Wonder and Wondering

Gosh, I began this contemplation almost a month ago! It seems like ages. Since that time, however, I’ve been distracted by current events both negative and positive. On one hand, the killings in Aurora, Colorado would seem to represent the very worst that we humans can be. Even as I make that observation, however, I’m tempted to qualify it by noting that the recent drought we’ve been experiencing across the continental United States, and its very likely status as a human-caused climatic event, might be even more representative of the worst that we humans can be. No, the gradual destruction caused by global warming will not be as easily quantified as the loss of life in Aurora (as if even that can be quantified!), but it will certainly be no less real.

The Olympics, on the other hand, have the potential to reveal us at our best – not our chest-thumping, blood-doping, win at all cost best, mind you, but our coming together in global goodwill best. I’ve been a fan of the Olympics since I was just a little kid, so I was all too willingly sucked into spending entire evenings watching it. Couple that with the fact that it has been an incredibly hot summer during which I’ve continued to pick up my running mileage – a reality that has left me feeling somewhat drained and without my usual literary zip – and you’ve got about an 80% accounting for my dearth of posts of late. The other 20%?  Well, let’s just chalk it up to myriad causes and conditions!

Yes, the heat is waning, and, yes, the news both good and bad is fading into the past. Perhaps even the drought is beginning to break. The heat is, anyway. However, I shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that I’ll be bouncing back to a once-per-week rate of posting either this month or the next. You see, I’ve also come to realize that I’ve got a bit of editing work ahead of me. There’s enough material on this blog now that I can no longer ignore the fact that many of my posts contain no subject labels that might allow it to be easily organized. The table of contents, as well, is still incomplete. Over the course of the coming weeks, then, I’ll be doing what I can to improve this site’s searchability with the intention of making it a more useful resource to returning readers and a more accessible one for brand new readers. Have I mentioned that I’m also still putting the finishing touches on my novel? Aargh! Seriously, these are amongst the most awesome problems that I could possibly have! For now, though, let me pick up where I left off with my post entitled Wonder.

Wonder, according to Merriam-Webster, encompasses “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience.” Such a definition might lead us to conclude that the longer we live and the more we learn, the less likely we are to experience it. Indeed, this seems to be true. Familiarity does tend to dampen our experience. It allows us to proceed on autopilot, so to speak, making note of our surroundings enough to navigate through them without really being affected by them. It allows us to recognize people without really seeing them, and value things in terms of their utility rather than the entirety of their being. This, of course, is the reason for me writing in one of my recent tweets (hey, at least I had some “literary” urges!) that “familiarity is the most impenetrable obscuration of all.”

Feelings of familiarity arise because of the activation of our memories, ideas, and concepts related to what we think we’re doing and seeing. Unfortunately, though, once our memories, ideas and concepts have been activated, real seeing ceases and wonder becomes impossible. Zen practice allows us to become more and more adept at seeing without the activation of our memories, ideas and concepts. Thus, it allows us to be more open to the experience of wonder. 

Regular readers might recall my use of the Japanese word, nen, or “thought impulse” in my post entitled The Nature Of Things (see also Sekida, 1985, p. 257). In that post I also quoted from a talk by Sojun Mel Weitzman (2000) in which he discusses three types of nen. “The first nen,” Weitzman says, “is one with activity, without reflection, just direct perception. The second nen is when we reflect on something and try to identify it by thought or think about it. And the third nen is taking another step back and developing what the second nen has thought about the first nen.” So, it seems fairly obvious that wonder is a first-nen phenomenon. Wondering, on the other hand – the more thought-filled embrace of curiosity – must involve nen of a higher order. Does that imply, then, that wondering is of lesser value than wonder? Hmmm…

Wondering is an activity that I’ve long felt has been devalued by religious leaders and practitioners alike. Back when I was trying to be a “good” Christian it seemed that the most important thing that one could cultivate was faith, something that wondering could only serve to shake. That which one was “supposed” to believe and that which could withstand the intense light of rational scrutiny were all too often very different things. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as the case may be – I was born with a very inquisitive nature. All too frequently, then, it seemed that my very nature brought me into direct conflict with that which I was “supposed” to be. This conflict percolated within me for quite a few years before I finally threw up my hands in despair (figuratively speaking, anyway) and declared that if the very intelligence and questioning nature that God has given me puts me into direct conflict with His truth, then so be it! Banish me to Hell that I might chuckle forever at the punch line of such a cruel joke as that! And so it is that I have great sympathy for one of the Buddha’s followers – Malunkyaputta.

