A Double Life

Painting by William Segal, "Self Portrait in a Yellow Hat"
Painting by William Segal, Self Portrait in a Yellow Hat

I will be spending this Saturday in a workshop at a local Zendo, so it seems appropriate to blog something else about William Segal, a student of Gurdjieff, and later D.T. Suzuki.  I have read and studied a great deal of Zen material over the years, but this will be my first introduction to the actual vehicle of the teaching. One can only read so much, like Gurdjieff cautions:  “Understanding can lead to being, whereas knowledge is but a passing presence in it.”

According to Wikipedia: The origins of Zen Buddhism are ascribed to the Flower Sermon, the earliest source for which comes from the 14th century.It is said that Gautama Buddha gathered his disciples one day for a Dharma talk. When they gathered together, the Buddha was completely silent and some speculated that perhaps the Buddha was tired or ill. The Buddha silently held up and twirled a flower and twinkled his eyes; several of his disciples tried to interpret what this meant, though none of them were correct. One of the Buddha’s disciples, Mahākāśyapa, silently gazed at the flower and broke into a broad smile. The Buddha then acknowledged Mahākāśyapa’s insight by saying the following:

“I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvāṇa, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

Thus, through Zen there developed a way which concentrated on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Wisdom was passed, not through words, but through a lineage of one-to-one direct transmission of thought from teacher to student. It is commonly taught that such lineage continued all the way from the Buddha’s time to the present.

In this post by Tracy Cochran’s over at PARABOLA Editors blog she describes how the extraordinary teacher, William Segal embodied what it means to live a “double life.” He was a gifted athlete, an innovative publisher of 11 magazines, a painter, and also a writer and editor. Above all, however, Segal was a seeker of truth-his interests were in Eastern spiritual traditions, specifically, he was a student of Ouspensky G.I Gurdjieff and, later, D.T. Suzuki.

Published in 2003, a few years after Segal’s death, “A Voice at the Borders of Silence” is an autobiographical scrapbook that contains paintings, photographs, articles, diaries and correspondence with artists, thinkers, businessmen and great spiritual teachers. In the preface, theatre director and friend Peter Brook describes Segal: “Bill was a man of many layers and if the outer layer as the man of today, the innermost core was an opening to eternity,”

Recently, Deborah Barlow who writes under Slow Muse reminded me of this extraordinary passage from the Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman’s foreword to the book:

“Bill handed me…his charcoal drawings, which aptly got called “Transparencies.” Simple black and white, still lives of table objects, especially glasses, emerged in the luminosity of enlightened perception. Ultimate experience of this is called “clear light,” which is often misunderstood to refer to a bright white light. But the white light is a more superficial level of reality, the moonlit level called “luminance.” The clear light is just transparency, compared to the gray dawn twilight when you can see your hand but not the lines in it. It is a light that does not fall on objects, but comes from within them, casting no shadows. It is a self-luminous, non-dual awareness and presence. And Bill, untroubled by the sophisticated Tibetan phenomenology of such states, was bringing it into our dualistic awareness by scratching on paper with bits of charcoal. I was awestruck.”

Lastly, here is another pithy quote that resonates now more than ever from William Segal’s book of poetry entitled, “Openings,”

“Just as there is a network of communication, a worldwide sharing of ideas and applications, a sharing on a psychic level is also taking place among us.”


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