Inside the Stone Crypt: A Zen Meditation on Holy Saturday


Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the strangest and with that among the more compelling days of the Christian calendar.

Jesus is dead. With that in the Christian story, God is dead.

Resurrection has not yet happened.

So many questions follow. Questions of heart. Of feeling. Of mortality.

Who are we really? Who am I really? And with that, so closely connected to that, what about death?

What about death?

Now that’s a question.

Zen likes questions. Particularly questions like this. In fact if a question can directly point toward the great matter, the deepest truth of our reality, of our precious emergence as individuals as well as how we are woven out of our encounters in a vast dance of intimacy – or, how all this, each and every thing as well as the web itself has no substance, no essential qualities, is simply brilliantly, stunningly, empty, boundless – well, then in Zen it is put to work.

We call these questions koan – literally, public case, as in a legal document. A koan is an assertion about reality and an invitation to an intimate encounter. There are an endless number of koan.

In Japanese Zen, in both the Rinzai and the Harada Yasutani koan curricula, once one has broken open into the great matter through a minute investigation into the question of life and death aided by the pursuit of one of the “dharmakaya,” “breakthrough,” or “first” koan, pick your term, there is a short course called “Miscellaneous Koan.”

In my school, a branch of the Harada Yasutani, these were once called “Miscellaneous Koans Following Kensho,” but that usage has fallen away. That word kensho, which is generally understood as enlightenment was seen by many of our teachers to be a bit over the top, or redundant, or, probably, a little of both. But however we call ‘em, I love these miscellaneous koan. Unlike some of the cases we encounter later, they are very brief. “Save a Ghost,” “Count the Stars in Heaven,” for instance, are both the title and the whole case. Not only do they introduce us to the range of what we will encounter as we go forward in the discipline, here we learn the tropes and style of the koan way.

It is a rich time, with powerful and multifaceted pointers.

Among these, one of my favorite is called the “Stone Crypt.” It does have a bit more to it than the title, although not all that much more.

“You find yourself in a stone crypt. There is no window and the door is locked from the outside. How are you free?”

A good question, I find.

And, particularly, on this day. God is dead. You are dead.

Dead.

Dead.

How are you free?

Now, that’s something for the human heart to break on.

I find myself thinking of my family members who are now dead. My father. My mother. My son. My first wife.

Dead.

I feel the aches and pains as I straddle the middle of my sixties. And think how I need to exercise more. I need to lose some weight.

Which, as important as that is for quality of life and maybe pushing out the parameters of the end of my life a bit, does not prevent death, my death.

I was given a button the other day. It reads “Spoiler alert: Everybody dies.”

Those who promise you will not die, well, they lie. Probably to themselves, but very much to you.

Indeed, if the Christian story is nothing more, as some tell me, than a promise I will not die, they’re lying. It is a vain denial. The universe bares witness to this lie. It just isn’t the way things are.

But, if the Eastertide story is a doorway into another way of seeing, one that puts death in its proper perspective, then Holy Saturday in fact a pointer toward something glorious.

“You find yourself in a stone crypt. There is no window and the door is locked from the outside. How are you free?”

Knowing this precious moment contains all that was – and, all that will be – how, lying in that crypt how are you free?

You.

Not someone else.

Me.

Not someone else.

Today. On Holy Saturday.

When Jesus is dead.

When God is dead.

And so are you.

How are you free?

Open your heart. Let it all be. Just let it be.

And something will be revealed…

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  • Mary Gates

    Thanks for this reminder, James. Too often the Xn story is misinterpreted to suggest that because Jesus died we won’t have too. Too bad. Since we’re meant to climb into his (our) tomb in order to be free just as you have to climb into your koan tomb.


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