Malunkyaputta was off on his own one day – wondering, as it turns out – when it began to dawn on him that the Buddha had never expounded upon some very basic questions: Is the universe finite or infinite in both time and space? What is the relationship between the soul and the body, if indeed such things as souls exist? Et cetera. To tell you the truth, I’ve always thought that the Buddha’s response was just a little bit, shall we say, defensive:

"Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, 'Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you [the answers to these questions]?.... And did you ever say to me, 'Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One [in return for the answers to these questions]?"

"No, lord."

"Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?” (MN 63)   

To be fair, the Buddha was not necessarily calling Malunkyaputta foolish simply for asking those questions. It was more the fact that he’d predicated his living of the holy life on the attainment of the answers to those questions that was foolish. Please read the entire account of the incident, however, and make up your own mind as to whether the Buddha thought that asking such metaphysical question was foolish in and of itself. It’s a short sutta, and a link is provided in the reference section below.

Now, whether or not you think that the Buddha actually knew the answers to these questions or not says a lot about your conceptualization of this thing we call enlightenment. In other words, does enlightenment afford us some kind of God-like knowledge of the otherwise mysterious workings of the universe, or does it afford us, instead, clear seeing of that which is before us? The Buddha, of course, goes on to avoid that more modern question, pointing out to Malunkyaputta, and us, that his teachings relate to the nature and the cessation of suffering – realities that remain unchanged regardless of what answers might be given to any of those most intriguing of questions. By the way, the aforementioned sutta contains the very insightful parable describing the man shot with the arrow, and makes for great reading if for no other reason than for that!

So, where does this unrepentant wonderer now stand? How do I reconcile my wondering nature with my intention to live at least some semblance of the “holy life” that the Buddha alluded to? I’m reminded of the answer that a teacher once gave to someone who was wondering whether the need to plan some aspects of our lives is inherently in conflict with the Buddhist “ideal” of being “in the moment.” “When you’re planning,” the teacher responded, “just plan.” Hmmm… When you’re wondering, just wonder. Know that you are wondering. Celebrate the joyous reality that you are neither hungry, nor thirsty, nor oppressed by loneliness or meaninglessness, nor in such physical pain that you are incapable of enjoying this very human capacity. On the other hand, don’t necessarily expect your wondering to provide you with any answers, either! And if an answer should happen to arise from time to time, don’t expect it to alleviate your suffering!

And that brings me to my reaction to the recent landing of the spaceship Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Despite the intense feelings of wonder that I once felt with respect to space exploration, I now wonder whether our money could be better spent alleviating our seemingly endless suffering here at home. This mindset left me cynically, but humorously wondering how many illegal dumping citations we now face given all of the hardware that we’ve left strewn around the solar system! Har har har… But then I began to see the pictures that were being sent back to earth from so very far away – from another planet altogether... And I began to wonder – the first-nen kind of wonder, mind you… And after familiarizing myself with that sense of wonder once again, I felt just a little bit wiser – not because I now know what the mountains look like up on Mars, but because I’m reminded yet again of what it’s like to feel wonder.

Curiosity rover amidst its own debris - illegal dumping citation pending. 

A wondering extension of humanity ponders the mountains on Mars.


Majjhima Nikaya 63. Cula-Malunkyovada sutta: the shorter instructions to Malunkya (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

Sekida, K. (1985). Zen training: methods and philosophy. Published by Weatherhill, Inc.

Weitzman, M. (2000). Commentary on the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo. Berkeley Zen Center. http://www.berkeleyzencenter.org/Lectures/january2003.shtml

Image Credits

Gazing at the ceiling of the Bahá'í Centre of Learning in Hobart, Tasmania by Jalal Volker via:

Curiosity Landing Site and Subsequent Martian Landscape Image by NASA via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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