Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Invisible Means of Support

Years ago, a Japanese steamship for the first time went up the great Amazon river in South America. It was a long voyage, and they ran out of drinking water. Fortunately a British ship came by. The Japanese ship asked them by signal, “Have you drinking water to spare?” They signaled back, “Put your buckets down into the water, if you please.” The surprised Japanese crew did as instructed, and sure enough, it was drinking water. For the Japanese crew who were used to seeing small rivers in Japan, the River Amazon was too big for them to recognize as a river. They thought they were still in the ocean. Aren’t we, without realizing it, making such mistakes every day? 
A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, 93-94. 
This story reminds me of an exchange between the journalist Bill Moyers and the mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. After Campbell confirms his experience of “hidden hands” helping him when he is “following [his] bliss,” Moyers asks, “Have you ever had sympathy for the man who has no invisible means of support?”

Campbell replies, “Who has no invisible means? Yes, he is the one that evokes compassion, the poor chap. To see him stumbling around when all the waters of life are right there really evokes one’s pity.”

“The waters of eternal life are right there? Where?” Moyers asks.

“Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time,” Campbell answers.

In both stories, that of the ship’s crew and that of the person who has no invisible means of support, the waters of life are right under their noses—the first in potable water and the second in metaphorical waters of life, both potentially salvific. Both needed guides to help them see this.

The Moyers-Campbell exchange occurs in their conversation about the idea of bliss in Sanskrit, which Campbell regarded as “the great spiritual language of the world.” He explains:
There are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being” (p 120, The Power of Myth).
Shibayama writes that Zen Master Hakuin taught that we mistakenly try to look outside ourselves for Enlightenment, for Buddhahood:

Like water and ice,
There is no ice apart from water;
There are no Buddhas apart from beings.

Shibayama explains further, “If it is really like the relationship of ice and water, then we are Buddhas as we are. So he goes on to say, ‘It is like those who, being in water, cry out for water, feeling thirst.’” What follows is the story about the Japanese ship on the Amazon.

The organizing pastor of Ormewood Church, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes, gave an intriguing sermon during Eastertide about Simon Peter plunging into the Sea of Galilee when he realized a risen Jesus had just told them where to drop their nets for their big and only catch of the day, and awaited them on the shore with a meal prepared.

As I was still anxious about plunging into co-leading a weeklong contemplative retreat, I told Jenelle that her sermon really helped me. I needed to just plunge in the waters and trust that I would find Jesus on the shore, in the midst of those attending, in the silence that would surround us. After all, we had titled the retreat, “Beside Still Waters.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was following my bliss and relying on my invisible means of support, as were all who came on the retreat.

Frederick Buechner clarifies the nature of bliss for many of us: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


  1. Chris, wonderful to see you tell the story about Joseph Campbell. You know, he was the great light of my life. I've written about what I learned from him over and over. Such rich insights into the real nature of religion and spiritual meaning.

    1. I thought you'd enjoy the reference to him. I read several of his books many years ago, so don't often quote him on my blog, but he is my "go-to" guy for making sense of all things spiritual/religious/mythological. You are so blessed to have had him as a mentor! Btw, in the earlier version of this post, a reader caught my mistaken reference to "Bill Campbell" rather than Joseph, the problem of working without an editor/copyeditor, though I read every post dozens of times to catch stuff like that. Bill Campbell was Atlanta's mayor shortly after I arrived in the city.