A Zen Priest Talks to Some Unitarian Universalists About a Naturalistic Mysticism






Lecture six of six delivered by the Reverend James Myoun Ford on the 10th of August at the Eliot Institute at Seabeck Conference Center, Seabeck, Washington.

The monk Fayan visited Master Dizang who asked the young student of the way, “Where have you come from?” Fayen replied, “I wander from here to there on my pilgrimage.” The master asked, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?” Fayan answered, “I don’t know.” Master Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Case 20, The Book of Serenity


Here are the facts on the ground as I’ve come to understand them. I am here as this body as this life. And my life over these past seventy years has been filled with many experiences, so many joyful, too many sad, some just plain terrible. While often bittersweet, sometimes bitter, I find life is nonetheless, lovely. I am so grateful. And. And, I know that this all ends. I’m in no rush, but I know my death will come, eventually. No doubt.

This knowing of life and death is our common inheritance as human beings. The question is how do we react to these twin knowings?

Many find themselves wracked with anxiety and fear about death. And, in response, there are those offering all sorts of nostrums to address these questions. Some even claim we don’t die. The variations on this assertion include those who claim there are secret, or not so secret ways, and all one has to do is buy their product or service, and your body will live forever.
Others say our real selves are not our bodies, and should we buy their product or service our souls will disentangle from our corpses and live forever. Many variations on the theme out there, many. Some are cons, plain and simple. Others are sincere, indeed heart achingly sincere.

But the bottom line for me is I’ve never encountered a claim of individual human immortality of either the physical or spiritual sort that stood up to close examination. The facts on the ground as I encounter them seem profoundly otherwise than are presented by those who would live forever.

I look around and it is pretty obvious my body cannot live forever. Actually, nothing does. I mean even stars die. As to a soul-as-separate from my body, if there is some part of me that isn’t completely caught up with my physicality I can’t find it. (And, I promise, I’ve looked hard at this…) Everything I experience is best explained, and simply enough explained to be very hard to ignore, through natural means.

To be clear. Here, today, I’m simply confessing who I am and where I am. Although out of this, I hope I can also offer you all something of use on your own individual ways through life and death. I am asserting what you see is what you get. As it says in the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana text closely associated with the Zen way, life is “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

And, so, out of this bubbling knowing I find my whole body asks why and for what purpose do I have, as Mary Oliver calls it, “this one wild and precious life?”

If this is it, if this world in which we rise, live, and die, is it; how would a completely naturalistic view of the matters of life and death manifest as a spiritual perspective? And, I believe that is a fair question. For me constant touchstones that have led to a healing of my heart and a compass pointing true for my life are the teachings of the Buddha and the school of Buddhism that arose in early Medieval China and spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, in Japan taking on the name Zen, and then coming West, together, and is important in my life, together with the naturalistic and rationalist perspectives that arose in the European Enlightenment and evolved into both modern evolutionary thought and Unitarian Universalism. East and West informing each other and allowing something wonderful to present itself. It is the life of the wise heart, and it speaks the language of dragons.

With that first a few words about engaging Buddhism, at least as I do, and with that suggesting what might be useful, and what may not be so helpful.

Near as I can tell we moderns have taken the fact that the Buddha himself wasn’t particularly concerned with questions of deity or cosmology as evidence he had a generally skeptical attitude about these matters. Me, I go along with that.

Although, some have also pointed to the Agganna Sutta, which uniquely among texts that claim to relate what the historic Buddha actually said, does have him making some cosmological assertions. In the Agganna if someone squints hard and tilts her head, it is just possible to see a form of Big Bang cosmology.

And if while continuing to squint, one stands on his head, it is just possible to discern a rough version of evolution. But you really, really have to want to find it, to do so. I don’t. I feel no need to. I’ve never felt that Buddhist thought anticipated anything especially relevant to contemporary science, in any particular given field. Well, except maybe psychology. No, let me restate that: except psychology. What I find within Buddhism, and particular Zen, are the perspectives that lead to a sense of meaning and direction. And that has been as important to me as my very life.

