Noelle Oxenhandler concocts an antidote to fundamentalism
Once, long ago, in the midst of a Zen retreat, I stood in a darkened hallway and drank a glass of water.
That’s a lie.
The truth is: I stood in a darkened hallway and discovered that I couldn’t even drink a glass of water! Of course, I could lift the glass, open my mouth, and swallow the water. But I couldn’t perform this simple activity simply, wholly—with each gulp, my mind splintered into myriad thoughts of past and future, each one of them bearing its weight of self-consciousness, its little tag marked me, me, me.
For years thereafter, if anyone had asked me, “Why do you study Zen?” the answer would have been: I just want to be able to drink a glass of water. Still today, those words express both my greatest happiness and my deepest aspiration. Lately, I’ve discovered something quite startling within this aspiration, something that has helped me to understand the form of religion that has long seemed most alien to me: fundamentalism.
Here I’m defining the term in its broadest sense, as any form of religion that takes a particular interpretation of its historical doctrine to be the absolute and literal truth. What connection could there possibly be between such a rigidly dogmatic stance and the aspiration just to drink a glass of water?
The connection is to be found in the desire for simplicity, for clarity. The desire to be free from doubt, to feel as though I am simply doing the right thing, fulfilling my role as a human being and acting in harmony with the very ground of existence. The desire to be part of something vaster than myself, something that relieves me from the pain and uncertainty of being trapped inside a separate me, me, me.
Let’s face it: it isn’t easy to be human. Look at our closest primate relatives: their behavior has scarcely changed in thousands of years. When undisturbed in his natural habitat, the chimpanzee—with whom we share ninety-eight percent of our DNA—gathers his food, swings from his trees, and interacts with his chums in much the same way as did his distant ancestors. Governed by instinct and tightly patterned behavior, other animals aren’t faced with the nearly limitless possibilities that confront our species. They don’t have to find their way among the ten thousand ways of uttering meaningful sounds, claiming territory, creating shelter, expressing sexuality, or rearing offspring.
It’s a great irony that fundamentalism in America was galvanized by resistance to Darwin, to what was considered the blasphemous put-down of being called “animal.” For at its root, the fundamentalist impulse may be seen as one way of finding relief from the burden of human choice, complexity, self-consciousness. And in this sense, the impulse toward simplicity, clarity, certainty may be seen as a desire to be more like an animal. Isn’t it remarkable that while some people would fiercely deny such desire, others honor it? In her poem “Come into Animal Presence,” Denise Levertov gazes with admiration and longing at a snake, a rabbit, a llama, and an armadillo, who radiate such a natural ease and dignity in their being. She asks, “What is this joy? That no animal / falters, but knows what it must do?”