[minor revisions, 2/20/2016]
This meditation, a complement to my recent “Saving Selving,” developed from a little verse that I wrote more than fifteen years ago. Back then, I titled the verse “Dōgen’s Miracle” because it had been inspired by a reading of Zen master Dōgen (13th century C.E.).
walk on water
The verse refers to a classification used in the gem business. A diamond of the highest quality, one that is as clear as pure water, is said to be of the first water. A diamond of lesser purity would be rated as of the second or even third water. So the verse asserts that to walk on water, as Jesus is said to have done, is a miracle of the second water, of lesser quality. The finest, purest miracle is that we carry water, that we exist and that we can and do care for ourselves and others. The verse also carries the implication that one who would walk on water must first perform the taken-for-granted activities that sustain and express our existence—the unnoticed quotidian miracles of human life. Those, after all, are the truly important things.
Of course, many of us no longer carry water. We have accomplished the miracle of having water come to us, even into our dwelling places, at our demand. In one sense, that’s surely a tremendous gain. But does it make us even more likely to forget about the mundanely miraculous, more likely to require walkings on water for the meaning, the sense, of our lives?
Reading Jean-Luc Nancy last night, I was struck by his reference to “sense beyond sense.”1 Traditionally, what some call “ontotheology” has posited, believed in, a sense beyond the world: the world makes sense because God exists and transcends it. The world makes sense because, as it were, Jesus walked on water: sense does not inhere in the world but is derived from the world’s subservience to the divine. To go beyond such wishful thinking is often to move into nihilism, or “non-sense.” But Nancy offers a different perspective. For Nancy, the world no longer has sense; it is sense.
[Neither do] we have to orient ourselves in a state of complete blindness, nor [is it] a matter of indifference that we are disoriented, and that there is no difference between the best and the worst. On the contrary … there is no sense given anywhere that could make us tolerate the intolerable, no more than there is non-sense in virtue of which we could disqualify or annul existence. In other words, this means that ‘nihilism’ dissolves every bit as much as any ‘idealism’ (or ‘metaphysics’ in this sense) because it, too, remains in the final analysis submitted to the regime of supposition. It dissolves at the touch of the absolute point of existence.2
“The absolute point of existence”: reading that, I think not so much of Eliot’s “the still point of the turning world” as of the immediate encounter with life—the life of community in which alone we exist—that is signified in Zen’s simple image of drawing and carrying water for self and others. This is radically different from the totalizing idea of community that we find incarnate in party, state, church—the kind of herd mentality or “Church patriotism” that Simone Weil feared would infect her if she joined the church:
I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles. By patriotism I mean the feeling one has for a terrestrial country. I am afraid of it because I fear to catch it. It is not that the Church appears to me to be unworthy of inspiring such a feeling. It is because I do not want any feeling of such a kind in myself. The word want is not accurate. I know, I feel quite certain, that any feeling of this kind, whatever its object, would be fatal for me.
There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience. If I think that on this point I see more clearly than they did, I who am so far below them, I must admit that in this matter they were blinded by something very powerful. This something was the Church seen as a social structure. If this social structure did them harm, what harm would it not do me, who am particularly susceptible to social influences and who am almost infinitely more feeble than they were?3
Those saints had succumbed to the totalizing claims of the walking-on-water lie, the myth of the miraculous. Community for them was imposed, artificial; it was far from, even a denial of, the simple, natural community of those who need water. Their community was bound together by the “making sense” that their belief gave them, a sense by which they sought to “tolerate the intolerable” rather than allow the raw experience of the intolerable to awaken the transforming compassion of being-with. Their world made sense only in light of the closure of their belief in God and his ecclesial system, and, warned by the story of Peter who sank when his belief faltered, they fought tooth and nail to preserve that sense. They wanted to close the world within their system and to feel safe—saved—there. But some of us want to open the world, or, better, to recognize and enter into the openness of the world, opening ourselves to the sense of the world itself.
As soon as the appearance of a beyond of the world has dissipated, the out-of-place instance of sense opens itself up within the world (to the extent that it would still make sense to talk of a ‘within’).4
That is not, of course, to move the “out there” to the “in here,” but to recognize that the world itself is sense. It is to stop imagining that one could walk on water—or that someone has done it for us—and to pick up the pail. Then we may find that to carry water is much more useful and meaningful than to walk on it. And we may find ourselves in a first-water community that is not bound and tyrannized by the frantic effort to force life to “make sense,” a community in which we can acknowledge and support each other in what we actually are, terribly temporary beings who not only are radically contingent but who also know that we are.
A community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth (…). It is the presentation of the finitude and the irredeemable excess that make up finite being: its death, but also its birth, and only the community can present me my birth, and along with it the impossibility of my reliving it, as well as the impossibility of my crossing over into my death.5
It is said that when confronted by a rival who claimed that his teacher could perform miracles, including walking on water, Zen master Bankei replied, “My miracle is this: when I’m hungry, I eat; when I’m tired, I sleep.” Commentators sometimes seek to add to the master’s statement, opining, for example, that he was actually boasting of his single-mindedness in every activity. I don’t think so; I think that he was pointing directly to life, to nothing more or less than eating and sleeping, carrying water and chopping wood. I think that he was pointing to the sense that the world is (rather than makes or has)—to the unspeakable, breaking-open sense that we sense at the “absolute point of existence.”
I can’t speak for Nancy, and I can’t claim to have read much of his work with understanding. Nor can I speak for long-dead Bankei. I hope I will be forgiven if I have misinterpreted either or both of them. For myself, though, long past belief in divine beings, and lately shaped by an ever-deepening intuition of the nonexistence that is death (“the impossibility of my crossing over into my death”), I can trust no one who walks on water, nor any whose master does. I hope for no miracles, now or after death, beyond the present miracle of our shared existence. I simply want to carry water for as long as I can, and then as now to accept graciously that which other, stronger people carry to me, we all the while resisting together the victory of the intolerable, until I am no more.
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bergo, Malenfant, and Smith (New York, Forham University Press. 2008), page 126.
2. Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. Librett (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 1997), p. 79; quoted in “The Sense of Being(-)With Jean-Luc Nancy” by Ignaas Devisch in Culture Machine 8, 2006.
3. Simone Weil, Waiting for God (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Capricorn Books Edition. 1959), p. 53.
4. Nancy, The Sense of the World (quoted in Devisch; see note 2, above), p. 55.
5. Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 1991), p. 15. Quoted in “The Community according to Jean-Luc Nancy and Claire Denis” by Anja Streiter, Film-Philosophy 12.1, April 2008.