Here, throughout this week, and today, I have been suggesting a meeting of East and West, of Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, together with rationalism, naturalism, and, most of all, the deepest longings of our human hearts. What has resulted, as I’ve said, helped to heal my heart and gave me that compass I so deeply need. And, maybe this can be useful for you. I’ve been exploring aspects of this all week. Today, I want to try to summarize it all. As best I can.

This leads us for a moment or two, at least, to consider Thomas Huxley, and the rise of what I’ve found so powerful within the Western traditions of naturalism and rationality. Huxley was central to the establishment of evolutionary theory in the minds of the public.

My own introduction to Huxley as anything more than a name associated closely with Charles Darwin or as Aldous Huxley’s grandfather, comes through the controversial contemporary Western Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, author of the seminal study Buddhism Without Beliefs. along with a host of other studies and reflections.

I consider this particular book within the entirety of Batchelor’s work of enormous importance for contemporary liberal spirituality. I personally embrace a considerable part of his perspective on my own spiritual way. Although not all of it. I hope to touch on that a little as we go forward.

Stephen today prefers that stronger term “atheist” to describe himself, although he rushes to assert his atheism shouldn’t be tied too closely with those for whom atheism is an emotional assertion, more anti-theism than simple disbelief. He isn’t angry, just doesn’t find deities or actually the whole supernatural realm likely enough to even consider possible. Most of us who hold similar views to his regarding the supernatural actually prefer the term “nontheist” to describe ourselves.

Whatever. More importantly to me Stephen also makes much of the term “agnostic,” which Thomas Huxley coined in the late nineteenth century. And, while he continues to be a really important thinker. Oh, here you can see him and me together at a conference.

In an essay titled “the Agnostic Buddhist” Stephen writes how Huxley coined agnostic “as something of a joke. Huxley belonged to a small philosophical circle in London in which he increasingly felt out of place. While everybody else in the group could readily identify themselves as a Christian or a Rationalist or a Schopenhaurian, or whatever, he felt perplexed that no such term seemed applicable to him. So he decided to call himself an ‘agnostic’ in order that he too could ‘have a tail like all the other foxes.’”

By combining the prefix “a” to gnostic, agnostic means without knowledge, or not knowing. However, not in the sense we commonly find today, “I don’t know and I don’t particularly care.” Modern agnosticism is often a rather tepid cup of tea. Huxley’s agnosticism had a lot of heart about it. “Huxley even described his view as ‘the agnostic faith,’ thus giving it the kind of seriousness that one might otherwise expect only amongst religious people.” And Huxley followed this way with great passion.

As Stephen explained, Huxley “saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed.” Well, maybe not creed. Actually, he seemed to have much the same reservations about formal creeds contemporary Unitarian Universalists usually feel. Because, Huxley wasn’t seeking pat answers. For him agnosticism was first and foremost, a method. The method he had in mind is broadly the same as which underpins scientific inquiry. And for him this method led to a naturalistic, and what we might call today a humanistic spirituality. It is that generous skepticism of which I’ve spoken several times this week.

That generous skepticism, that “not knowing” allows us to see things in new light, to discern much about the human heart. And Huxley’s rigorous observations within the spirit of not knowing led to some basic principles. And these are principles that can inform us and takes us deep into the ways of wisdom.

Actually, whether God exists was not a primary concern for Huxley although he saw no particular reason to postulate a deity. And I find this terribly important. Huxley’s real challenge for most of us cut much closer to the bone. He challenged how we see ourselves. He was adamant that human beings did not exist outside the flow of events and their intimate interrelatedness.

Huxley wrote, “In the whole universe there is nothing permanent, no eternal substance either of mind or of matter.” He felt any idea of an abiding self, an eternal individual “personality is a metaphysical fancy; and in very truth not only we, but all things in the worlds without end of the cosmic phantasmagoria, are such stuff as dreams are made of.”
As we go forward I will suggest understanding this viscerally becomes a key to authentic wisdom.

