Eastern methods of instruction, and the Valley of Search

This morning I finished re-reading Eugen Herrigel’s lovely little book, Zen and the Art of Archery. It takes no more than an evening or two to read. In it he describes his attempts to learn the Zen art of archery in Japan, and his experiences along that path.

Which led to an interesting correlation with the Seven Valleys. In Western thought, education is a matter of imparting knowledge, and sometimes also imparting the wisdom to apply that knowledge in life. In the East, the approach is radically different. The Master seeks to develop a particular condition of receptivity in the pupil, at which point he introduces experiences designed to take advantage of that receptivity. Sometimes developing this condition can take years of seemingly pointless exercise (from the seeker’s point of view), coming to a head like a thunderclap in a single moment of unexpected clarity.

The Valley of Search describes a developing of the seeker’s heart that is decidedly Eastern. To understand this from a Western perspective, consider what is like, as a youth, to want to fall in love with someone. Most people very much want to fall in love with someone special, and they spend a great deal of time thinking about it and dreaming about it. Yet, the advice most often given is to stop thinking about it! To just “let it happen” in its own natural time. The only thing the prospective lover can “do” is open himself for that moment when it comes. And when it does come, it is like thunder on a clear day. Unexpected, yet undeniable. The lover need not ask anyone, not even the Master, if he has fallen in love. It is a proof unto itself.

Yet, there is nothing that can be “done” to hurry the process. For some it takes a few months, for others it takes years, and for some, never. There is no telling when, or why, or how. The best approach one can take under such circumstances is to be patient, and use the time alloted to develop themselves, the purity of their heart, so that their their spirit may be most attractive to whomever one day chances by. When combined with faith, we are saved from melancholy by the assurance that if we undertake this self-preparation in search of Him, then “In Our ways will We guide him”. The seeker is guaranteed not to be disappointed, though the wait may be indefinite and seemingly interminable.

The Eastern Masters regard everyone as capable of understanding what they teach, but not everyone is capable in their current state of appreciating it. To “tell” is to push the desired goal even further away. Instead, the seeker must be kneaded like dough, made easy and pliable, and then struck at just the right moment with a jolt from the unknown.

Reading Herrigel’s book helped me realize that a Western approach can make the Valley of Search seem more difficult than it really is. If the parallels are accurate, the segue into Love will be sudden, unquestionable. But it cannot happen “… unless he sacrifice all things. That is, whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood, all must he set at naught…” The seeker who has any preconception of his goal may wind up chatting away with Him and never knowing it. He must become like a child waiting for milk, not understanding the hows or whys, but only the certainly of its arriving. He truly cannot judge whether he has made progress or not, or even which way will lead further along his chosen path. For the seeker there is only “purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit”. There is neither knowledge nor experience to guide his way, only a hopeful expectation of clemency.

In a way, this is both profoundly frustrating and immensely relieving. It is frustrating to Western habits, because there is nothing to “do”, nothing to “know”. There is no aid or technique that can help in the least. At the same time it is relieving because it is a matter more of relaxing than of tension, of letting go than of receiving. “Love is a light that never dwelleth in a heart possessed by fear.” We are invited to let go all our fears – clasped to the Breast of our true One – and as Rumi says, “lay his head on a person’s chest and sink into the answer.”

It is at once so much easier, the easiest thing, yet immensely more difficult since it does not admit of expectations, hopes, or predictions. Must we wait one year or ten? Am I closer now or was I closer then? These are nonsensical questions. To a soul who lives an eternity, what does it matter if the answer comes in one year or a thousand? And that the time is hard to bear is directly addressed by His statement:

The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal. Nor should he ever be downhearted; if he strive for a hundred thousand years and yet fail to behold the beauty of the Friend, he should not falter. For those who seek the Ka`bih of “for Us” rejoice in the tidings: “In Our ways will We guide them.”