This is someone who has read Hardcore Zen and There Is No God and He is Always With You, so she knows what I said about it in those books. She also knows that I’m not very fond of the term “enlightenment experience” because it tends to imply that there is some sort of experience which, once you have it, makes you “Enlightened.” But we knew each other well enough that I knew what she was asking about and I knew that she knew that there was no experience that makes anyone “Enlightened.”
So I was struggling with trying to come up with a way to answer the question she’d asked, to tell her in a direct way something about this moment that has shaped everything that has ever happened since that time – and perhaps shaped everything before it happened too, but maybe it’s best not to go there.
The title of this piece is the mnemonic I used to try to remember what I said to her because I thought maybe it would make a good blog posting. Although I’m not sure if this will actually work or not. I know this person very well, so will the things I said to her be understandable to people I don’t know at all? We shall see. This won’t be precisely what I told her. But it’ll be fairly close.
All of my life I’ve been aware of some very intimate aspect of myself that I have been calling “Brad.” I’ve called it “Brad” because that’s what other people seemed to call that thing. It is a very personal something, this “Brad” aspect of whatever it is that I am. When someone calls the name “Brad” it responds. Or at least that’s what I think happens. When someone says, “I love you, Brad,” it’s that aspect of myself that feels loved. When someone says my books are lousy or my music sucks it gets hurt.
This is an intensely private, close and familiar thing. It is so private, close and familiar that it feels like it cannot possibly be shared. It is the absolute me. It sees the bowl sitting on the table in front of me from a particular angle that no one could possibly see that bowl from even if they pressed their cheek right up to mine. It perceives my private thoughts that no one else can ever know. It knows my darkest secrets. It knows my fondest desires and it knows my most disgusting fantasies. It’s been everywhere I’ve been, done everything I’ve done, heard everything I’ve heard, said everything I’ve said.
People have told me that this “Brad” came into the world on a day in the very early spring when the trees were just starting to think about growing flower buds. They told me this “Brad” would eventually pass away. Some said it would be reborn after that happened. Others said it would go to Hell to atone for its sins forever and ever. Others said it would simply wink out of existence and no one, not even “Brad” itself would know that it ever even existed at all.
But on that autumn day on that bridge over the Sengawa River (I’m pretty sure it’s the bridge that appears at 2:33 in this video, the person who made the video calls it æ‰“è¶Šæ©‹,though I never knew it even had a name*) in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward, I saw clearly and unmistakably that this most intimate something that I thought was mine and mine alone, this thing that I thought was so personal to me that it could not possibly be shared by or even connected to anyone else in any way, this thing that was so unequivocally me that it was the very definition of the word “me,” I saw that this was not me at all.
In fact, this personal and private something was, I now saw, the personality of the entire universe from the beginningless beginning of time right on through eternity. I saw that this thing I thought was located so deeply inside of me that no one could ever even think of touching it was actually spread throughout all the universe. It wasn’t just inside me. It was inside Tau Ceti and Alpha Centuri and the Great Megallenic Cloud. It was there when the Big Bang happened. It was the Big Bang.
I saw that it was the very same intimate, personal, private something – the “me” aspect – of every person that ever lived, will live or could live – including you, dear reader. It was the personal private something of the sky and the sun and the moon and every ant or rock or piece of bird poop anywhere at any time throughout space. Nothing had ever happened or could ever happen without it knowing every intimate detail, bad or good, happy or sad, painful or pleasant.
If that’s not God, then I don’t know what is.
And perhaps I don’t.
Because it didn’t change me into a better person. It did not grant me moral perfection or freedom from the effects of my bad deeds. It didn’t give me magic powers. It didn’t give me extrasensory perception or vast insight into all things. It didn’t even let me know what color brontosauruses were. And that’s something I’d really like to know.
It didn’t leave me with anything to prove to others that it had visited me, like, y’know, when a guy in a sci-fi movie isn’t sure he really traveled back in time until he reaches into his pocket and discovers he still has the autograph he had Abraham Lincoln sign or whatever. Nope. I got nothing but a funny story I can tell. And not even a cool enough story to get me on one of those shows Oprah Winfrey produces!
I also told my friend it was a little like going through life with a paper grocery bag over your head. Then one day somebody lifts the grocery bag for a couple seconds and you see there’s whole world out there. Then they put the grocery bag back on your head again. She said, “Why don’t you just take it off then?”
I thought about it for a couple seconds and said that I think it’s like Cosmo, my friend Nina’s cat. He’s the cat sitting on my shoulder in the photo on the top of this blog entry. Cosmo sometimes likes to run outside Nina’s apartment if you leave the door open long enough for him to make a break for it. But Cosmo never goes very far. One time he got out and I caught him. I slung him over my shoulder to take him inside. But then I remembered I’d left something in my car. So I started walking toward the parking lot instead of back to the apartment. Cosmo freaked out! He clawed the crap out of my back before I realized what was wrong and headed back inside.
Nina has another cat, Lilly, who sometimes sits and looks through the screen door but never goes out. Maybe sometimes Cosmo tells Lilly about what it’s like outside. Lilly probably just rolls her eyes. Maybe she doesn’t believe in outside. Maybe she thinks Cosmo just made up the whole concept of “outside.” After all, how can Cosmo even prove such a thing exists? Sure, there’s the view out the screen door. But why should she believe what Cosmo says about what’s out there? And especially why should she believe what Cosmo says about there being even more to “outside” than he has seen for himself? But it doesn’t matter if Lilly believes in the existence of outside or not. Her belief or lack thereof doesn’t change anything.
And even though Cosmo has gone maybe ten or fifteen feet into the outside, going any farther is just too scary for him. Ultimately he’s happier in the apartment. It’s familiar to him. It’s home. Even though the idea of freedom excites him, ultimately he likes the limitations of the apartment. They’re comfortable. They’re knowable.
Maybe this body/mind isn’t meant for navigating the limitless vastness of the universe. Maybe its place is here. But knowing that it is a manifestation of something much greater is nice. It makes everything seem at once much more serious and much less solemn and grim.
So there you go.
* Weirdly the first Chinese character in the bridge’s name is the ta from shikantaza or “just sitting” style zazen, the second character means “to cross” and the third means “bridge.” So one way to interpret the name of the bridge would be “the bridge where shikantaza is crossed.” Although I am very certain that’s not the proper interpretation. Google translate says the name of the bridge is Uchikoshi Bridge. There is also apparently a far more famous and beautiful bridge that has the same name.
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