As I repeat a lot, and cited on our first day together. Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister Forrest Church observed the genuine work of religion flows out of our knowledge we are alive and that we are going to die. I would add to that religion, spirituality addresses the hurt, fear and anxiety that seems to haunt the human condition.

I find much of that hurt and fear and anxiety in our lives arises out of a fundamental cognitive error. The error is that we are isolated beings. Certainly, as I look at myself honestly, relentlessly, in the spirit of a generous skepticism, a not knowing, frankly I find it impossible to discern any part of me that isn’t formed by conditions coalescing out of my genetic makeup and my ongoing encounters with events and people.

I am this because of that. And the “that” which makes “this,” is both multitudinous and changes in a heartbeat. Who I am as this skinbag changes sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically with the very next addition of experience. Me, I find this an inescapable truth. I am as mutable as the events that occur all around me.

There are all sorts of reasons why we see ourselves as discrete and separate from each other. To me it seems obvious it is an unfortunate psychological side effect of our amazing ability to divide the universe, to find the information that allows us to survive. A way of seeing, thanks to Koko, we know we share with Gorillas, at the very least. And I believe that list is in fact quite long.

And there certainly is a truth that in any given moment, we are in fact separate. You are you and I am I, at least in the moment. And at the very same time there is a larger sense in which we are totally wrapped up together in a very real web of mutuality. The intuition of the spiritual enterprise is that we can reconcile these apparent contradictions, our separateness in the moment, and our essential connectedness. This is sometimes called the nondual perspective.

Through his commitment to not knowing, Huxley found the nondual perspective. While he was writing before the discovery of genes, like the Buddha, he got the principle that we are all moments in the great rush of time and space, verbs rather than nouns, notes in a symphony.

The spiritual enterprise as I see it, is to find how this is in fact our truth, yours and mine. And it is discovered when we open our hearts and minds, as we embrace a way of deep agnosticism, of truly not knowing.

Susan Blackmore in her delightful book Consciousness: An Introduction reflects on these assertions and asks.

“Have these people really seen nonduality, directly, in their own experience? If they have, could we all see it? Might the psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists working on the problem of consciousness see nonduality directly for themselves? If so, it seems possible that they might bring together two apparently totally different disciplines: the third-person discipline of science and the first-person discipline of self-transformation. If they did so, might they then understand exactly what had happened in their own brains when all the illusions fell away and the distinction between first and third person was gone? This way the direct experience of nonduality might be integrated into a neuroscience that only knows, intellectually, that dualism must be false.”

Deep agnosticism, not turning away, remaining present, heals many wounds. As to what this really looks like there’s a story from Blackmore’s book. “John Wren-Lewis was a physics professor with decidedly anti-mystical views when in 1983, at the age of sixty, he was poisoned while traveling on a bus in Thailand. A would-be thief gave him some sweets laced with what was probably a mixture of morphine and cocaine, and the next thing he knew was waking up in a dilapidated and dirty hospital.

“At first he noticed nothing special, but gradually it dawned on him that it was as if he had emerged freshly made, completely with the memories that made up his personal self, from a radiant vast blackness beyond space and time. There was no sense at all of personal continuity. Moreover, the ‘dazzling darkness’ was still there. It seemed to be behind his head, continually re-creating his entire consciousness afresh, instant by instant, now! And now! And now! He even put his hand up to feel the back of his head only to find it perfectly normal. He felt only gratitude toward everything around him, all of which seemed perfectly right and as it should be.”

I’m very taken that Blackmore didn’t chose an example from the traditional spiritual literature. This wasn’t a thirty-year practitioner of an austere spiritual discipline. This was someone drugged and robbed. This experience is accessible to all of us because it is a natural part of how our brains naturally work. Meditation and other disciplines help, a lot.

