O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life.

Stopping to buy a few fruits and vegetables at a roadside family farm, I linger to chat with the co-owner. She describes the process by which she and her husband make their own Greek yogurt. I, in turn, report on a meal I concocted the night before: a medley of steamed kale, roasted bell peppers, and cashews served with quinoa. She says it sounds delicious. What could be more ordinary than our casual conversation, our brief exchange of words?

Yet what could be more mysterious, once you look into it–this capacity for thought, speech, and conversation, made possible by the human brain? Watching my eighteen-month-old granddaughter acquire words and concepts, I’m newly awed by the complexity and indeed the mystery of the process. According to the scientific findings reported by Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby, there is far more thought, including thoughts of the past and future, going on in infants’ and toddlers’ brains than ever we imagined. And the same mystery surrounds the workings of our own, grown-up brains, which even the most advanced neuroscience has yet to fathom. Neuroscientists now understand single neurons and patterns of neurons fairly well, but how those neurons work together to produce an action remains unknown. How, asks Larry Abbott, a prominent neuroscientist, can one pattern of firing neurons “make you jump off the couch and run out the door, and others make you just sit there and do nothing?”* That fundamental question has yet to be answered.

And as with the brain, so with the body. If you practice one or more of the so-called healing arts–Hatha Yoga, T’ai Chi, Qigong–you may have found that over time your bodily awareness has dramatically increased. You now notice minute changes in the form, strength, and flexibility of your limbs. Less happily, you also notice your most minor tensions, aches, and pains. But sensitivity is one thing and deep understanding quite another. For the latter, most of us must rely on health-care professionals to diagnose and treat our ills and maladies. And, as Dr. Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, vividly illustrates, doctors themselves must rely on intuition and educated guesswork, as much as on their training, knowledge, and experience. “Medicine is an art, not a science,” a local doctor informed me many years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed, recovering from a bleeding ulcer and wanting answers. More recently, when a dermatologist had examined a pesky skin disorder from which I’d been suffering, she offered what she called her “working hypothesis.” Disconcerting though they may be, such remarks are also oddly reassuring. When all is said, the human body remains a mystery, and I’m relieved to hear experts humbly admitting as much.

Beyond the mysteries of mind and body, there is the profound mystery of death and its aftermath. Zen teachings call it the “Great Matter of Life and Death.” In a famous Zen story, the eighteenth-century master Hakuin Ekaku encounters a samurai, who asks him what happens after death. “I don’t know,” Hakuin replies. “How can you not know?” the samurai retorts, “you’re a Zen master.” “Yes,” replies Hakuin, “but not a dead one.” Oft-repeated by contemporary teachers, that riposte epitomizes the general attitude of Western Zen to questions of death, rebirth, and the like. In contrast to other spiritual traditions, Buddhist included, Zen offers no maps, itineraries, or guidelines.

What Zen does offer is a practice through which we may cultivate an attitude of openness, awe, and appreciation toward the whole of life, including its mysterious, timeless dimension, which Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called “something which has no form and no color–something which exists before all forms and colors appear.”** In that connection, and in the spirit of the season, may I suggest listening afresh to the King’s College Choir’s 2009 rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, which interweaves dissonant, twentieth-century harmonies with an ancient text in a work of surpassing beauty.


* James Gorman, “Learning How Little We Know About the Brain,” New York Times, November 10, 2014.

** Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 116.

The painter and printmaker Greg Dunn holds a doctorate in neuroscience.  His present work grew out of his realization “that the elegant forms of neurons (the cells that comprise your brain) can be painted expressively in the Asian sumi-e style.”  Visit his website at www.gregadunn.com

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Continue Reading »

153. Not two, not one

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: Continue Reading »

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention Continue Reading »

151. Yeah, whatever

Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. Continue Reading »

Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. Continue Reading »

800px-Red_River_of_New_Mexico_Picture_2010For more than four decades Joseph Goldstein, an internationally known teacher of Buddhist meditation, has practiced mindfulness of the body and mind. First as a monk in the Thai forest tradition and later as a Western practitioner, he has trained himself to be aware of what is occurring, within and without, in any given moment.Yet one afternoon, while walking along a river in northern New Mexico, Goldstein slipped on a wet rock and hyper-extended his knee. At the time, he was conducting a retreat, and later on that day, after giving a talk in the cross-legged position, he found himself unable to stand or walk. For the next few hours he berated himself and worried that he would not be able to complete the retreat. But in the midst of his anguish, he reports, a “sort of mantra” arose in his mind: Anything can happen anytime. To his surprise, that “mantra” provided a great sense of relief. Since then, he has found it “amazingly helpful in accepting change with a deepening and easeful equanimity.”* Continue Reading »


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