ZEN AND A HOLY TRINITY A Zen Priest Meditates on the Vagaries of Love

A Zen Priest Meditates on the Vagaries of Love

James Ishmael Ford

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:35-40 King James Version


Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s sparked a reflection from this Zen priest and Unitarian minister. I hope it doesn’t offend everyone…

Recently the Reverend Fritz Wendt, a friend who is a Lutheran pastor posted a citation from Augustine of Hippo on Facebook. Augustine is not, I admit, my favorite Christian. I think of him as the theologian who allowed Manichaeism a foothold within Christian theology. And, me, not being a fan of dualisms I don’t think that was a good thing.

Of course this is a gross over simplification of Augustine and his teachings. And to prove it, was my friend’s citation. He said Augustine said the Christian Trinity is actually “love, lover, and beloved” That caught my imagination. And so I asked where that interesting statement came from? I was pointed to Augustine’s “On the Trinity.”

I rummaged around and found this. “Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love.”

Now, that very same essay by that sometime Manichaean and later Christian bishop also has a bit of a dismissal of reason. So, I’m not letting Augustine off any hooks here. He still is a mess. But, a hot mess. And a mess with something real to offer. I’m very taken with his trinity. And, frankly, the very logic, reason if you will, that he uses to come to that lover, loved, and love deity.

And, actually this trinity has analogs elsewhere. For instance that most unitarian of religions, Islam, at least in its Sufi form holds up a definition of God, “Iskh Allah Mabud Lillah,” which is to say “God is love, lover, and beloved.”

Go figure.

And, of course, all these things beg a question. If God is love, or, maybe its love in action, then what is love? We can get circular here – Love is God. But, I think there’s more use for us by digging into that thing we call love rather than reduce what can be an abstraction into another abstraction. If just a little.

Merriam Webster gives a fistful of definitions. The first is that love is a “strong affection” based in kinship, personal ties, or sexual attraction. It is also attachment, or enthusiasm. Going for an etymological source, our English word love appears to come to us from German, and then deeper down, that good old hypothetical Indo-Europen “lub” with a Sanskrit cognate, “lubhyati,” both meaning “desire.”

I decided to ask my Blog readers and Facebook friends what they thought love is? A fair number avoided the actual question, and shifted to that circular love is god, god is love trope.  Fair enough. I’ve done that, myself. Among these my favorite was a citation from the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra: “Buddhahood expresses itself in perfect love for all; it is where the manifestation of perfect love that is Tathagata-hood expresses itself in noble wisdom for the enlightenment of all…” In short, “Love is nirvana.” That’s a great variation on love is God. Love is nirvana.

Others tried to draw out of themselves a defintion. They ranged from a pretty straight forward (and anonymous) “Love is a literally meaningless word used to pretty-up our biological imperative to procreate.” Another friend, the old Zen hand Linda Frank said, “Absolute inclusion without condition.” The Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays offered her thought that love is “The desire to see another person reach their full potential in life, and the willingness to give up what you want in order for that to happen.” I liked these. All of them.

And I’m not trying to let myself off the hook. So, let me give a try. At the front end love is desire. It obviously has a biological connection. Or, as C. S. Lewis once said in a roughly similar context, “the grubby roots of our affections.” My anonymous friend is no doubt right, up to a point. Love is a word we use for sexual desire. But, it is a word that means so much more, as well.

I think of the various kinds of love we encounter among the Greeks. The Greeks, as anyone who has studied the New Testament knows has four terms for aspects of what we in English call love. The big ones are eros, romantic or erotic love and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention, but nonetheless in the family of love are storge, affection or familial love, and philia, or friendship.

Love in all its forms has power. Maybe it is power. And it does have those three aspects. At least. Digging into this may prove enormously helpful. It is the act of love. But it must include a lover. And it must include something beloved. And so at the heart of the matter I suggest that love is the attention we bring to something. Love is focus. Love is attention.

So, what does this mean in practice? Well, a while back I offered a reflection. And I return to it here, cutting and expanding a little. I believe that which we love is also what we see as god. Maybe not the capital “G,” God as the source and return of our lives, but certainly as that which we give importance to, and which in turn defines us. Love is attention. And that to which we give our attention is our god.

Exploring our lives through the lens of this definition, our gods are what we give our attention to, my goodness, there are a lot of deities out there. And not all of them are particularly attractive. Greed is one big god out there. No doubt. With all sorts of faces, grasping after money, chasing after sex, wanting, wanting. Another deity I notice highly worship is hatred, napalm like burning anger, again with many faces from irritation, to disdain. Probably the most insidious of the deities clamoring for our attention are various shades of certainty.

Now, we need to want things in order to keep alive, anger is a natural response to mistreatment, and, we need to make judgments in order to plan and accomplish. So, they have a place within the pantheon. The real problem with these gods and others like them is when they take up too much of our attention, they crowd out the rest of the world within which we live, and breathe, and take our being. Each wants to be the one and only. They are all of them jealous gods. As part of the background of life they actually have place, but when they put themselves on the central throne, then much ill follows. For ourselves and all those with whom we interact.

Enter Jesus. He distills the collective wisdom of the Jewish people and offers something powerful. He isn’t the only one. Hillel is a rough contemporary of Jesus, for instance, and who presents a healing distillation of the Jewish traditions. That acknowledged Jesus does something particularly magical with his approach to God. The stories of of the Jewish God coalesce over millennia becoming in his time the great creator and parent of humanity.

Although, I think the early versions from storm god, to the particular god of a particular people, to something vast and universal are all there at the same confusing and contradictory time. I think I’ve already established I like messy, hot messy. It’s the real, after all.

In fact the version of this deity that I find most useful in my life is the one that can be found buried within the heart of the Book of Job. Not in the set pieces that frame that story where Job is rewarded, but rather in the midst of the terrible storm that over takes Job, and in that confrontation with what is. That’s the god I’m interested in. God as the great Is-ness of life.

And then Jesus takes that Is-ness and gives us a twist. He names the energy that connects the individual to that great Is that Is, and at the same time to brings it to one’s neighbor, which as I read it, seems obviously to mean the whole blessed world.

And he names it Love.

In Zen the word koan is meant to be an assertion about reality that includes an invitation to engagement. It is a map and a door. And, the thing in itself. And here we find Love is the great koan. Here we find it is all actions. It is that which is beloved. It is the lover. It is love itself. All emerging as attention.

And attention to what? Well, as I’ve pointed out, it can be to lesser things. And really those lesser things can be pretty important. But, I feel my heart called to the fundamental matter. To the things we call holy. And here I find that love that is the attender, the attended, and attention itself.

Just this becomes the holy. Just this the divine. Just this love, beloved, and love.

And from that the worlds spin out.

And the cosmos is born…



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