Here’s the scene: I’m standing at the edge of a pond in November, dusk’s pink-bottomed clouds scooting across the sky and simultaneously glowing on the surface of the ice. The pond isn’t entirely frozen—ninety-three percent frozen, perhaps—and a chunky beaver is swimming across a channel of open water. She dives where a pane of thin new ice pinches the channel shut (oh what a glistening furry rump) and I pan my binoculars to the next patch of open water, five feet away, positive she will emerge at that precise spot. Wrong. To my great shock and even greater delight, the beaver—crick-crack-crash—headbutts through the thin new ice. And because the dark tunnel of my binoculars induces a kind of single-pointed concentration, a vivid immediacy, I’m right there with her, up close and personal, my spine tingling.
Now I ask you: Is this anything?
Okay, let me backtrack.
A couple weeks prior to my encounter with the headbutting beaver (she appeared utterly unfazed by the knock to her noggin, FYI), I gave a public talk about nature, writing, nature writing, whatever it is a guy like me is qualified to spout off on. At one point, I described a handful of random mini-episodes from my rambly life outdoors—less anecdotes than images, less stories than moments, pauses, pulses of, as I phrased it above, vivid immediacy. A robin’s empty eggshell has a tiny snail tucked inside the hollow! A gust of wind lifts old snow and twirls forth a pale white ghost and the ghost passes over exposed red dirt and instantly changes color! A cottonwood leaf drops from a branch and settles on a sturdy but basically invisible spider web! The headbutting beaver—crick-crack-crash—would have fit perfectly into my riff.
Indeed it was a riff, an inspired freestyle, an exuberant, extemporaneous, agendaless celebration of mundane daily magic. Not developing a grand theory. Not constructing a complicated argument. Not using the world as a stepping stone to reach for some higher, larger, better message. (What message is higher, larger, and better than the world?) I overheard myself explain to the audience that, according to Jerry Seinfeld, when comedians test material on each other, they typically pad their iffy, in-progress jokes by asking: Is this anything? Three plumbers enter a bowling alley dressed as chickens and the first turns to the second and he clucks and the third turns to the first and… so, like, is this anything?
That’s where the riff concluded: Seinfeld and babbling me and an auditorium of nice folks presumably (I was blinded by a bright light in my face) scratching their chins. Is the eggshell-snail anything? Is the gust-ghost anything? Is the leaf-web anything? Damn straight they are, I said. Abso-friggin-lutely. But I couldn’t tell you what.
Obviously, I still can’t. The headbutting beaver has got me thinking though—thinking about the relationship of vivid immediacy to Zen. Specifically, it’s got me thinking about the following passage from Roshi Robert Aitken’s brilliant 1978 book, A Zen Wave. “In a dream at night, we are caught up in just that dream, flitting and fluttering around. It is in just such total awareness that body and mind fall away…” Aitken contrasts this immersive mode, this attunement, with a rather dismal alternative. “It is in the dimension of evolution, of present means toward future ends, of doing in order to, that staleness, cynicism, and boredom are so overwhelming.”
I believe what he’s suggesting is that we are blocked from thusness and pure presence—from vivid immediacy—when a utilitarian mentality takes hold of our consciousness, hijacking our outlook. Put another way, we are distanced from, and maybe wholly ignorant of, the weird beautiful surprising awesomeness of planet Earth, the mundane daily magic, when we answer Seinfeld’s question like this: Nope, that’s not anything. Dumb of you to ask. I’m busy and don’t have the bandwidth for these stupid games. The clock’s ticking. Time is money. Where did I misplace my phone and car keys?
I have plenty of direct experience with Aitken’s dimension of staleness, cynicism, and boredom, and I empathize with those in its grip. The immersed-attuned mode is famously hard to achieve and harder yet to sustain. Most of us twenty-first-century Americans struggle to see value in that which merely—make that “merely”—crick-crack-crashes up in front of us. We’re unpracticed at allowing body and mind to fall away (into the dark tunnel of binoculars, for instance). No wonder this ancient koan from The Gateless Barrier confuses and frustrates us: “A monk said to Tung-shan Shou-ch’u: ‘What is Buddha?’ Tung-shan said: ‘Three pounds of flax.’”
Is three pounds of flax anything?
The outcry is deafening: No! And least of all is it The Awakened One!
How ought we reorient? How ought we proceed? Beats me. But in A Zen Wave, on the same page that Aitken presents the flax koan to readers, he quotes Simone Weil, the French philosopher-mystic, and I suspect her words are his idea of sufficient encouragement, if not advice: “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing nothing, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”
On the evening of the headbutting beaver, once my spine had finished tingling and the pink of the clouds had dimmed to purple, I returned home, ate dinner, plopped onto the couch, and opened a library copy of Weil’s Gravity and Grace. A piece titled “Chance” caught my eye. It begins: “The beings I love are creatures. They were born by chance. My meeting with them was also by chance.”
I grinned, nodding. Yes, yes, yes. How special to bump into lovable ephemeral creatures, whether fellow humans, beavers with glistening furry rumps, eggshell-snails, ghost-gusts, leaf-webs, you name it. How magical the mundane daily magic. How incredible this world that is always and forever its own message—none higher, larger, or better—and these nonstop, inexhaustible, everywhere-details, each worthy of our regard and affirmation. “Chance,” I realized, was a creature too, Weil’s words headbutting—crick-crack-crash—through the ice of me, unexpectedly.
Here’s a final reference—this from Zen Baggage, Bill Porter’s narrative of a trip to modern China. “I read over an inscription I had recorded in my journal from a fifteenth-century stele in the courtyard of Pishan Temple: ‘A place doesn’t become sacred by itself. It’s people that make it sacred.’ It occurred to me that the corollary would be that the reason a place isn’t sacred is also people.”
I agree with Porter, though I’m tempted to articulate his insight slightly differently: It occurred to me, thanks to a chunky semiaquatic rodent, that the tipping point between a perception of the sacred and its opposite could be a deceptively simple question—Is this anything?—and the way that we answer.
Standing at the edge of a pond in November, dusk’s pink-bottomed clouds scooting across the sky and simultaneously glowing on the surface of the ice, a beaver seamlessly transforms from a motorboat to a submarine and the binoculars are zoomed in tight and my toes are sort of numb and then suddenly, wow, she headbutts up through and…
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