Saturday, January 08, 2011

We left the story of Bodhidharma with the Patriarch sitting in a cave, just sitting (shikantaza), with no intention of doing anything but sitting. But you and I both know that since this is a story, something is going to come along and happen because that is the nature of stories - something next always happens. And even if nothing happens next, well, in a story, that "nothing" that happens becomes the thing that happens next. "Nothing" becomes "next thing."

In John Barth's wildly entertaining novel, The Tidewater Tales, these is a passage in which the hero (the writer, Peter Sagamore) and heroine (his wife, Katherine S. Sherritt), setting out on a sailing adventure, come to an impasse and cannot decide how to proceed. As Barth describes it:
The storymaker Peter Sagamore is stuck . . . the man literally does not know where we will go next, what do; and that state of affairs terrifies him, when he looks it in the eye. It frightens the bejesus out of K.S. Sherritt, too. What you're reading, reader, is P's and K's story. But what husband and wife are living, and trying rather desperately just now without success to read ahead in, is not their story. It's their life.
Life, of course, is different from fiction, or even from a non-fictional narrative of a life, such as that of Bodhidharma's. In stories, there is always a moment when something happens because it must due to "mere narrative pressure, dramaturgical suction," as Barth calls it, manifest in such expressions as Just then, or Suddenly, or Even as she looked desperately about her for some sign. "The Next Thing comes into existence," Barth notes, "and the narrative proceeds for good or ill. That is our art's great lie (one of them)."
The twin facts are (first) that we are on the one hand so lulled by ubiquitous narrative convention hat we may indeed forget, reading a realistic story, that in it even the meaningless is meaningful, it having been put there by the author just to remind us that real life comprises much meaninglessness. When, in a story, nothing happens next, that is the thing that happens next: The nothing becomes a thing, which, we may be sure, the author will quickly cause to be followed by the next thing, a more conventionally dramatic thing, and on goes the story. Whereas (second) in fact, nothing is no thing, and our story does not at all necessarily go on, for the reason that our lives are not stories.
"The story of our life is not our life," Barth concludes. "It is our story."

So in Bodhidharma's story, he sits in a cave facing a wall until the next thing happens nine years later. But in Bodhidharma's life, in real time as he experienced it, there was no "next thing" off waiting in the wings or the narrator's imagination, there was only the eternal now, there was only just sitting, and he was not waiting for any "next thing" to happen. Sitting and waiting for the next thing to happen is not just sitting, it is sitting and waiting for the next thing to happen. Be sure, Bodhidharma was ready to sit there forever, or at least until he died, and had no intention of either a next thing happening or even having his continued just sitting become The Next Thing.

He just sat.

"While [the master] thus continued practicing on SÅ«zan Mountain," Zen Master Dogen notes, "there were dogs who barked at the great ancestor: they were pitiful and extremely stupid." The dogs referred to here are not canines, but people who would come to make inquiries of Bodhidharma and interrupt his sitting. Some of these "dogs" were sent by Emperor Wu, who had later realized that he had been visited by a great Buddhist Patriarch who came to transmit the authentic teaching, in an attempt to get Bodhidharma to come back to the imperial palace. Others were curious monks and laypeople who had heard of Bodhidharma's sitting, and came to the cave to see him for themselves, some out of mere curiosity, others with the intention of becoming his students.

But these "dogs" were all potential "next things" of which Bodhidharma had no intention of engaging. He just continued to sit in a state of deep samadhi, not waiting for any next thing to happen. To be sure, he would get up from time to time to stretch his legs, to eat, and to relieve himself. During such moments, he may have taken stock of the barking dogs outside of the cave and sighed to himself, returning to his spot before the wall after eating or pissing to sit some more. In truth, even this return to sitting was not a "no thing" that became the "next thing," for this was not his story as you're hearing it now, it was his life as he was living it then.

It so goes without saying that we are ever forgetful that, as Barth puts it, "Nature is not naturally narrative; that whatever the nature of natural cause and effect, it is not except by accident dramatically meaningful."

1 comment:

Tallis Grayson said...


Fantastic ideas! I’m wondering if one can help but impose meaning onto the world when the language centres of a person’s brain are active. When you are not thinking is there any meaning? Or perhaps we might say that when you have inner silence and presence then whatever you happen to be doing is the meaning, is the point. Tallis