[Edward Burne-Jones, Let There Be a Firmament, The Beginning of the World]
Destroyed, certain to reject any courtesy of a magical time-delaying watch, you feel you are bending to an end, factually born yet fractionally still unborn, a lagging boy and a mock cowboy, wind-free riding the conveyor belt, advancing with just about everyone else on your common trip to the Edge. Painfully uninterrupted, muted and heavily burdened by the amounts of happiness you have fridged inside in best shape, you carry on. Mostly carry under. You wonder – what is the purpose of this? Why. You learn Zen, you meditate, you heal some, you ache more. What then? You know you ought to stick to the balm of the basics. The breathing. The smelling. The skywatching. The bathing. The reading, too.
The Jewish tradition of the yearly Torah reading is a cyclic one: From Genesis to Deuteronomy and when that round finishes, one year later, time regresses and you are back in Genesis again: to the fundaments, ground zero, the virgin darkness of the Before, then the shameful array of human errors you have already moved on from. The cycle orders: Moving back is another form of moving on. Utterly puzzled, you start to listen.
Many biblical books can take a good punch with us, but Genesis is a one-of-a-kind master at hard rebooting. Step by step it rewinds our soul until we feel ready to spring again. Unlike any other book, here you don’t need to own any prior knowledge or remember any previously introduced characters, relations or laws. You only need to show up willing, regardless of the minor-key crisis that is eating you up, and restart. Place your heart on those mysterious words and treasure their pulse. And it is not even you out there; you’re only a calm observer reading a fairy tale. But it is you. And this is where the magic begins, too.
Out and without – welcome to the first nudist school
A “lesson“, as I see it, is an opportunity, not to add more knowledge, but to wear less-on and walk freer and uncovered, conveniently or inconveniently, in the garden of Eden, all questions asked, all weathers welcome, all presumed answers slumped.
In Hebrew I find the word “lesson” (shiur – שיעור) similarly liberating: Shiur can be compared to English words beginning with the prefix “re“, signifying an action done again or anew. “Shi” is then “re“, and added to the root “עור”, which means “awakening”, a “lesson” would mean “reawakening“, the remembrance of an initial awakening, forgotten yet always alert, responsive, always ready to respond. When redundancy is shed and the comfort of concealment is robbed, one recalls the pure, natural comfort of exposure. When you are exposed, other things can be exposed next to you. This is the required setting for any discovery: To be present, one shall naturally shift from absensitivity to sensitivity. Feel! awake and bare, wondering and gazing, a combination of verbs unusually used to translate תוהו ובוהו, an expression from the second verse usually translated as “Chaos” or “unformed and void“. When you wonder and gaze every word weighs bricks, perforates and electrocutes, and if it doesn’t, give it time. Eventually – it will.
John Cage, the pioneering musician, mentioned also on the previous post, lived and practiced this philosophy fully in his experimental patience-challenging compositions, seeing this insistence as a commitment to the present, to discovery, to the awakening of the eyes to seeing by still waiting, by meditating:
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all.
A somewhat similar idiom can be found in the Talmud:
The one who studies a hundred times does not resemble the one who studies one hundred and one times. (Hagiga 9)
Brace yourselves, our journey within the realm of Less will thus come to a temporary halt very soon after take off, for not much can be taken in at once under such extreme conditions: Our fuel will suffice for three words only this time; or one, that is – if we run our motors on the original tongue:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
The first rewinding move, in a book dedicated to man, is this. Why this? What does this line make sure we know? What does it want us to unknow?
≈ Meditation Point ≈
Notebooks aren’t only good for copying off the board. They are actually amazing litmus papers to our inner currents and motions. I invite you to follow this course with a close journal, where you will write one paragraph every lesson. Click here to download a journal template I made for you, if you care for it. Now, take a 15 minute stroll, outside or inside, and ask yourself the above question. Let your hand write without thinking. Flow without judging. Write down whatever comes to mind, make it approximately seven to ten lines, and then, continue.
* Always feel free and welcome to share anything that comes to mind in a comment. You never know how your words might strike a fellow endurer, serving as the luminous revelation, safety net or the incubating hammock one needed to cross through the day. *
To B or not to B?
