What may be in common between Zen, the Roman mystic societies and me? Maybe just a search for truth that goes well through various means.
Zen cultivates simplicity. Asceticism of the soul, a kind of skinning. A praise of passivity (that is external, only in appearance: “Ice on the outside, fire inside”, as Saint Ignatius Loyola said). Zen is not aimed at the annihilation of thought, quite the contrary: it aims at the elevation of the soul by the culture of the rich arts: words, relate the calligrapher or illustrator brush. Words are worlds, are they not? The haiku – this outwardly visible figure of Zen – are its best-known expression. Few words, but ideas enough to fill an encyclopedia. They’re to be read with eyes closed, that is to say with the soul open. “Tree” is a forest, a temperature (the cool morning before the first rays of the sun have touched the tops), humidity (dew beads that decorate as courtesan jewelry lower leaves), a light (one of the last stars twinkling in fighting before fading to night), smell (the wet grass after the storm, this humus bursting with life and hope), feeling (that sweetness palpated the moss on an ageless trunk that fell to the ground like a dead man). A word, though. As a symbol, with multiple courses, multiple senses to find multiple possible interpretations according to our sensibilities. From our experiences. Our expectations.
Some ancient mystical companies operated on the same counting process. Dead and still continuing to grant us her teaching nearly 1,800 years after her burial, her name is – I say “is” because this girl still lives in the sense of the ancients, since some continue to say her name, and follow the course of her thoughts – Urbanilla. Her tomb is located in Northern Africa, and she practiced Epicureanism. It was religion, philosophy, the sect to which she belonged. At the foot of the sarcophagus, a mosaic continues to deliver to the visitor this timeless sentence: “I was not, I became, I’m no more, I do not care.”
She traveled the cycle, left only a small trace of her earthly presence, enriching only her soul, nothing more. Nothing excessive. She obeys the great cycle of continuous creation as described by Lucretius in De natura rerum, “The amount of material has never been closer or more sparse. No increase or loss in the movement of atoms. So, today is the same as ever, similarly it will always carry them in later ages and that which won’t even be born will be born, subject to the same law, alive and flourishing in the time assigned to each by nature. No force can change the amount of things, of everything there is nothing that should ever escape the material, born of an unknown force.” Everything passes, everything begins in the simplicity of moral elevation more than physical.
In contrast, there is the excessive side of some mystic societies, whether Roman or current. The pomp that eventually stifles the search for truth. There is that word of Barbey d’Aurevilly, if present, could be written on the pediment of many temples, “Selfishness [meaning: the withdrawal to the ego] that big potbellied pumpkin that takes the entire platform band…” Alexandra David-Neel, in her long journey on the path of Tibetan mystics, has crossed paths with several Parisian secret societies of the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Pythagoreans, etc. What a disappointment to her, their adornment: “Suspended in a large closet sprawled the most lamentable collection of tinseled calico imaginable for use by a theatrical troupe of poor showmen…” Then her judgment on this need for men to dress up to escape their pitiful everyday banality or their primary infantilism: “Men, whatever country they belong to, hardly abandon their children’s games and dressing up. Churches which clothe their dignitaries with cloth of gold and jewels are comparable to the humblest of sects that cultivate a childish occultism, a love of carnival, events that are rife with the same force…”
Should we fight for a medal? The phrase of an anonymous person comes to mind, who seems to have understood everything: “Do not ask, do not refuse, do not wear.”
Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.