Characteristic of ancient sages is their disengagement not only from social affairs and worldly interests but from the entire realm of speculation that fuels engagement. This reticence toward metaphysical speculation is not an anti-intellectualism but a favoring of immediacy and the lessons that can be derived by checking the mind’s restless impulse to categorize and instead giving our context a chance to demonstrate universal principles for us. The sages decline metaphysics and speculation because these are not useful to the task at hand. Even less can that task be couched in lofty terms of visions, miracles, and powers. The task refers to our abilities to disengage from the unnecessary and to cultivate simplicity and non-action.
Jesus points to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field as moral exemplars, the imitation of which is sufficient to attain the sensibility that pertains to us as human beings. No metaphysics, and not even an evocative pantheism or natural philosophy, is needed in order to imitate the other animate or inanimate beings of existence, beings representative of the state or consciousness to which we must reduce our human potential.
This point of view seems retrogressive and counter-intuitive given our intellectual potential. But this is precisely the insight that confounds the worldly and makes it impossible for them to ever achieve the heights of wisdom. Without this counter-intuitive disengagement, without this radical reduction of desire in order to assume the corresponding status of the bird or flower (or star or river), we will be unable to attain the consciousness that is representative of our human nature. Rather, we will be continually misled by society and culture, making the mistake that they and not nature are the source of wisdom.
One anecdote reflecting this point of view from the Zen tradition is the story of the lowly Chan master visited by a famous master who boasted of his miraculous powers. Upon hearing this, the host replied, “I, too, perform miracles. I chop wood, I haul water.”
From the Christian tradition comes an example of this simplicity of spirit that allows for a complete examination of motive, which transcends elements of guilt or self-abasement. Only a couple of stories are known about the desert father Olympius. Here is the relevant one:
A pagan priest came to visit Setis, the great monastic community on the outskirts of the Egyptian desert. By this era, there were not many “pagans”, let alone pagan priests, so we may assume the philosophical and mystical element was strong in this visitor, as will be seen, for Olympius considers him a constructive and not unfriendly man. The priest stays overnight and is a careful observer of the monastic routine.
He asks Olympius if, given the way he lived, he did not receive visions from his god. Olympius replied no. Then the priest said:
When we make a sacrifice to our god, he hides nothing from us but discloses his mysteries. You, giving yourselves so many hardships, vigils, prayer, and asceticism, say that you see nothing? Really, if you see nothing it must be because you have impure thoughts in your heart which separate you from your god. This must be why his mysteries are not revealed to you.
Olympius accepted these words and went to the elders to recount them.
The elders were filled with admiration. They said that these words were quite true, that impure thoughts indeed separate men from God.
Whether the story is apocryphal, intended by elders to shame the monks to humility — like the story of Jesus remarking positively on the faith of the pagan Roman soldier — does not matter. The story describes the moment of insight where words of another seem to construe themselves so as to penetrate a consciousness layered or shielded from reality, from its own heart.
Simplicity and lack of contrivance open the self not just to the fair-minded words of another but to the unspoken words of the birds and flowers, rivers, and stars, to the whole universe which is speaking to us always.What mysteries or revelations or miracles are we expecting when our minds are still clogged with thoughts of our own contrivance, with the flotsam of noise emitted from social life, by the impurities of speculation and ruminations that are only folly and arrogance? Is it not enough of a miracle to live, breathe, haul water, listen to the birds of the air and see the flowers of the field?