Glass of Water, Bare Feet

Noelle Oxenhandler concocts an antidote to fundamentalismNoelle Oxenhandler

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?”

Fundamentalism is one answer to the human fear of faltering. It answers this fear through appealing to the fundament, a word that derives from the Latin fundus, or “bottom.” The fundament is the base, the bottom layer—and that’s where all the trouble begins. For one man’s base is another man’s pinnacle; one man’s pure, absolute, divinely revealed and unshakable foundation is another man’s leaning tower of stories.

I first learned to meditate in a basement in Ohio, when a monk from Thailand came to my college. Sitting with my rump on the floor and my legs crossed, I was struck by the way the practice trained my attention downward: to my lower abdomen where the breath went, and lower still, to the level of hems, ankles, feet, baseboards, and outlets. Often, when the bell rang at the end of the sitting, I would feel a rush of affection for these lowly things.

Think of Jesus, at the Last Supper, washing his disciples’ feet: this is tending to the lowly, an ancient way of expressing devotion, of practicing humility. Humility: the word contains the same root as the word humus, which refers to soil, earth, the ground. It is also linked to the word human, for we are earthlings, we are creatures whose feet touch the ground. When I am able—even for one moment—to drink a glass of water without being preoccupied by the leaning tower of stories, the elaborate edifice of me, me, me, then I am refreshed by an experience of true humility, I am restored to simple humanness, I know where I stand.

Though they share the same root, how different humiliation is from humility. For if humility is a state that blossoms from within, a state of true affection for and kinship with the lowly, humiliation is a state that is imposed from without. To be humiliated is to be brought low, to feel ashamed of being one-downed, of being made to “eat dirt.” The combination of humiliation and religious fundamentalism is, as we have so grievously learned, one potent formula for terrorism. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in our encounter with radical Islam and its immense resentment of Western power—stretching all the way from the Crusades, through French and British colonialism and the creation of Israel, to American support for corrupt regimes and its current occupation of Iraq. In the deadly blend of humiliation and religious fundamentalism, two permutations of the bottom layer—humus and fundament—rub against each other like tectonic plates, releasing an enormous pent-up pressure.

One of the things that is remarkable about terrorism is its economy. For a small dose—a single act of brutal, unpredictable violence—easily becomes pervasive. It spreads like dye in a bowl of water. In the face of this lethal economy, I find it very heartening to remember that the Buddha, too, was a great believer in the small dose. Look how a drop of water, over time, can wear away the hardest rock, he said. So it is that a moment of awareness, rekindled again and again, can wear away the hardest rock of ignorance.

And so it is that I pose this question: If we were making a tincture, and using awareness as the base, what other ingredients might we add to create the small dose, the remedy for this terrifying time of clashing fundamentalisms? If the opposite of spreading fear is spreading courage, then how can we make a medicine to en-courage?

First, taking to heart the injunction “Physician, heal thyself,” it seems important to search inside oneself for any susceptibility to fundamentalism, wherever it manifests as an attachment to particular forms, a tendency to mistake the finger for the moon. When I think, for example, of the sort of militant oryoki that I have witnessed at more than one Zen center, I feel grateful for my two left thumbs. Were I more dexterous, I could easily have joined the ranks of those who glowered at the poor clods who hadn’t perfected the art of bowl-wiping, as if they were infidels. And how many times have I caught myself in the supreme paradox of arrogant bowing? (What a good bow-er I am! she said to herself, So much better than that woman over there, who hasn’t got the rhythm down and whose sash is unwinding.)

While staying alert to the many forms that arrogant bowing takes, we can mix in the other ingredients of our potion. Of these, the first and foremost is not-knowing. Buddhism is fundamentally a path of inquiry, a practice of looking at the mind’s tendency to cling, to adhere to opinions, beliefs, memories, emotions, moods. This is a remarkable foundation, because it’s fathomless. For as every moment gives way to the next, we come face to face with an infinite freshness of experience—a freshness that, if we have truly surrendered to the practice, cannot be solidified into a doctrine.

Inextricably intertwined with the practice of not-knowing is the primacy of direct experience. “Don’t take my word for it,” the Buddha said, and also “Seek out your own salvation.” Though there is always room for distortion (“I’ve had an insight and you haven’t!”), the insistence on direct experience is fundamentally an antidote to fundamentalism. For to be genuinely focused on discovering for oneself what is true or not true is inherently different from attempting to conform—and getting others to conform—to someone else’s record of the truth.

Compassion: this is the most important element of all. And here, too, there’s wisdom in the word’s roots, for com-passion, to suffer with, expresses a mutuality, an equality that is a world away from the humiliation that is such a powerful catalyst for terrorism.

Laughter, humor—these, too, belong in the tincture. Once, in an almost unspeakably uptight zendo in southern France, a monk was demonstrating to me and another woman how to enter through the doorway. “Vous entrez toujours avec le pied gauche,” he told us. “You always enter with the left foot.” He lifted his foot over the threshold, and the other woman and I looked at each other. Finally she dared to speak. “Ce n’est pas votre pied droite?” she asked, almost apologetically. “Isn’t that your right foot?” He burst into laughter, and I saw that the monk’s reverence was spacious enough to encompass the right foot and the left foot, the right way and the wrong way. Okay, I thought to myself, I can sit here.

When I look up fundament, the very first word in my dictionary is buttocks—and I feel like giving a whoop of delight! Suddenly, as if I’d fallen through a time-tunnel, it is thirty years ago and I am standing in the central square in Freiburg, Germany, staring up at a cathedral of carved pink stone. My eyes travel up past the saints, the angels, the Virgin Mary to where—high on a spire—I see a very prominent rear end sticking straight out into the sky. It’s a gargoyle, offering not a mouth but an anus as the opening through which evil spirits exit and water rushes when it rains. What a humorous, irreverent way to conduct the unwanted away from the holy place! No judgment, no condemnation: just a drainpipe and a joke.

Humor is a word linked to humid, to what is fluid. In our fear of faltering, of being brought low, we earthbound humans get so identified with our sky-gods, our lofty roofs, our metaphysical absolutes, that we need the fluid of humor to wash away the effluvia of pride, of arrogance, of dogmatic certainty.

From the butt passing rainwater from the spire, my mind leaps to the Zen dog who “outside the ancient temple, is pissing to the skies.” In this image, I see the antidote to a terrible image from the recent past: a U.S. soldier pissing on a cowering Iraqi prisoner. For the dog pissing outside the temple reminds us that the truest reverence is that which doesn’t carve the world up into sacred/profane, faithful/infidel, saved/unsaved—or even myself and other.

Now my tincture is complete. I remember my Zen teacher saying, “The rain falls on all things equally,” and I take this as the fundament, the true Ground Zero: that I alone must see for myself that all things on earth are equally holy/unholy under the holy/unholy sky. Standing with my bare feet on the ground, I vow to drink a glass of water.

Noelle Oxenhandler
began Buddhist practice in 1970. Her essays have appeared in many national and literary magazines and have twice been honored in The Best Essays of the Year collections. She is the author of The Eros of Parenthood.

Image 1: © Manuel Rodriguez

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