Inner Peace Part 2: Mirror and Furnace

Yesterday I traced the spirituality of a Zen Garden stroll, then of meditation based on the ancient Eastern insight that, as the Upanishads says:

This whole universe is Brahman… He who consists of mind, whose body is the breath of life… He is my Self within the heart, smaller than a grain of rice or a barley-corn… greater than the earth.

Mysticism is the general name for this insight: that, in a nutshell (or a barley-corn), God is my Self within the heart.” All major religions have their mysticisms, because all have believers who’ve experienced the transcendent God within their hearts. Islam has Sufis. Christianity has monastic life, with meditation its core practice: the discipline of disposing oneself for direct experience of the divine. Often called “contemplative prayer,” it’s widely practiced by ordinary Christians as well.

Though contemplation, meditation, and mysticism aren’t always interchangeable, they can be for my purpose here. All religions are definitely not interchangeable, but they all share the mystical spiritual experience. This is logical, since there’s only one God; and direct experience of God would be as unmediated as an experience can be. [Read more...]

Inner Peace Part 1: Zen Gardens

Zen gardens were all the rage when I installed a modified version in my backyard some years ago. They still are, I’ve noticed.

Peek behind the gentrified urban home or into a back corner of the suburban lot and you’re likely to see the telltale rock triad, the twisting gravel path, the lone dwarf evergreen, and the stone water bowl of the Zen garden.

Just a peek won’t give you the intended experience, though. Japanese gardens are meant to be strolled through.

The sound of the gravel under your feet is soothing. Shinto priests in pre-Buddhist Japan sensed this over fifteen hundred years ago, and so their sacred spaces were spread with small stones.

The odd windings of the Zen garden path are meant to slow you down, while taking you meditatively through real life in abbreviated form. Medieval Zen priests planned out these gardens as spiritually-directed space. The way to enlightenment is necessarily contorted, they said. The Zen path is designed to take you through life’s inevitable twists and turns without getting tangled or tied in knots.

You might come upon an asymmetrical rock grouping or a single rock with its swirling strata roughly exposed. These are the irregularities of human relations, the ups and downs, the rough and the smooth. Suddenly confronting them, you mustn’t stumble. [Read more...]

The Bible as Icon

For Vic Sizemore

With six children in a Southern Baptist family in the 1970s, we could easily have had a dozen Bibles in the house: There was the giant, gray Family Bible with the embossed cover that resided on the bottom shelf of the living room, which nobody ever read. And there was a scattering of those palm-sized New Testament and Psalms around the place, like silverfish in a drawer—always white or pale green, with ersatz gold leafing that would flake off under the prodding of a fingernail.

There was a Novum Testamentum from when my oldest sister took Latin in college, sandwiched on a shelf. I also always liked the ones from the Gideons (do the Gideons even still exist?) that had translations of John 3:16 in the back. My favorite: Sinhalese.

The vast majority, though, were what could be termed “presentation Bibles.” Invariably from Broadman Press (headquartered in Nashville, the Baptist Vatican), either slick shoe-polish black or steak-slab red “bonded leather” (Ooh, baby!), these had been awarded as part of Sunday School or scripture memorization schemes, and always had about them the whiff of bribery, with the name of the person to whom the Bible was “dedicated” written in ostentatious cursive in the front. “The Words of Christ Are in Red,” it was noted, and in the back was a sheaf of Biblical maps, the topography of the Exodus and Paul’s missionary journeys rendered in Sweet Tart pink and blue. [Read more...]

The Fragrance of the Unknown, Part 1

With less than two days before the retreat began, and only a grain of time unclaimed by other responsibilities, I opened the Etz Hayim to Parashat Hukat and began to read.

I’d been asked to lead an aliyah, a calling forth of worshippers to chant blessings before and after the reading of a portion of the Torah.

Rabbi Jeff Roth, my friend and teacher and leader of the four night silent meditation retreat, had asked me to prepare a teaching based on a few verses of my choosing from Hukat (the name of that week’s Torah portion, hukat means “ritual law”). Those worshippers drawn by the theme of my teaching, which offered before the chanting of the Torah, would be invited up for a group aliyah.

The blessing before the reading: an opportunity to gather one’s attention, inviting heart, ear, and mind to open to receive Torah’s wisdom. The blessing after the reading: an opportunity to experience the resonance of the Torah reading. Blessings before and after, and attending to the Torah reading itself: mindfulness practices. [Read more...]

For the Time Being

I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

[Read more...]


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