Sunday, 9 August 2009

The mysticism of ordinary experience

Many of the books that mean a lot to me I came across by accident and not because I read reviews about them. In fact, books that are hailed by professional reviewers often disappoint me - I seem to inhabit another world than people who are paid to read and (and sometimes reflect on) books.

Breakfast at the Victory. The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse I bought in October 1995 in San Francisco (I noted it on the first page of my copy); I remember that I found it in a box of books that were for sale. That Pico Iyer, Robert Pirsig and Dan Wakefield recommended it - as the book jacket states - surely contributed to my having a favourable look at it but the subtitle probably intrigued me even more because I've always felt that there was something special about ordinary experience.

Okay then, let me quote from this extraordinary book on the magic of ordinary experience:

The wild geese do not know where they are but they are not lost. Knowledge can lift the veil. It can also become the veil. "In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added," Lao Tsu declared. "In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped." This is not mere anti-intellectualism; it is a recognition of both the importance and the limitations of knowledge. Learn what you can, then learn how to leave your learning behind you for it can hide you from the ceaseless change in and around you. The great Tao "nourishes infinite worlds, yet it doesn't hold on to them." Only by releasing our attachment, can we, in Rumi's phrase, "find our place in placelessness."

As the Buddhists put it, we are all unaware Buddhas whose efforts to lift ourselves out of the ordinary hide our true nature from ourselves. The Buddhists echo Eckhart's point in the declaration that nirvana is samsara - the highest achievement of the spiritual life is within the full embrace of the ordinary. Like our striving elsewhere, attachment to a discipline is but our desire of the extraordinary. Our appetite for the big experience - sudden insight, dazzling vision, heart-stopping ecstasy - is what hides the true way from us. Therefore, we need a discipline that undoes our attachment to a discipline. Thus the meaning of the famous sutra, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
But, of course, we first need the Buddha to teach us this, to teach us that we are already there, on a road of our own.

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