But in the last analysis all we need do, is let go of our certainties. As the lady said, “It’s all in your head.” We, if you will, evolved to be able to do this. Why I don’t know. And, you know, we don’t need to know the answer that particular question. Within the scheme of the universe it is probably a nonsequitur. And, while questions of meaning are important to us as humans, we need to be careful as to what might actually be worth pursuing. And, how. In my experience the really big questions of meaning have been resolved in a full on turning into the moment. The answers are not words, but presence itself.

And as it happens, some sense of this experience never abandoned Wren-Lewis for the rest of his life. In his own words Wren-Lewis described the place of not knowing as a living experience. “I feel as if the back of my head has been sawn off so that it is no longer the sixty-year-old John who looks out at the world, but the shining dark infinite void that in some extraordinary way is also, ‘I.’” Just this moment. And. Only don’t know.

This is where not knowing takes us, each following our own trajectory, each with our own moments, and all joined. For me I found it sitting in a Buddhist monastery, eating a thin cabbage soup. For you, perhaps playing with a child. For another, perhaps listening to Mozart. Another, perhaps just noticing that it is possible for this moment only, to not have that drink. For another, well, who knows? The secret is only not knowing. As the master Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

So, from here let me return to the personal. Here I open my heart to you. I have walked the way for a life time and what I share here is the best I can to present what I find, and along with it, what I find might be useful for others on their paths.

I suggest a deep agnosticism; truly engaging not knowing is the universal solvent. It will release us from our hurt and fears by showing us, not in some abstract cognitive therapy sort of way, but in the deepest, most visceral way, who we really are. This has been my experience. At the beginning of his Buddhism Without Beliefs Stephen Batchelor gives two quotations. I find they neatly summarize the issues.

The first is from the novelist Marcel Proust. “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”

I’ve given religions some hard hits here and there this week. Mostly I have problems with crowd control and the perpetuation of various social norms, particularly what we call patriarchy. Frankly, I think they deserve the knocks. However, I believe the worst of religion, as with the rest of our lives, comes through what I have to call “reification,” a term with several meanings, but by which I mean taking that which is passing for that which is permanent.

This is a human inclination, it seems. But religions, at their worst, seem more than other institutions to enshrine what really seems to me to be the fundamental conceptual error of human consciousness.

Now I genuinely believe one can find what one needs through any of the world’s religions. To paraphrase one tradition, they contain everything necessary to salvation. But, they are also veritable magpie nests, with all the noxious stuff, sometimes, often leading with the unhelpful, and even poisonous. But, that said, and meant, dig deep enough, and there is much of value.

Still, historically, only one religion seems to address the fundamental problems in a way I find plain, straightforward, and helpful. In the Dhammapada, an ancient collection of sayings of the Buddha, he offers three pointers. They are, in my paraphrase:

All elements of conditioned things are without some special essence. When you fully understand this your heart will be liberated. All conditioned things are impermanent. When you fully understand this your heart will be liberated. Trying to hold tightly onto conditioned things as they pass is the source of the heart’s pain. When you fully understand this your heart will be liberated.

Two things. First, fully understand is an invitation into a body knowing, something a bit deeper than intellectual assent to a hypothesis, theory, or even prophetic pronouncement. And, second, these concepts themselves must, I find, must be engaged cautiously. Remember that generous skepticism. Although this time for a slightly different reason than is often the case. It appears the closer any concept is to what might be called “truth,” the greater the danger of reification. And, here I think we have a description of our human dis-ease in life and its cure that is as true as any statement can be.

Always hold truths lightly. They can liberate and they can add layers of entrapment.
This noticed, if we avoid the trap and don’t let the spirit become so many dead letters, don’t, if you , verbs), then the many spiritual traditions begin to sing of the way. Maybe, I suspect, all of them, if sometimes only through that glass, darkly, point to our possibility.

It really seems within all religions there are voices calling to a depth that I find my heart resonates with, and which engages my mind, and compels me forward on the quest.
Here I find that second quote at the beginning of Batchelor’s book particularly helpful. It is what is revealed as I’ve journeyed along this way.

