Cults and mystics, mystics and cults — the two of them entered my head the other day like a happy couple holding hands along a dappled springtime path, necks bending slightly now and then as if to pass some secret word, some shared hope, some grinning recollection. Cults and mystics, mystics and cults.

Their arrival seemed to have something to do with a reporter from a local paper who called up to ask about my former Zen teacher. The reporter wanted to do an expose. I have nothing particular against exposes, but I always feel a certain confusion talking with someone who is not a Zen student in the formal sense, who does not practice yet wants or has a serious explanation. On the other hand, I like to gab, so we chatted.

“Funny about Zen,” she commented at one point, “it seems to have avoided the charges, the accusations leveled at other groups.”

“The one true Spic ’N Span spiritual endeavor?” I asked before I could bite my tongue.

“Sort of,” she said with a laugh. “Really, though, it doesn’t have a cult image. I mean, it’s not like Jim Jones or anything.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

“You think Zen is a cult?”

“I think that what many people mean by a cult is a group whose beliefs or activities those many-people don’t like, find abhorrent, silly, irrational, inexplicable, or not-like-them. Actually, a cult suggests only the attention — maybe the worshipful attention or devotion — to some central figure, a cultus . . . a god, golden calf, stock certificate, intellect, anything. From one point of view, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and stockbrokering all might be called cults.”

“What about Zen?” she pressed.

“It’s possible to misinterpret, certainly. Jim Jones and the suicide of 900 followers — that was an offshoot, a possibility of Christianity. Christianity will have to take responsibility for all of its possibilities or risk losing credibility.”

“But Zen?” she emphasized.

“Yes, Zen too. One of the suggestions Zen practice traditionally makes is obedience to the teacher. Not an unusual suggestion in spiritual endeavor. But it hardly takes much imagination to see how that direction might be interpreted to mean turning the teacher into a cultus, an object of undue veneration or worship. I’ve seen it happen. It’s sad to watch. And it’s far from the subtlest example available.”

“Isn’t surrender important?”

“Very. But to what?”

“To the teacher.”

“Who is the teacher?”

“I don’t know. You’re the student.”

“In one sense maybe you’re right. But in a more important sense, we are both students. We’re both alive. I have a hunch that when we find the teacher we will have already surrendered. Or, when we surrender, we will have found the teacher. Something like that.”

“Are we still talking about cults?” she asked.

“I think so. Cults didn’t grow up in order to be bad-mouthed by the New York Times, after all. They grew because someone thought there was a positive aspect, a reward, perhaps, or improvement, advancement — a creativity that was otherwise lacking somehow. A blindness cured, a miracle in the offing, a reality unveiled, a candle in the darkness, a flash of lightning, a flower in the spring. Something like that. But there is no such thing as a positive aspect without a negative just as there is no such thing as spiritual endeavor without both risk and responsibility. For some, maybe a particular direction works. For others it may spell catastrophe.”

“But in general, would you say Zen is a cult?” She was getting irritated.

‘“In general’ doesn’t apply. Zen practice is for human beings. Human beings are magnificent, like Zen. Not just one thing and very much one thing. Take two aspirin, cure a headache. Take a bottle and kill yourself. Zen is full of risks — perhaps it’s just one enormous risk after another. I’ve known a couple of people who killed or tried to kill themselves thinking it was in pursuit of some Zen goal. It was sad. I’ve also known hundreds or even thousands who practiced the best they could, with courage, doubt, persistence.”

“Isn’t there something wrong with a system that has people killing themselves?”

“You mean like life? Or the Christian martyrs?”

“They were put to death for their beliefs by others, weren’t they?”

“Maybe you’re right. I don’t know too much about Christians. But they must have been bugging someone pretty badly. On the other hand, people seem to express their responsibility for themselves in different ways.”

“But if people commit suicide in the name of religion . . . I mean doesn’t a system that produces that need changing?”

“No.”

“No?!”

“No. As I said, people make their own way. They are responsible. They may dislike that responsibility and express themselves with blame or opinion or judgment or criticism, and they certainly deserve care and nurturing where that’s called for, but in the end, in reality, they are responsible. Death, like birth, is important. It deserves sharp attention. Zen has a strict form that produces responsible, unfettered people. Like flowers in the garden — one soil, very strict; with lots of different flowers, very free.”

“Suicide flowers?”

“If you choose.”

“Cult flowers?”

“If you choose.”

“Do Zen students worship Buddha?”

“That’s a loaded question.”

“What’s the problem?”

“If you tell me what you mean by ‘Buddha,’ maybe I could answer.”

“There was an historical Buddha wasn’t there?”

“Yes.”

“So. . . .?”

“You mean like Jesus?”

“Yes”

“No.”

“No what?”

“No, we don’t especially idolize bones and dust.”

“But the ideas?”

“Not even the ideas.”

“Why call it Buddhism then?”

