The Greek word “νόστος // nostos” (epic journey of the hero to return home) comes from the root word “νόος // noos” (intellect/intelligence/awareness/Mind). Our most epic effort is not one of achieving great “things” or objects, but is rather to be found in the effort to “return to our Original Nature,” our True Self, our no-mind condition before thinking: only don’t know. In “The Odyssey,” Ulysses is not trying to conquer or acquire or even escape anything: In the words of our modern age, he is merely trying to “get back to where [he] once belonged.” This is the work of Zen: Get back to where you once belonged.
This is the work of Zen: Get back to where you once belonged.
The reason why we practice Zen is not to explore some exotic mysticism, but merely to return home: returning to our perfectly clear and eternal Original Nature, right here, right now.
One timeless method for arriving at that sacred destination is awareness of the breath. And always, there is returning to the question: “What am I?”
The heroic figure Ulysses is a timeless archetype for the drive to “return home.” He encounters all sorts of trials and tribulations to arrive back at his original point of departure. The entire record of The Odyssey is a recounting of the many struggles — and many temptations — to give up his journey. But Ulysses stays the course. In this archetype, passing the legendary Sirens, he straps himself to the breath.
“I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favourable. Then all of a sudden it fell dead calm; there was not a breath of wind nor a ripple upon the water, so the men furled the sails and stowed them; then taking to their oars they whitened the water with the foam they raised in rowing. Meanwhile I look a large wheel of wax and cut it up small with my sword. Then I kneaded the wax in my strong hands till it became soft, which it soon did between the kneading and the rays of the sun-god son of Hyperion. Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound me hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the crosspiece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.
“‘Come here,’ they sang, ‘renowned Ulysses, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song- and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’
“They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me. — Homer, “The Odyssey”, Book XII