I’ve just listened to the second talk Stephen Batchelor gave at a Son retreat in 2016 at Gaia House in Devon, Good snowflakes – they don’t fall anywhere else. In fact I’ve listened to it more than once as the first time I did so while very tired and lying down, and however engaging the content sometimes it’s not enough to keep you awake.
In this talk, Stephen is on as good form as he was in the first talk in which he gives instructions for a meditation on What is this?, perhaps a bit perkier than he’s seemed in previous talks I’ve listened to. In one of the talks he explicitly acknowledges those ‘listening on the podcast’, so he’s well aware that what he’s saying includes a wider community beyond the fifty or so people in the hall with him at Gaia House.
He introduces his theme using the koan ‘Good snowflakes: they don’t fall anywhere else’, which I’d not come across before, and goes on to expand on it – trying to resist attempts at explaining it – using examples from modern, Western culture, specifically from the natural sciences.
His examples turn out to be about the sublime (that which is beyond expression, in one way of defining it). In some ways he’s looking at the awesome aspects of the way that physics, chemistry and biology have provided answers to the question of ‘what is this thing, and how did it get here?’.
The sheer uniqueness of you being you, considering all the possibilities involved during human sexual reproduction. The unfathomable depth of outer space, the ungraspable perspective of looking out into the night sky. The answers provided by science amount to descriptions, perhaps not ‘satisfying’ as answers to ‘What is this?’ but they do provide us with a perspective on how impossible it is for us to get a perspective on these issues.
Stephen manages to be lighthearted and playful whilst discussing profound topics, or slightly awkward topics (such as having to consider our parents having sex if we’re pondering on the biological route that led to our own existence).
Towards the end he talks about how Keats provided a way of describing what goes on during ‘what is this?’ zazen, with the concept of negative capability – that is when a person is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason. (And in this context ‘irritable’ means reactive rather than grumpy). Keats used the term in a letter, extolling it as a virtue and criticising those who reflexively spend much time and many words reaching trying to fathom the unfathomable, of course without getting anywhere.
For Stephen, the term makes a virtue of the ability to sit with the unknowingness of the big questions we have – questions that don’t or maybe can’t have an answer.
When talking about the sublime, he also considers the relevance and importance of the ‘everyday sublime’, which he discussed in chapter 9 of his recent book After Buddhism. Although big bang cosmology and other examples that modern science has brought to our attention gives us an obvious long hard look at the sublime, we don’t have to go to extremes for a glimpse – a snowflake is just as sublime as the Milky Way.
From other koans, we have the cypress tree in the courtyard, and three pounds of flax. We have our meaning-making minds, and what am I to make of a door handle? Or some moss growing in a crevice on my car? Sitting in meditation asking ‘What is it?’ is a way of cultivating the sensibility of negative capability’, of being with the the banality and awesomeness of an insect buzzing by or the pain in my right elbow.
This sort of talk is the kind of thing that keeps me going with a secular Buddhism. It’s the looking for meaning while knowing there’s no meaning there other than the meaning we ourselves create, which might seem paradoxical but that’s where the koans help.
To help me look at the kinds of questions I’m asking, that the question is bigger than any seeming answer I find for it. In Ending the Pursuit of Happiness Barry Magid quotes someone in Jim Harrison’s novel The Road Home saying: ‘Questions are mighty oaks; answers small hard acorns’.
~ Jim Champion practices a secular Buddhism in Southampton in the UK