“Buddha just means enlightened one. Like you. Like me. It means what we truly are in our heart of hearts. Not a raging, sinful beast. Neither an airy-fairy angel . . . all that’s secondary. Buddha is who we are with all stops out and before we conceive of it. The onionness of the onion. What good does it do to recite someone else’s words? But the experience that prompted those words or those actions . . . now that might be interesting. That’s what makes spiritual life alive — experience, pragmatism. It means you stand on your feet and I stand on mine. You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. Buddha.”

“I can already do that.”

“Certainly. Zen isn’t for later. And it certainly isn’t for someone else. That’s why people practice — to do what they already can do and to find what wasn’t missing. Eventually the uncertainty implied by a statement like ‘I can already do that’ or ‘I know’ or ‘I understand’ eases and the flowers can grow.”

And so the conversation went. We never did get around to mystics, that reporter and I. The connection only occurred to me later, entering through a negative door: “cults” and “mystics” are both words that are often used in the pejorative sense. Jim Jones had a “cult” (boo-hiss!) or Sally Smith is so “mystical” (a space cadet . . . red wires and blue wires irrevocably blown on drugs or some name-brand insanity). “Cults” and “mystics.” Words that control — surrounding the subject, then abandoning it with vigor. Dismissive words like many others.

And yet the trash heap is an excellent place for spiritual endeavor. A sweaty, stinky, rich, rat-ridden, bug-infested ground, weeds snarling around topless Clorox bottles, a holed vacuum cleaner hose resting easy as a warm snake near two moldy pork chop bones. A place refused. Refuse. Re-fuse. Perhaps a diploma has been tossed in favor of some more lofty goal or some more lofty goal tossed in favor of a diploma. And in among the garbage and rich possibility, perhaps, those two old friends, so richly scorned and idly tossed — “cults” and “mystics.” “Mystic” — from the same root that produced the word “mystery.” Everyone loves a mystery, yet who will solve it?

As with all good detective stories, the mystic’s tale begins with “unknown” and works toward the “known.” The story has what it must have in order to create a story: an “other.” Perhaps a body. (Cultus delecti?) Perhaps a sickness. Perhaps a crime to be wept over. Or yet again, perhaps an image whose positive power cannot be denied, whose time has come, whose magnetism invites, rivets, compels, mesmerizes. Or yet once more, perhaps a simple cry for help in the middle of an unpeopled night.

Pipe in one hand, magnifying glass in the other, Holmes sets forth. The facts are scanty at first and the what-if’s and if-only’s whirl and whiz, but this much is known: there is an “other” — a “good” other to be protected and served and/or a “bad” other to be confounded, caught, and incarcerated for all eternity. A devilish business, yet this is detective’s work, and Holmes, like Martin Luther, may find himself agreeably stuck, saying, “Ich kann nicht anderes.” (I cannot do otherwise.)

If I did “solve” this thing, did indeed get the “answer,” where would the fun be? This is suicide, and a suicide without promises. Imagine life without the pizazz! Who would I be without my wizards of sorrow? Who would I be without worry and judgment, criticism and blame, praise and laughter?

Forward into the mystery. And yet with each step, the journey becomes more vague somehow, and threatening — as if some fog reached up to cloud the narrow mountain path. At first the story was so clear — the “known” and "unknown,” the “desirable” and the “disdained,” the “worship” and “curses.” But now . . . which was it? . . . is this the “good” and that the “bad” or was it the other way around? Is this the path “up” or is it “down?” A strange, suggestive place where both the way forward and the way back are impossible. A place perhaps the more terrifying because now the question carries increasing weight: if I did “solve” this thing, did indeed get the “answer,” where would the fun be? This is suicide, and a suicide without promises. Imagine life without the pizazz! Who would I be without my wizards of sorrow? Who would I be without worry and judgment, criticism and blame, praise and laughter? Shit! I really don’t know. But, “Ich kann nicht anderes.”

Charles Williams, author of a number of metaphysical thrillers, once merged one of his characters with God. In the particular case, God was symbolized in a stone, a magical stone that others worshipped for its power and capacity. But one character only wished to serve, to love, to become one. She got her wish and Williams killed her off. Why? I wondered. Was it because when the detective seeks something, that something is very desirable, praise-worthy, extraordinary, and special? And then, when that something is found or realized, the specialness (separateness, other-ness) evaporates and the author (onlooker) is left with someone indistinguishable from anyone else — a kind of special unspecial person? If God were as common as air, it might be hard to take, almost anti-social in implication. Certainly there’d be a lot of real estate on the market. But at the personal level . . . jeepers! That’s no fun. No more haggling, gnashing of teeth, sorrow in the late night. . . . Best leave this one alone, Holmes.

But this is the direction of the mystic — to see things as they are. Out of the realm of belief and into a place where words and acts can accord, where isness need not be fled, where tears flow and laughter resounds, and where blue sky is, after all, only blue. An impossible, unbelievable, ridiculous, valueless, and arduous effort the mystic makes.

No wonder they call him a damned fool.