It comes from the medieval Chinese koan anthology, the Blue Cliff Record. “Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truth?” Bodhidharma siad, “Empty, without holiness.” The emperor said, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”

For me this is the whole of the path. Our journey is to that cloud of unknowing. To what turns out to be god beyond god. This not knowing is a profound opening. It is not simply a call to humility, although it includes humility. Rather, it is a call to our true home. I believe. I’ve found. I confess. I offer.

And, here we are. Me, I’ve found for much of my life the context of liberal religion the best place to explore this way. For me. I genuinely cannot claim this is so for everyone. But I believe I’ve stumbled upon a pearl of great price. And, it turns out we each of us must find that pearl for ourselves, and it often turns out to be different.

Liberal religion embraces a broad tolerance, a provisional acceptance of many truth claims, and a belief that attention will sort it out. Actually, I’ve seen this spiritual liberalism, a heartful universalism, a belief that the deepest truths cannot be contained, occurs in just about every religion. At least within modernity. In the West I’ve certainly encountered it among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Although, also, I find those individuals all near the edge of their traditions, each claiming varying degrees of unique authority. But also pretty much full on with members of the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Hicksite or Meeting Quakers, and Reconstructionist and Reformed Jews. Still, the principal and almost unvarnished expression of this spiritual liberalism, I feel, is found within Unitarian Universalism. (picture seven) At least within its more mature lived into expressions.

So, for me Liberal Religion is broad and tolerant, and it creates a context for deep inquiry. Although it puts the onus upon the individual to dig in and to find for themselves. As a spiritual community it becomes a warm and embracing place to raise a family, a healthful place we can gather together and make the world and ourselves a little better. I’ve been so grateful to be given a home and work among this crowd for so much of my life.

But agnostic, well, that’s a spiritual practice. More or less starting with its original use when coined by Thomas Huxley, as an engaged not knowing, is the method of wisdom. I believe this not knowing is the way itself. This is my heart. This is my path. I suggest it is the very language of dragons.

Only don’t know.

Which is found when one applies the principle: don’t believe anything you think. And start with yourself. Don’t trust your own ideas of what is and what is not just because you thought them up. Here is the deep agnosticism which I’ve been coming back to over and over of late.
That’s the deep agnosticism I find in at least aspects of contemporary spiritual writers like Stephen Batchelor, Ranier Maria Rilke, Don Cupitt, Mary Oliver, Shunryu Suzuki, John Tarrant, Susan Murphy, Ken Jones, Barry Magid, Diane Rizzetto, Ezra Bada, Elizabeth Hamilton, Susan Blackmore. Oh, and the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Perhaps this spiritual practice of generous skepticism, of not knowing is all best expressed through the Zen tradition. I know of all the spiritual disciplines it has been Zen that has most helped me. The practices, zazen and koan introspection, lots of zazen and koan introspection; and the literature that accompanies these disciplines have shown me the way.
As a final example for our time together, I want to return to one famous anecdote that particularly captures the heart of all this. For me. It is captured, well, as captured as any dragon can be, as case twenty in the great koan anthology, the Book of Serenity, recorded here with my own running commentary…

Fayen and some companions were caught in a snowstorm and took refuge at Dizang Monastery where the abbot, Luohan Guichen asked Fayen, “What is your journey?” In a Zen context always a dangerous question. How are you doing? Becomes the stuff of life and death. It becomes the meeting of dragons. Fayen replied, “Going around on pilgrimage.” Not a bad answer, but not sparkling, either. Is there actually a dragon present? Dizang, abbots are often known by the name of their temple and the mountain upon which it rests, pushed a bit further, inquiring, “What do you expect from pilgrimage?” Then Fayen gave the simplest of answers. “I don’t know.”

The time was ripe, what in Christian theology is sometimes called kairos, the time of fulfillment. Dizang didn’t even need to pluck the fruit, it was so ripe. Instead he simply blew on it, gently, saying “Not knowing is most intimate.”

And Fayen understood.

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