If gaining enlightenment is an accident, how to be accident prone?

Gaining enlightenment is an accident.

Spiritual practice simply makes us accident prone.

Suzuki Roshi

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to post more often, and to post about my intellectual travels as a doctoral student in Community, Liberation, and Ecopsychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Conveniently, one of my classes this winter term, Hermeneutic and Phenomenological Traditions taught by Dr Ed Casey requires me to keep a reading journal which I might as well post and share. (Funny, while I’m an avid blogger, I’m NOT into journaling.)

One of our texts is Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


“Phenomenology,” Merleau-Ponty  explains in the preface, “is the study of essences” (p. xx)

“Phenomenology involves describing, and not explaining or analyzing” (p. xxi).

Weird words aside, I actually picked up this hefty tome last winter because it looked fascinating, Dr Casey had mentioned Merleau-Ponty several times in our Ecopsych class, and the book store was offering a decent price for this freshly translated edition. So I was actually excited to finally have a chance to read this book–and not just look at it.

Here are two more quotes from the preface that really hit home for me because they connect with my experience in the world, and I like the language used to describe it:

“Everything that I know about the world, even through science,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “I know from the perspective that is my own or from an experience of the world” (p. xxii)

“The phenomenological world is not pure being, but rather the sense that shines,” he asserts poetically (p. xxxiv).

Toward the end of the preface, Merleau-Ponty discusses accidents, which reminded me of this image and quote from a Wake-Up Call from Leslie Wongmo-Rinchin that had been hanging around my desktop since September 2012 waiting for the “accident” or synchronicity to call me to post it.

“If we examine an event up close,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “then everything appears to happen by accident at the moment it is lived: that people’s ambition, some lucky encounter, or some isolated circumstance seems to have been decisive. But accidents cancel each other out” (p. xxxiii).

“There are no pure accidents in existence,” according to Merleau-Ponty (p. xxxiii).

Are these two philosophies or ways of thinking, that of Suzuki Roshi and Merleau-Ponty so far apart I wonder?

There’s tension between these two ideas already, but I want to throw in a third: Jung’s idea of synchronicity which is where an event in the outside world coincides meaningfully with a psychological state of mind.

Personally, I grew up hearing that there are no accidents, both literal and metaphorical ones. And yet, I find I agree with all three of these ideas.

I think Roshi means that through spiritual practice, through intention, through meditation, through menaing making and seeking and finding the divine in daily life, we can experience more synchonicity, and “more accidents” –accidents that are clearly not that accidental in Merleau-Ponty’s view.

Obviously there is a lot more here for me to chew on as I travel. Subscribe in the upper right hand corner if you want to join me.

Image above by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo. One of the only westerners trained in the rare Buddhist art of silk applique thangkas, she is passionate about the preservation and evolution of this Tibetan cultural tradition. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave his blessings to Leslie’s work and encouraged her to make images that speak to the spiritual aspirations of people across religions and cultures. Leslie’s fascinating story is the subject of the acclaimed documentary film, Creating Buddhas: the Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas. Leslie’s Weekly Wake-ups provide a thread of inspiration to set the week on the path to awakening.

4 comments on “If gaining enlightenment is an accident, how to be accident prone?”

  1. Reblogged this on art predator and commented:

    Accidents. Luck. Synchronicity. Spiritual Practice. Intentionality. Phenomenology and the spell of the sensuous.

  2. Very thoughtful post, Gwendolyn! For me, the idea that enlightenment is an accident calls me to awareness of mystery. We can do what we can do, and things evolve based on our intent and action, on cause and condition, all in relationship with something incomprehensible, mysterious, and ‘accidental’. This accident aspect encourages me to hold my practice lightly — sincerely but not doggedly, with an open hand for mystery to enter. I was touched recently hearing Mary Morrissey say, “You can’t MAKE it happen, but you can make it WELCOME.” I imagine sincere practice makes enlightenment welcome.

  3. In May of 1996 my daughter gave me a gift certificate for an astrological reading for my 50th birthday. At the time I was living at SFZC’s Green Gulch Farm. I was always a little cynical about that kind of thing. If someone asked me what my sign was, I’d always say, ‘Stop’ or ‘No U-turn’. I thanked her, and when she left I put it away. Toward the end of the year the director said, “We’d like you to go to Tassajara in January.” I came across that gift certificate while going through papers and figured since my daughter had paid $50.00 for it, and since it expired at the end of December, I better use it.
    During the reading the woman said, “It says that you are going to be accident prone for the first four months of the new year.” My first thought was why anyone would say that (I’m laughing as I type that). She had been taping our session and handed me the cassette before I left. I threw the cassette into the glove box of my truck and forgot about it.
    The cabin I was given for the practice period was one small room with a cramped bathroom, just a toilet and sink on one wall, and a dresser just inside the doorway on the wall between the main room and the bathroom. After the wake up bell I’d usually go and take a pee, then get up from the toilet and go straight ahead back into the room to get dressed for zazen because it was freezing. But one morning as I rose from the toilet I decided to turn to the right and go to the sink. CRACK! My head met the corner of the dresser.
    Blanche Hartman had been installed as the first abbess of Zen Center and was leading my first practice period at Tassajara. Every day we had class or study after two periods of zazen and breakfast. One morning Blanche said, “Suzuki Roshi said that enlightenment is accidental and Robert Aiken said, “Yes, and zazen makes you accident prone.””
    I figured I better listen to that tape again. “You will be accident prone in the first four months…” The practice period was three months long and then during the work period and summer guest season the students would all take turns doing the wake up bell. One morning in April it was my turn. I ran down the main path between the cabins, and then ran through the Upper Barn and down the back stairs. As I went through the opening in the fence I hit my head on the Echo Han. There! Four months.
    PS Kosho Jack McCall and I built a Han structure across the road from that opening in the fence so that no one else would have that same “accident”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: