If you have followed my blog for any of the last five years you will recognize my reference to Monod on spirit. Jacques Monod in his 1969 book, Chance and Necessity, presented an account of biological processes that he (and I agree wholeheartedly) believes yields a more realistic sense of what spirit is. Following a suggestion by Chris Hitchens, I characterize this sort of spiritual view as natural noumenal, i.e., a reality that is not phenomenal but noumenal, not supernatural but natural. Monod refers to the wondrous world of Gaia with its incredible heritage of biological processes proceeding through billions of years of random events that formed the shape of genetic flows into the gene pools of today. Here is his account: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” As I wrote in my 3/25/17 post, “To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds.” And one more reference to render in another way the musical organicity of our spirit, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago.
In her book, The Ontogeny of Information, Susan Oyama took issue with Monod’s gene-centric view (and Richard Dawkins’ as well) by pointing out that genes are only one component in a balanced system of biological controls and that what actually proceeds down through the ages are developmental systems composed of the organism, its genes and its ecological niche. Put in my terms used here, ontogeny is but one phase of spiritual happenings as Gaia continuously transforms. So today our rocky, watery planet (research indicates that even more water exists below the surface that we find on it in our rivers, lakes, and oceans—who knew?) teems with life forms in every imaginable niche, from deep in the crust to the skies above and from jungle to polar ice and down to sulfurous deep sea vents. And even more remarkable and fortunate for those like us who live during this time, humans have figured this out. As I have wondered about in the past at some point on this blog, the chemical processes comprising living organisms on our planet constantly spark with energy release in ways we may not be able to see but can still appreciate, all of them in almost infinite numbers over billions of years. Spirit as natural noumena.
Zen koans are short questions or puzzles that can stimulate our meditations towards enlightenment. Probably the most famous is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, and many more have been created by the sages over the past several centuries. I read a rather curious one recently in a book, The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koansby Koun Yamada and Ruben L. F. Habito. The pithy version of it is: What was your primal face before your parents were born? I want to consider this koan from the perspective of my spiritual understanding, remembering that rational deliberations are, when all is said and done, irrelevant.
‘Primal’ per Webster means primeval, essential and fundamental. I think (and admittedly I am not a real student of Zen) that primal face in the context of this koan refers to the enduring spirit of each of us that links our individual existence to the infinite universe. But translating, or better, transmuting to natural noumena, I find myself wondering about the depth and particularity of the myriad estuarine events that led to the appearance of my 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents, and then my parents births in 1919 and 1922. I use estuary to signify the messy, muddy complexity of fecund life in which we are all born and that comprises not just the genetic flow per Monod and its ontogenetic ecological niche per Oyama but also the cultural compost of natural noumena left by the social and cultural milieu of piedmont Virginia back in the day. Who was I during all of this? What was my primal face as circumstances of persons, comings and goings, family alliances, developing affections, sexual couplings and daily happenings advanced without direction towards my birth? Is this my own personal koan?
Better travel on to my happy meditation place.