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