Imagination and Wonder

There are two lines from the writings of the Chinese Zen Master Honghzi that I have always loved. I imagine their intention was instructive, however, the phrase about “wonder” is also inspiring and enchanting. This translation is from the work of Taigen Dan Leighton (Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi).

“With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle and wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.”

“Wonder” is not a word that is used frequently in spiritual writing these days. There is so much emphasis on belief and certainty, especially in religious writing, that the innocence and spaciousness of wonder have lost its place in religious dialogue.

I found Hongzhi’s words interesting in two ways. First, viewing wonder as an activity, as something that one can do—once you have wandered into the center of the circle. I imagine standing in a literal circle at the center of something, maybe at the heart of a labyrinth having just walked along its folding path, and purposely opening to the mystery on that sacred spot. I imagine this is the ordinary meaning intended by Hongzhi. Another more eccentric reading would be to see that wonder, along with the circle itself, is a place where you wonder. In this way, the center of the circle, along with wonder, are joined and become the place you would discover yourself wandering. Either way, wonder comes alive as a way to meet the great mystery and as a place to encounter mystery, both of which stand at the center of true spiritual practice.

The wonderful Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr suggests that “wonder” can be a word connoting at least three ways of standing at the center. I have added a few things of my own, but the basic ideas are his.

Standing in disbelief or outside of belief. Without being caught in skepticism and negativity you might encounter the incomprehensible, the inconceivable.
Standing directly in the question itself. Not standing passively with the question, waiting for an answer, but with openness and vitality, the aliveness of intimacy with the question.
Standing in awe before something. Standing in awe demands that we drop self-importance and self-centeredness, but without abandoning self-responsibility. instead we learn to tolerate standing in awe as a source of deep nourishment and inspiration, not passivity.

In these three ways we are invited to wander into the center of the circle and wonder: with beginner’s mind, intimate with our questions, and in awe of the mystery.

Imagination is another word associated with wonder. I am not speaking of “fantasy,” but of an essential creativity of heart and mind necessary for spiritual practice. Here are a few reflections on “imagination.”

Imagination is beyond knowing, outside of conceptual thought. We literally imagine the world into existence through our senses.
Imagination brings the world alive, otherwise everything would be dead stuff lying there with no meaning and no relation to us and our world. This is the way life seems to someone deeply depressed. Things are seen, heard and felt, but the sensory data are dead. There is no vital imagination.
Through imagination we create and re-create the world—the impermanent, interdependent world. In doing so the world is made new again and again.
Imagination allows us to apprehend the wholeness of life, the fluid, vital, illusive whole that has meaning. We create narratives, live them, and pass them on as gifts of meaning.
Imagination invites us beyond the merely psychological into the religious or spiritual. We are embraced by the divine, or universal energy, or whatever we call it. We might even feel an embodied release through engagement in ceremony or even by simply entering a temple or church which is felt as sacred. This is only possible through imagination.

Spiritual practice may be the supreme act of imagination, but it must be embodied and enacted, not just imagined. We can embody kindness and enact care. These are everyday practices. Wander into the center of the circle and wonder at this great possibility.