To the Sufis, words precede existence, perhaps because a cry brings people running.
— Fannie Howe

Whenever anyone asks me how I came to be a Zen priest and abbot I always say “accidentally.” This is true. While I admire religious people, people who seem to have a religious destiny and interest – and I know many people like this – I am afraid that I am just not such a person. Mainly I am and have been all my life bewildered. I mean this in the literal sense: ‘bewildered’, meaning not knowing what is going on, being lost, astray, wandering about, ruminating, meandering, uncertain, distracted: being aware of the many situations that obtain in any given situation, the many perspectives contained in any one perspective, the unlimited possible alternative explanations for, definitions of, and ways of looking at anything, understanding anything, the basic paradox, tragedy, and perplexity inherent in being human and living in a world humans make with their fractured, limited (and at the same time inconceivably precise and complex) sense organs and minds. 

The dictionary tells me that the ‘be-’ of ‘bewilder’ means be, as in ‘to be’; but it also means ‘completely and utterly’. ‘Wilder’ means to be lost in a place where there are so many conceivable paths you can't tell where to go. It means to be in the wilderness where there aren't any paths  – only empty spaces or full spaces without any clearings so that everything is surrounding you, embracing you, which means everything is felt at once and all possibilities are equally compelling.  So to be bewildered is to sense the many paths that must be possible and also to realise that there are no paths at all, that the whole world is open and wild. Wherever you go, wherever you are, whatever happens is a path that leads somewhere – and also a question: a path that leads to another path. 

This is how I have always felt. The world is truly bewildering, truly incomprehensible, completely resistant to meaning, sense, interpretation, and this is what makes it so impressive. You can never explain. Of course you can and probably do explain many things, but these explanations, imaginative though they may be, do not really tell you anything about anything. The real world – and anyone's life – is too strange, too bewildering, to be explained. 

I started my Zen practice not as a spiritual person but as a poet. Although I did not become a poet on purpose, neither was it an accident. I was forced into it by circumstances. I was born at the very end of World War II, when the soldiers were returning home from the battlefield with a great hope that things could now be normal and that life would certainly be better now than it had been during and before the war. People in general are admirably able to imagine hopefulness, no matter how hopeless things might seem. This is something to remember and to count on in hopeless times. But although everyone in those days was trying to imagine hopefulness in fact people were traumatised by what had happened to them in the war. (And in my case, growing up in a Jewish family, the trauma also included the unspeakably impossible-to-digest fact of the Holocaust, that directly affected my extended family, as it did all American Jewish families). As a child I felt this universal trauma as a kind of coating on top of things, like dust that was constantly swirling around in the air and would inevitably settle on whatever you brought into the room. I could feel it but no one ever talked about it or even seemed to know that it was there. But children always know what's there, even if they can't say what it is. Instead they feel it mythically, and they are bewildered by it. Which is, I think, a normal feature of childhood that accounts for many of the anomalies that stud adult life like so many suppurating boils that no one seems to notice. 

We all grow up knowing somehow that there's a gap between how the world actually is – how we feel it to be – and how the adults in our world see things and explain them to us. It is one of the great travesties and mistakes of human culture that we always think of children as childish. Actually we ought seek their advice, and try our best to consider their point of view as being of the essence for human understanding. Of course it would make no sense to ask children for practical advice about how to run the government – this is our unfortunate task as adults. But when running the government causes us to forget the profundity of the child's point of view we are truly sunk. Jesus must have meant something like this I think when he said, ‘You should be as little children.’

Because of being bewildered in a traumatised world I was constantly forced to doubt the world as it was given to me to understand and to try to understand it on my own. This was the only form of self-defence I could think of. I began writing as a way to understand what I otherwise could not understand because thinking could never get me there. I could see how limited thinking was. I kept thinking the same things over and over again. Although poetry has never helped me understand anything, it has helped me to keep on trying to understand by giving me a method larger than my own mind and personality. But poetry also makes it clear that the gap between how things are and how we live is immense. So poetry can make your life a lot worse. 

This was what happened to me. Here is a recent poem of mine that may have something to so with this:

These pages are years, days, nights
Words pasted on like flashes of black light
Points of space that swallow apples and dates
Until all that's occurred - places, moments, events -
Folds into the general whole
As a sea humps waves that fall and spray against rocks
Then rock out again, swaying -
How the heart can be like a rock
How it can be blue, like a curtain or a sky
How it can be a royal crown upon a noble skull
Sliding out from the general scheme of things.
I walked along the shore and saw
Two dead cormorants, an eyeless pelican, flies walking in the sockets
Sky with banks of golden pearl gray cloud
A smeared rainbow flaring indistinct against the horizon -
Objects are neither solid nor discreet
Subjects repeat themselves as waves
With variations, spray, trajectory, rhyme -
Birth comes this time of year
To those who wait it, doubled

Poetry was making life really impossible so I could see that what was required was to close the gap by finding a way to turn all of life into poetry. This was the only hope. I was feeling this when I first encountered Zen books, which seemed to provide me with what I was looking for. This is how I understood Zen then – as a way to live so that all of life could be poetry, so that the gap between the way things actually are and the way people live and think could be somehow closed and you could live life whole and true, and it could be beautiful and purposeful, even if things were difficult, and even if you could never really know the purpose. 

So my motivation to practice Zen wasn't really spiritual. I suppose you could say it was aesthetic and practical. I wanted to find a sustainable way to live. When I found out about zazen practice it immediately struck me as desperately important. I don't know why – possibly because I could sense that in order to do what I wanted to do I needed to approach things from an entirely different angle. I didn't like statues and bowing and robes and so on – it all seemed objectionable to me, an iconoclast by temperament and upbringing. But I really liked zazen: the idea of zazen but also actually doing zazen. It was never boring. I could never figure it out or get tired of it because it was so simple it was almost nothing at all, which made it by definition and experientially inexhaustible. 