Forgive me for rushing. The first word is important, but the first letter is just as revealing, or in this case – just as revealing in its concealment. One of the questions some sages have been excitedly tortured about is this: Why did the Torah begin with the letter B and not with A? (In Hebrew it begins with the word “Bereshit” – בראשית, which is the equivalent of “Beginning”). The Jewish sages did not ask just for the sake of the intellectual gymnastics. This question derives from their high sensitivity to disharmony, the disharmony of existence. The meticulous order of creation, as depicted in the first chapter, did not convince them, and they felt there is an encrypted message somewhere in there, a secret oozing to be noticed. The sacred scriptures, as textual compositions, can easily represent the order in the disordered, the perfection in the imperfection and the harmony in the disharmony. However, the opening note is a discordant one. So easily could the bible begin with an uplifting Alef (the Hebrew “A”), which is the first letter of the word God (אלוהים), but it didn’t. A typical adult would say, “so it didn’t”, but a child would insist. And so would the sage.
This is the thorn that gives birth to the only question worth asking: To B(e) or not to B(e)? Because maybe, in a world that starts with a B, something is deeply defected to begin with. And if so, why bother?
Every asker reaches his own answer, and therefore there are already several available answers out there, all beautiful crafts of creative deciphering, many fighting for the presence of harmony in a seemingly flawed world. Allow me to leave those odes to existence for another time and introduce here one exploration that does not labor to rescue us from the feeling of the missing component. According to this particular revelation found in the Talmud, B is not only a sound or a word consisting wagon, it is also a symbolic shape: ב. And it communicates.
The midrash of Bereshit Raba (1: 10) says,
“Why was the world created in B? Just as this B is sealed from all sides and open only in front, thus you have no right to say what is down, what is up, what is before and what is behind, unless it is from the birthday of the world onward.”
Doesn’t the woodcut by Edward Burne Jones from the opening of this post seem a little bit like the first formation of the letter Bet, marking the impassable wall between man and the Beyond? A wall and not a window, decisive, uncompromising, allowing not even a peeping hole, because you can’t peep into a black hole without becoming It.
From here on: Light and tamed dark. From there on: the primal Black. For your own good, you can’t go near. Still, there are times when every life rower secretly knows this dark without looking, swallowed by it without asking. And it is those times of dying whilst being alive that the questions of purpose and purposelessness erupt and implore. The midrash above can come off as infuriating, patronizing, question shutting. Yet, coming from question-advocates in essence, it is probably not simply an inferior desire to discipline minds to hush all the great Why’s, stop knocking and commit to a God-pleasing life head-on. Could there be a superior discipline of Why hushing? Could it somehow be interpreted as a fierce yet compassionate zen master’s advice to a student in difficult trial?
≈ Meditation Point ≈
You already know the drill 🙂
One always sick, the other in the city
The following story, appearing in the famous koan compilation “The Gateless Gate“, will be the bomb our ticking understanding needs to finally explode and be fulfilled. Guided by the illuminating commentary of fearless zen master and head monk Mumon (aka Wumen Huikai), the B dam is exposed as the defining endless gap between One and Two.
“Seijo, the Chinese girl,” observed Goso,” had two souls, one always sick at home and the other in the city, a married woman with two children. Which was the true soul?”
When one understands this, he will know it is possible to come out from one shell and enter another, as if one were stopping at a transient lodging house. But if he cannot understand, when his time comes and his four elements separate, he will be just like a crab dipped in boiling water, struggling with many hands and legs. In such a predicament he may say: “Mumon did not tell me where to go!” but it will be too late then.The moon above the clouds is the same moon,
The mountains and rivers below are all different.
Each is happy in its unity and variety.
This is one, this is two.
“The Gateless Gate” 
Reading this passage the secret of the B clarifies further. There cannot be up and down, front and back, before and after, before creation, for creation is division. B signifies duality, A signifies oneness. You cannot ask what was before creation, because then there was no “before”, no opposites, no variety, no points of reference. Then, there was no room for questions because questions are testaments of distance and the concept of distance could not exist. How do you look back when there is no “back”? How do you look up when there is no subject or object, you and what you are looking at? Understand this and all other questions will cease. Desperately unite with the question, and you could attain glimpses of reunion. A monk, said Buddha, sits crossed legged, straightens his body and focuses his attention before him. Like the letter Bet. Bodhidharma gazed at a wall for nine years and became enlightened. Like the letter Bet.
“If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two…”.
But if you still cannot enter, break in. Rotate the letter Bet and what do you get?
A gateless gate.