Monday, July 30, 2012

Knowing Nothing, Wanting Nothing

When I was a young man, I was very much in search of heroes. I saw so many things around me that were uninspiring and insufficient, and I knew that I wanted something in life that went beyond the mundane compromises that filled my life and the lives of others. I did everything I could to discover people who had lived lives that were worthy of emulation. I found a goodly number of people to admire: Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Raoul Wallenberg and Mother Theresa, among many others.

One literary figure in particular stood out for me: the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. Most people wouldn’t know him, or if at all they would know him for his novel, “Zorba the Greek.” But I was interested in him more for his spiritual yearning and the passionate writings that came from that, such as “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Saint Francis” and his most significant work for me, “Report to Greco.”

Kazantzakis was a rebel who would not be limited by conformity or orthodoxy, and he was eventually excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church. Due to this excommunication, when he died he could not be buried in a cemetery. He was instead buried on the city walls surrounding Heraklion, Crete. I was so moved by his intense devotion to the inquiry into truth that I made a sort of pilgrimage to his grave site — with “Report to Greco” firmly in my hand. When I came there, I found an intriguing epitaph on his gravestone which read, “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

I felt immensely inspired by those words, but I don’t think I really had any clue at all as to what they actually meant. I could understand the virtue of fearing nothing, but how could someone hope for nothing? From a conventional point of view, “to hope for nothing” appears to be a stance of complete nihilism and pessimism. What would life be if we could not hope for anything? That idea perplexed me. But the more I pondered the deeper meaning of the idea, and the more I had rich life experiences that pointed the way towards freedom in immediate perception, and the more I saw incredible people courageously living in that way, the more it dawned on me what this could mean.

This phrase is pointing to an incredible teaching that can set one free from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. By hoping for nothing, we are in a totally alert and easeful relationship with life; we are not resistant to what is. This is NOT a stance of passivity and inaction; no, not at all. Quite the opposite: it is the hero’s stance, one of complete strength, vision, trust, courage, commitment and service to the benefit of all. The hero’s stance is always right now — not lost in the figures of the past or fearing the challenges of the future. Gain and loss, coming and going, death and disease, joy and love — all of it flowing to us in an unbroken stream without the resistance of hope or fear. Right now, right now, life in all its abundance and in all its many twists and turns, right now.

There is another way to perceive the hero’s way. We could call it the path of knowing nothing and wanting nothing. Once again, if this is understood in the wrong way, it would seem to point to a lifeless and vacant response to life. Oh, my goodness, how very much it is the total opposite of that! To know nothing is to be in a beautiful dance with all of life, where we are seeing everything as if for the first time. Because we are not at all relying on all the burdensome prejudices of the past, we see with complete clarity and openness. In knowing nothing, we have open access to all knowledge. By no longer relying on our vague notions, we emerge into a profundity of seeing that is unimaginable from the mere vantage of fixed ideas and small-minded opinions.

To know nothing and to want nothing…it takes some getting used to, doesn’t it! Because this is so unfamiliar to us. We were never educated or encouraged to know nothing or to want nothing. Quite the reverse, of course: we have been trained our whole lives to gather ideas and forms that will keep us safe and to acquire people and things that will complete a life that is seen to be incomplete.

To know nothing and to want nothing is the vantage that will best serve us when death finally comes to us. At the point of death, wanting and knowing will be of no use to us. We don’t know what our death will bring, and nothing we can hope for will prevent its coming.

Wanting nothing and knowing nothing, we truly live the life that is right here, right now. We are heroes in the greatest sense of the word; we are mastered by nothing and limited by nothing. All of what is possible is available to us without having to ask for more.

1 comment:

  1. "We were never educated or encouraged to know nothing or to want nothing."

    Not entirely true - some of us had a crazy teacher who made us read Siddhartha (auf Deutsch!). It was a long time before that seed sprouted and led toward deeper investigations, but I am very grateful to that teacher.

    --an old student