Wednesday, March 30, 2011

this is it

Funny how, the longer you do something or think about something, the walls of the world seem to close in -- everything reducing itself and reducing itself until finally there is just one thing -- just this. And this this contains within it all of the colors and contraptions you worked so hard to understand or collect or portray or control.

I once went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Guggenheim is a spiraling four- or five-story structure where the visitor walks up or down a spiraling ramp to view the paintings on display. It's a nifty building in which I used to imagine what it might be like to skateboard from top to bottom and survive the adventure.

On the one particular day I went, the paintings at the top of the building seemed to come from the late 1800's. They were beautiful and colorful and recognizable as people or places or fruits or flowers. It was like being in your grandmother's house. Various artists were shown, but I never cared much who had done a painting. I cared what the painting did to me. I wanted to be touched. And many of the paintings touched me.

But as I continued down the spiral, the works became more and more modern. I remember cubism and other abstractions gaining a foothold as I descended. Finally, at the bottom of the exhibit, there was a large room in which a series of paintings were entitled "Stations of the Cross" or something similar. The paintings were large. Each was in black and white -- rectangular shapes of black and white. Very neat. Very clean. You knew the artist was thinking of something, that he had reached his own version of "this," but it was incomprehensible to me. I could not see his "this" and it made me irritable. I wanted him to touch me. I imagine he thought he might touch me. But it came off as arrogant bullshit. It was like reading James Joyce -- a perfected world that didn't love people.

But for all that, it was interesting. Narrower and narrower the way until this one, single "this" stands as a testament and complete revelation of the entire universe... trying to share experience in a world where experience cannot be "shared."

In Zen there is the story of  Gutei, a teacher who, when asked any question at all, would respond by raising one finger. One day, when Gutei was away, another monk took charge of Gutei's temple and as it happened, a visitor appeared. This visitor asked the monk a question and by way of response, the monk raised one finger in the manner of his teacher. The visitor left, but when Gutei returned, the monk retailed the to-and-fro that had occurred earlier. When the monk reached the part where he showed how he had raised one finger, Gutei whipped out a knife and cut the monk's finger off. And as the monk ran yowling towards the exit, Gutei called out to him. When the monk turned to look, Gutei raised just one finger.

A Vietnam grunt once told me the story of walking thigh deep in swamp water. He and his comrades were advancing on an enemy they could not see. They were exposed and vulnerable in the swamp that would surely slow them down if the enemy opened up. Step by uncertain step -- who knew what the swamp floor might trip them up with? Danger everywhere and no where. It made me want to piss in my pants just listening to his tale. Step, step, step. Focus, focus, focus. Danger, danger, danger. Death, death, death. Every swamp tree might conceal an enemy and thus every tree was the enemy. And then, in the midst of all the searing attention, with his life on the line, he stepped around an enormous swamp tree and there, in front of him, growing up out of the filthy swamp water, was a single, perfect lotus. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

It all sounds a bit esoteric when told in terms of art or Zen Buddhism, but I think the principle is true for everyone. Things boil down to ... this. A divorce is consummated based on a toothpaste tube that has not been rolled up. A marriage goes forward based on a single smile. A car is purchased because of its color. A sunset or a single note of  music says it all. A hundred thousand million bits of information coalesce in this one, perfectly obvious aspect. This is it!

I think everyone has experienced such moments of clarity, moments without doubt, moments that say it all and there is no doubt about it, moments not open to discussion or improvement. Such moments may carry with them a good feeling or a bad one. But the fact is, they are clear beyond all debate. This is it!

The usefulness of such moments, I sometimes think, is that they pose the question ... if this is it, what is not it?

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