Two classic texts from Christianity and Zen Buddhism: the eternal story of Jesus, and the eternal question of Zen. At first these texts seemed to me like a perfect match and a great way to end the year. What better answer to “where does the one return?” – in Christian language “where does God show up in your life?” – than the story of the nativity? Of course the One returns to us as the infant Jesus, born to his adoring mother and visited shepherds and wise men!
It was a difficult time in the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Its king believed that it, like the Northern Kingdom, would fall to the wider powers of the world. It was so terrifying a moment that when God directly offered the king a sign, the king wouldn’t listen. God offered a kong-an, and the king refused to answer. Perhaps smiling like a parent, God patiently ignored the panicked king and worked through the prophet Isaiah to say that the immediate crisis would be resolved before the time a newborn, named “God with us,” would learn to separate good from evil. In the midst of the drums of war, God chose a child to calm the nerves of the people.
It is winter. As I write this I feel the absence of the sun, and a deep distress in my community. Isaiah wrote in a time of deep distress in his community. Then, like now, the geopolitical situation was unstable. The Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel were drawn into picking sides with the greater powers of their time. The glow of the unified and triumphant Davidic kingdom was in the past, the present was dangerous and the future, I hazard a guess, was dreary. At just such a time as this there blossomed hope for a future messiah-king, one who would restore justice and whose reign would usher in a time when natural enemies would snuggle up warmly with one another. This was an unrealistic dream for their time, but a dream which held out possibility and hope.
Today, on the first day of the new church year, we read from Isaiah. He was a prophet of Israel who lived and wrote in the 700s B.C.E, long before the advent of Christianity. Yet from its beginning Christianity has relied heavily on Isaiah for various reasons, not the least of which is the perceived prediction of Jesus’ birth. Various Christian beliefs echo today’s passage, include Jesus’s return as a judge and a new heaven on earth. Many imagine that once this comes about humanity “will beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives; nation will not lift sword against nation, nor ever again be trained for war.
The Second Sunday of Lent
A favorite teaching concept of Zen Master Seung Sahn is “checking mind.” Checking mind is the mind that compares and contrasts, which measures “me” or “I” against something or someone else, which is endlessly competitive, which always wants something else. Checking mind is the mind which looks in the mirror in the morning and wishes for less gray and fewer wrinkles. Checking mind is the mind which makes judgements about other people to make itself feel better. Checking mind is the mind which thinks “if only I had that, then I’d be happy.” Checking mind is the mind of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. Of course, seductive as it is, it’s almost never true. Happiness rarely comes while walking that road.
The First Sunday of Lent
This week we encounter Jesus while he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I imagine most readers have their own picture of what Jesus looked like, and it’s a safe bet most of us envision a human male. Likewise, most readers will have at least a rough idea of what the wilderness in Palestine/Israel looks like – perhaps fueled by Hollywood Bible epics. But how do we picture the devil in this story? Is Jesus arguing with a man with horns and a tail and dressed in a red suit? Was Jesus talking to a six-inch figure who stood on his shoulder and smoked a cigar like George Burns?
Summer has arrived, and with it summer camp, vacation and time with family. One Clear Thing will be on hiatus until the second half of August. Until then, I wish you warm days, cool nights, and lovely time with friends and family. See you in August!
Last Sunday I wrote about God’s response in the book of Job, a book at its core about human suffering. Yet In a week full of suffering locally (the Berkeley balcony collapse) and nationally (the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston), my own response to scripture followed an intellectual interest instead of addressing real suffering in the world. As a follow-up post this week I choose to sit with and consider the suffering caused by the atrocity in Charleston.
Some days it is easy for me to acknowledge that Christianity and Zen are two separate traditions, with two very different cultural contexts which speak very different truths to many different populations of people. Today is not one of those days. Job 38:1-11 sounds to these ears like a kong-an being posed to me by a Zen teacher. If Zen and kong-an practice are ways of closing off rational thinking and directly witness The Mystery, this passage is perhaps one of the greatest kong-ans of all time. God reveals Godself to be a Zen master par excellence.