RCR – Religious Heart


The wind running through the tree tops, shivering leaves. Blackbirds settle down for the night, calling sharp warnings to intruders. The sky darkens yet, but the threatening storm is released and the sky is now only brushed with cloud.

Thoughts are tossed by the wind, ideas are ripped from their branches. Words turn from expression and settle back into silence.

The ease of life lets all this slide by, resisting grasping hands, disappearing before avaricious eyes. I look up at the old oak’s great branches and feel the immanence of meaning. Yet know beyond doubt that this meaning can never be known.

I do not know how it is done and yet it is completed. There is no marking out the way, yet it is made…

Ah, a few scattered raindrops come after the dry thunderstorm has passed. Their solitary knocking on the hard roof sets up a counterpoint to the shimmering, winded leaves.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a lover of the land in his native Bavaria, even having a small cabin built high in the hills there, Die Hutte. Here he would brood on his work and occasionally receive guests. Paul Celan once visited after the 2nd World War. No record of what was spoken between these two men; the Jewish poet and the German philosopher – a one time Nazi sympathiser and Rektor of Freiburg University.

There is a poem however, written by Celan in the days immediately after the meeting, but some years before his suicide. Below is the poem, first in the original German, then followed by two English translations. The two translations are not the same and suggest something of the intractable problem of interpreting Celan, the act of translation and the meaning of any word. The two translations play at the edges of the fierce debate not only about Heidegger’s Nazism, but, for some, strike at the heart of his philosophy too.


Arnika, Augentrost, der
Trunk aus dem Brunnen mit dem
Sternwürfel drauf,

in der

die in das Buch
– wessen Namen nahms auf
vor dem meinen? –
die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Hoffnung, heute,
auf eines Denkenden
im Herzen,

Waldwasen, uneingeebnet,
Orchis und Orchis, einzeln,

Krudes, später, im Fahren

der uns fährt, der Mensch,
der’s mit anhört,

die halb-
beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor,


Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
star-die on top,

in the

written in the book
– whose name did it record
before mine – ?
in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker’s
to come,
in the heart,

forest sward, unleveled,
orchis and orchis, singly,

crudeness, later, while driving,

he who drives us, the man,
he who also hears it,

the half-trod log-
trails on the highmoor,


Arnica, eye bright,
the draft from the well
with the cube of asters on it,

in the

a line written in the book
– whose name did it receive
before mine? –
a line written in this book
a line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker’s
coming word,
a hope in my heart

forest glade, unleveled,
orchis and orchis, seperated,

crude, but later, in traveling,

the one who is driving us, the man,
the one who is listening, too,

the half-
followed, trodden
paths in the high moor,

There is little doubt that Heidegger was a very clever man, but this is me damning him with faint praise. For while he is recognised with Wittgenstein as the greatest philosopher of the last century, there is something secretive to his work. Gunther Grass made much of his sententious prose, his delight in neologising or resurrecting long forgotten words makes his work difficult even for those reading in the original German. Yet there are also claims too of his appropriation of much Daoist and Zen literature, particularly in the forms of words he used to begin to express nothingness here in the West.

I would also like to suggest that Heidegger also appropriated Nietzsche and Meister Eckhart, again, in large part to find forms to express nothingness.

But Heidegger falls short of Nietzsche’s affirmative philosophy and of Eckhart’s negative theology. What Heidegger never discovered in his relentless pursuit – perhaps because of his very relentlessness – was that the groundless ground out of which these opposite expressions emerged, were one and the same.

Looking in opposite directions does not invalidate one at the expense of the other. Standing on the shores of my native island looking eastward, is my reality really so different from a Japanese standing on the harbour at Fukuoka looking West?

I mention Heidegger here in passing because I want to pass him by. For, however great a philosopher he might have been, he has no corresponding religious heart. Why even mention him then? Because by omission, he brings into focus that religious dimension of philosophy that is the inspiration of all these words. In Nietzsche and Eckhart we have the two great thinkers who offer the West the truest insight into zen.

Nietzsche’s reputation precedes him into this new milennium, but Meister Eckhart is no less revolutionary. Both men had a facility with language that caused them and their work no little trouble; the Nazi misappropriation of Nietzsche and the misjudged comdemnation by the Spanish Inquisition of some of Eckhart’s more speculative theology.

It’s almost dark, the rain is easing off and bird calls pierce the sharp, fresh air. The smell of earth is strong. It is such a complex but compelling odour, redolent of both sweet and sour, life and death. The wind has eased with the rain and in the growing quiet I can here deep into the forest –


About Jamie Nicol

Living in the forested hills of Catalonia, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Zen teacher, recovering philosopher, small-scale natural farmer. Writing just what comes.
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