April 19, 2014
Alan Watts taught that our consciousness — thoughts, memories, feelings, actions — do not survive our physical deaths. Yet he also taught that something does; the aspect of ourselves that Lao Tzu called “the nameless essence,” the inviolable connection and identity with the All. Therefore, to die well requires the same inner action as living well: we must be letting go — constantly, mindfully, lovingly.
Well, was Watts right? Was he wrong? If you say yes or no, you are not responding, only answering. And very often, an answer is the worst possible response. This morning, as I thought about the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a “non-answer” occurred to me, which I wrote into a haiku:
the rain of yellow flowers.
Mother Spring mourning.
It has been a somber month for lovers of great literature; and also a turning of an era (take the “u” out of “mourning”). Two weeks ago, it was Peter Matthiessen, the great American writer of The Snow Leopard and one of the core books on Zen practice, Nine-Headed Dragon River. And now, the giant who stands beside Cervantes as one of the two pillars of Spanish language literature. If you’ve never read the work of Garcia Marquez, I’d recommend 100 Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera.
There has probably never been a writer of greater daring. He wrote with such a naturally fierce psychological verismo that a new term had to be invented to embrace his style: magical realism. It’s a kind of silly way of saying that this artist had such command of his themes, his stories, his characters, settings, and his language; that he wrote inner narrative and outer poetry, until the reader could blissfully forget that there is any natural or meaningful distinction between inner and outer at last.
That is the way of the great artist: hold, embrace, and then surpass every contradiction, every division, every opposition, until they cannot exist anymore. When the walls of superficiality break down under the artist’s piercingly reflective gaze, then every natural texture, contour, and depth is revealed. The rain of yellow flowers doesn’t happen in-here or out-there; it just happens. As readers, we accept its reality without asking whether it’s “real.” That is what art does for us; it is how artists become the hidden leaders of social growth. They call out what is hidden within us, through a process of mere provocation.
That brings me back to Watts, who was a master of provocation. Teachers and lecturers on spiritual and deeply psychological topics must provoke their audiences. First, to challenge them to think and feel differently about received truths and the cultural pabulum that we are fed in these areas from the cradle on. Second, to reveal that the teacher is not a master; that he can be questioned, criticized, held to the same standard of examination as anyone else.
The true artists of that field of personal transformation, people like Watts and Krishnamurti, dared to expose themselves to their audiences, to challenge them to examine the cloth before buying. How do you tell a person how they should perceive their mind, life, death, self, and meaning? Is there a formula; a scientific consensus; a law; a group of commandments? That’s an utterly idiotic flame of arrogance that has burned its way so deeply into our societies that the only way free of it is within, stripping oneself so naked and raw as to be, in effect, psychologically nude. These guys knew that; they felt it; they experienced it themselves. So they could teach it.
Matthiessen said that if you could just manage five minutes a day of what the Zen masters call “direct seeing” — the unobstructed self-perception that dissolves and transcends every division, every shred of estrangement — your life would be so enriched as to be transformed. Garcia Marquez might have added: the rain of the yellow flowers is always falling, but we can only feel its liquid light upon our bodies when we die to the illusion of separation; when we are, if only for a fleeting moment, no longer strangers to our bodies or to our Source — in the few seconds where we can stop feeling like alien clay figurines thrown into a universe of dust and emptiness by a cold, angry, commanding, and forlorn God.
This is why we seek, why we practice. It is why we study; why we teach. To enter a moment in which we do not at last find the Answer, but instead realize — for five seconds or five minutes or in some eternal Now — that there never was any Question. That is when the yellow flowers rain.