Previous issue's column | May/June
Contents | Gazette Home
in the Zen Lane
back on what might have been
Warren Olu Karib
At the age of 56, give or take five or 10 years for the sake of broader
inclusion, one begins to ponder lifes various and sundry what-ifs
and what-might-have-beens. The notion that the outcome might have
been different can be profoundly disturbing or blissfully contemplative;
it can stir a flood of images that drown the soul in a sea of despair,
or wash warmly over the epidermis as soothingly as a peppermint-scented
I had stayed in California instead of matriculating at Penn?
I had pursued a career in law instead of traipsing across Africa keeping
questions, hypothetical scenarios.
I am always dumbfounded
to hear scientists speak of the Big Bang as a singular event; could
it be that there really are multiple worlds out there, coming and going,
re-creating? I recently jotted down an incredible number, 10 to the 22nd
power, on a matchbook cover. The accumulation of zeros blew me away. Astronomers
and cosmologists speculate that it represents the number of stars in the
universe. One newly discovered stellar cluster, they claim, stretches
across 600 million light years of space (!) and contains more than
one hundred billion stars. Located 6.5 billion light years from
Earth, it is an entity beyond comparison to any previously found. Yet
there are undoubtedly other cosmic curiosities farther out in the unseen
realm, revolving and orbiting in some cyclical fashion or other in accordance
with the basic principles of physics, as we currently perceive them.
And this much
is certain: those stars and galactic clusters, as stupendous as they are,
do not control their own fate. At bottom they are mere cosmological constructs,
each dependent on the Tao. In the zen sense, this dependence
applies to the universe as a whole, and to any part of itincluding mankind.
The great evolving universe.
So tell me,
do you regret anything about your life, the decisions youve made?
years ago, my kid brother Lionel, still shackled by a rivalry promoted
by my mother, startled me with this question. It came during one of those
obligatory family holiday gatheringsof the dreaded, conflicted sort,
destined from the start to turn rancorous. (The problem with such affairs,
Ive determined over the years, is that familial relationships often remain
mired in the past; your worst childhood excesses determine your perceived
adult character, and sooner or later someone at the dinner table is going
to bring you down for it. Among intimate kin there seems to be a reluctance
to lovingly accommodate growth and change, even while sharing Thanksgiving
question about regrets was his way of taunting me for remaining
a bachelor, for not having settled into a stable career and a home and
family of my own. Somehow my university degrees and a decade traveling
and working in Africa held no merit.
No, I dont
regret anything about my decisions, I answered smugly. I would tell
you why, but I dont think youd understand.
Now it was his
turn to give a blank stare, and to take affront. But it was true; I had
no regrets, insofar as I could accurately perceive the inner workings
of my psyche. Does the planet Jupiter, a spider, or a molecule of water
have regrets? No entity, really, is in control of its destiny.
But whereas I
believe in the Tao, and have perceived myself as questing toward Nirvana
for over a decade, my brother and our six siblings abide within a materialistic
domain rampant with superficial values and precepts. I could not expect
him, or them, to shrug off their conventional views and see things through
my lens. They subscribe to the notion that lifes outcomes originate inside
ones own head, and that ultimately all decisions or gambits can be quantified
into two categories: those that stir a sense of personal pride, or those
that arouse regret.
In zen, on the
other hand, the entire purpose and meaning of life is merely to exist
in the flow of the proverbial river of destiny, with its unending twists
and turns. In the now, as they say in zen, we watch our lives unfold.
One day in 1956
Lionel introduced me to a bespectacled classmate, Stanley Crouch, a thin,
nerdy little asthmatic who inhaled medicinal cigarettes at George Washington
Carver Junior High School in Los Angeles. Crouch has since metamorphosed
into a national persona who has written for the Village Voice,
had a short-lived recurrent role on 60 Minutes, and was featured
as an aficionado of note in Ken Burnss recent PBS series, Jazzexactly
the sort of illustrious career I might have lived, in a parallel universe.
There, but for a bend in the river, go I.
Crouch may or may not approve, 45 years after the fact, of my dropping
his name here in an essay about fate, choices, and one Penn graduates
Holy Grail. But that is the way of zen; things flow unpredictably.
Names such as
his, and Penn alumni and law school classmates Gil Casellas and Anita
DeFrantz, EEOC commissioner in the Clinton administration and member of
the IOC, respectively, remind me of another dinner table confrontation:
Prefaced by If
youre so smart, the question was obviously intended to wound. I looked
over at my inquisitor, my younger sister Janice. I could only smile incredulously
at her and shake my head. In a moment of zen calm I offered her the example
of a wealthy criminal and an indigent genius, and suggested that not all
successes are measured in dollars.
Id rather be rich, I confided to myself. But I am like the star Sirius,
a cricket, or the lottery winner who buys a new car and gets broadsided
and killed: what we all have in common is our subservience to a larger
existential circumstance, the outcome of which is never ours to determine.
free will are no doubt repulsed by this assertion. But isnt it oddthat
an elephant, an atom of helium, a blade of grass, the mighty star clusters
and the oceans of the Earth, are all dependent on nature, whereas humans
are supposedly free to craft their own destinies? Isnt it evident that
all things, in the larger picture, come and go at the behest of external
forces, aka the Tao?
There is little
left, says bestselling author Frans B.M. de Waal (Cultural Reflections
of a Primatologist), in the position that we humans fall outside
of nature, and that
[it is our] culture that sets us apart. According
to de Waal, the notion that human intelligence and free will are motivationally
different from animal instinct is outdated; there is in fact no duality
But do not despair.
Although my premise is that human beings and spiders and bees exist precisely
in the same natural, deterministic mode, one can nevertheless marvel
at the intricacies of the web and the beehive, the succulent taste of
honey, and the grandeur of the Taj Mahal. For in zen, the creative aspect
of the Tao is the salient feature of all existence. But we do not harness
itit harnesses us.
I was in a
It just came over me
I just felt a compulsion
The story just
sort of wrote itself
I began this
article feeling an obligation and burden to infuse my words with a poignant
universality. I end it with a personal reference to Mr. Trejo, the junior-high
school journalism teacher who appointed me editor of the school newspaper.
I had never considered myself any kind of writer (I even tried to check
out of the class), yet there I was at Mr. Trejos behest, pen in hand.
He did the same for young Stanley Crouch a couple of semesters later;
we were like little acorns that find themselves serendipitously embedded
in moist, fertile soil. But in zen our individual fates were no different
in kind from the predicament of a wildebeest calf suddenly surrounded
by a pack of hyenas: every creature, entity, or event in the universe
flows along on in its own fashion toward the Great Unfolding, riding the
zen stream gloriously out to sea.
Karib L77 is a freelance writer/photographer with three zen-based novels
in various stages of completion and somewhat of a fitness fanatic.
He lives in Inglewood, California.
Previous issue's column
| May/June Contents | Gazette
Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 5/2/01