The Great Loneliness and the Voice of the Universe

Knud Rasmussen

By Rafe Martin©

In The Way of the Animal Powers, Joseph Campbell quotes the arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, quoting an eskimo shaman who told him:

“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can reached only though suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of man to all that is hidden . . .”

When we step beyond our usual supports and face our own mind, our own thoughts and senses, we may find a degree of loneliness. But I think he is talking about something more, something that resonates with us as Zen students. He is speaking of the great Aloneness. The Buddha at birth proclaims, “Above the heavens, below the heavens, I Alone am the Honored One.” When we focus on the practice and wake to this, even to a slight degree, we too are Buddha and find great, vast, empty of self-centeredness Aloneness which is no other than realizing that all is my own Self. Wonderful indeed!

“Suffering,” of course, doesn’t just mean anguish. Certainly it can mean a willingness to accept a degree of discomfort – physical, mental, emotional – in order to achieve a greater goal. But it can also mean, “allowing.” As in Jesus saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” So we allow all to enter – thoughts, emotions, sounds, physical sensations. We cut off nothing. We are the practice, solitary and alone in the midst of it all. Touching base through our (at present) virtual zendo, we can allow reality itself, without our usual distractions taking us from just this breath, just this koan point, just this tiredness, just this sound of “Whack!” (hits teisho stand with stick.)

When pressed concerning the mystery of Sila, or silam inua, “the inhabitant of soul (inua) of the universe,” Campbell goes on to report, the old Alaskan shaman Najagneq replied: “All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid. What it says is: sila ersinarsinivdluge, ‘be not afraid of the universe.”

Indigenous people accept deeply a responsibility to the earth, to the universe and to all beings. They see ceremonies as a way of paying back and sustaining the world. For us, zazenkai and sesshin are our kiva, our sun dance, our ceremony, our offering. Such things are not easy but I, too, believe deeply that this work of dropping self-centeredness does sustain our world. So many forces are currently in play that can cause harm and damage our world and the beings of this world. Daily zazen, full-day and half day zazenkai and multi-day sesshin are a central part, indeed, a core part of what we can do to help keep our world alive and turning.

We settle in and do our best. Which is all that anyone can do. And then, of course, we take this practice out into life, into our families, into our work, our neighborhood, and the voting booth.