the flat surface.]

Perhaps here might be a good place to mention, for those interested but who haven’t read it yet, The Book of Mu – Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan by James Ford Roshi and Melissa Myozen Blacker – a collection of over 40 wonderful essays, each pointing at the moon.

And finally, another grateful nod to James for introducing me to Peter Mayer’s Holy Now.


  1. The elephant in the room indeed! :) The sacred in the ordinary, a mere shift in perception... Love the Peter Mayer video!

    1. Thanks Christine, the video says a lot in a few words.

  2. That everything is sacred... I like that. It reminds me in a way of the lyrics to the song "Send Your Love" by Sting. Holding infinity in the palm of your hand... That's profoundly ordinary too - Yes?

  3. Thanks Bea. I've been delinquent checking for comments - sorry! Send your love into the future - what a great inspiration. When nothing is special, everything is special - talking about stuff like this, words often just fall apart, but once in a while they say something beautiful.


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