I started doing zazen every day and I have continued. It just so happened that keeping on doing zazen intensively required me to bow to statues and, eventually, to wear robes and take ordinations. Of course I had a lot of resistance to all that but the resistance was small compared to my certainty that it was absolutely necessary to live in such a way that I could keep on trying and failing to understand my life. The resistance was only me and my little preferences and conditioning, whereas zazen and the necessity to keep on with it was something much wider than that. So I persisted. This may sound more noble than it actually is. The fact is, I was terrified not to practice zazen, not to live out this desperate and impossible quest for the truth. I imagined I wouldn't be able to bear life in any other way. I could not imagine any other possibility. So I was willing to do whatever it took to go on.

Of course we all have theories – to be human is to theorise – and all our theories are autobiographical. My theory is that to be human is to need to live a life that is whole and meaningful and beautiful, a life devoted to the pursuit of the real - although I am of course doubtful about all the terms of that sentence -  whole, real, meaningful, beautiful are all suspect words and may not mean anything, though they do convey a flavour close to what I might mean.   It seems to me, starting with my own experience, that all human beings want and need to make this kind of effort, and that this is why there is always art and religion of some kind in all human cultures. From childhood we have dreams and images and longings that ripen into a vision of life that we need to understand for ourselves, uniquely and viscerally. 

This is why there is such a thing as spiritual path. To me, spiritual path isn't separate or apart from ordinary life, it’s not an unusual life, an alternative to emotional life and material life. Spiritual path is simply a way to stay true to what arises in the course of a human lifetime, whatever that may be. For this we need some methods and rules and techniques and teachings. These things are practical, the food and clothing of the soul. There are many kinds of good food and many kinds of appropriate and useful clothing – there can also be foods that are bad for you and clothing that is uncomfortable and wrong for the weather. We need to find what works. But, in any case, the teachings and techniques and beliefs of a spiritual path aren't themselves a spiritual path. Spiritual reality, spiritual truth, is always bewildering, never entirely knowable. We can know some things. For a little while anyway we can feel we know something that is true. Mostly we can be surprised by a feeling of wonder – or a feeling of gratitude or gentle perplexity. But we can never really possess the truth. That's a kind of craziness, to think we know the truth. My favourite line in the Zen ordination ceremony is ‘the path is vast and wide. Not even a Buddha can define it.’ 

I say that everyone without exception wants and needs to live with spiritual integrity, but I know that there is not much evidence for this. Now and in the past the vast majority of people are not concerned with spiritual integrity. Even if they say they are, they probably actually aren't. They are concerned with economic well-being, with their families, with social status, power and so on. Or maybe they are just concerned with physical and material survival. It is now and has always been a minority of people who have devoted themselves to a thoroughgoing exploration of reality. 

Nevertheless I believe that all human beings have that need in them, and that everyone has some native sense of its importance. Anyone is stopped short on entering a silent meditation hall or a cathedral. Taking a minute to just sit still there, anyone feels something larger and wider than - or at the very least strangely different from -  the literality of mundane life. Sometimes the same thing happens when you read a poem or see a great picture. Everyone knows about this because everyone knows, whether she thinks about it or not, that she has come here from nowhere and that when she is done here she is going to return to nowhere. The minority of people who are devoted to  a thoroughgoing exploration of reality do it on behalf of all the others. In the end, this is the only way it can be done. 


The epigraph to this essay is from Fannie Howe’s essay Bewilderment (which appears in her astonishing collection of essays on writing and life The Wedding Dress), originally delivered as a talk in San Francisco that I attended. I remember the room was packed, the audience enthralled and excited, and the talk brilliant and fascinating, though completely incomprehensible to me at the time.  And yet the basic thrust of it - that bewilderment was not a problem to be avoided but instead a state to be sought, cultivated, and cherished - made perfect and immediate sense to me, and struck me as an essential religious and literary insight. I am sure that I wrote my own essay with the same title soon after I attended that talk.  

Re-reading Fannie’s essay now, I appreciate its complexity and brilliance. Unlike mine, it doesn’t proceed by explanation and doesn’t unfold with a linear clarity. Instead, it circles round and round its central theme - which is itself circular and murky. There is no forward marching progressive motion - neither in Fannie’s essay, nor writing in general, nor in life, or time.   Just gyres turning in fits and starts, full of disjunction and reversal:

“At certain points wandering around lost produces the (perhaps false) impression that events approach you from ahead, that time is moving backward onto you, and that the whole scenario is operating in reverse from the way it is ordinarily perceived.

... Each movement forward is actually a catching of what is coming at you, as if someone you are facing has thrown a ball and stands watching you catch it.

Watching and catching combine as a forward action that has come from ahead.

All intention then is reversed into attention.”

(in The Wedding Dress, Meditations on Word and Life, University of California Press, 2003) 

Fannie is a poet, novelist, essayist, and Catholic mystic, spiritual daughter of Simone Weil and Edith Stein (about both of whom she writes) and all her writing reflects this commitment and exploration. As a gnostic, she is both inside and outside the Church, both faithful and unfaithful in her faith, and her religion is powerfully resistant to all boundaries, cranky and fiercely compassionate. My few and yet for me potent and intimate conversations with Fannie over the years - conversations in which the apparently vast differences between our respective traditions and experiences has meant nothing at all - have been a treasure and relief. 

This essay appears in Norman Fischer, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, Dec 20, 2015). An earlier version appeared in Dharma Life, Issue 23 (Summer 2004).