In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Small Zen Meditation That Eventually Gets Around to What Zazen Really Is

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Small Zen Meditation That Eventually Gets Around to What Zazen Really Is November 11, 2017




Yesterday we went to the Bowers Museum to see the special exhibition of Frank Hurley‘s amazing photographs of the catastrophic 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

I came away with several images burned into my heart, as well as thoughts about a range of issues. One had nothing to do with the photographs.

It was a display of Shackleton’s Bible that most riveted my attention. The caption explained that it had been presented to Shckleton by the Queen. And that at the direst moment facing the likelihood of death and the thinnest chance of survival, he tore out three pages ahead of abandoning the book. The Bible itself was then salvaged by a crew member who carried it through the harrowing they endured. Both Shackleton’s choice of those three pages and the crew member’s choice to include the whole book in that same dire moment touched me.

But what caught me most were those three pages. One was the title page which had been inscribed by the Queen. Another was a page including Job 38:29-30. “Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath/gendered it?/The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” A naked admission of powerlessness in the face of terrible and overwhelming forces.

The third was the page containing the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He taketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leaders me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leaders me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art
with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

What was especially interesting to me was that while the page with the inscription meant nothing in particular to me, and I was curious as to what part of Job was chapter 38, verses 29 and 30, as it and the psalm were only cited and not quote – nonetheless I immediately knew what the 23rd Psalm was, and even was able to recite a good part of it.

Me, someone with virtually no memory to speak of. Never had. I probably know by heart a grand total of five or ten pages of text from all that I’ve read over the years. I know a couple of verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I know “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Maybe there’s another song I can be prompted to sing. But as I type these words, can’t think of what it might be.

As a Zen practitioner, I need prompting, but do have the Heart Sutra by heart, as well as a handful of other texts, most notably the meal chants. And one version of the verse of the kesa.

Vast is the robe of liberation,
A formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Tathagata’s teachings,
Saving all the many beings.

As a Zen teacher I’m often asked “how do you meditate with a koan?” To which I have to respond, “I have no idea.” I have no idea because during the years when I was formally engaging the practice, the convention is that you have to memorize the case and present it to your spiritual director, who then digs into the critical points. And, for most of those years I was mainly busy trying to memorize the case barely well enough to present it to the teacher, and so beyond that the whole of the koan encounter took place in the interview room.

Today, after having walked through the practice, having memorized much of the collection, and it is voluminous, I can recite exactly one case:

A student of the way came to Zhaozhou and asked, Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Zhaozhou replied, No.

Usually that “no” is rendered as “Mu.”

So, that I can recite it, if imperfectly, it’s always imperfectly, clearly the 23rd Psalm has a special place in my heart.

I am aware of two Zen-inspired translations of the 23rd Psalm.

One is from the old Zen hand and poet Stephen Mitchell:

The Lord is my shepherd:
I have everything that I need.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters;
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me on the paths of righteousness,
So that I may serve him with love. Though I walk through the darkest valley
Or stand in the shadow of death, I am not afraid,
For you are always with me. You spread a full tables before me, Even in times of great pain; You feast me with your abundance
And honor me like a king, Anointing my head with sweet oil, Filling my cup to the brim.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me All the days of my life,
And I will live in God’s radiance Forever and ever.

The other is from the Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer:

You are my shepherd, I am content

You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed.
You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name.
And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step.
You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity And moisten my head with oil.
Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live within your house.

While I find both helpful, Roshi Fischer’s version is my favorite. That subtle turn into addressing the ultimate rather than singing about it brings the visceral truth of the song right to the fore. As I contemplated these things I began to wonder if other people of Zen have a relationship with the psalm. And, so I googled it. Using the search terms “Zen” and “Psalm 23.” I found a lot, mostly unhelpful. But, some, very much so.

The wonderful lay Zen teacher Susan Moon writes about developing her own practices. “Prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajna Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas, who ‘brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion.’ These words (from the ancient Prajnaparamitta sutra) reminded me of the 23rd Psalm: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ I said this too.”

And that opened another point for me. I’ve been thinking about prayer a lot. As someone who does not believe in a deity in the sense of a being with a human-like consciousness whom I can petition to get out of one jam or another, I have to ask myself what prayer might mean. And I have been.

Then I stumbled upon a memoir that touched on that very question. “The Tender Bud: A Physician’s Journey Through Breast Cancer” by the pseudonymous Madeleine Meldin has a page that has those search terms “Zen” and “Paslm 23” both included.

First she cited a “Zen anecdote.” “Meaning is there where you are fully where you are.” While I don’t know the source, the teaching is true. And then with that resting in our hearts Dr Meldin tells us:

In being born and in dying we are alone. From now on, I began to understand, I had to live my everyday life with its every delightful and annoying detail, while trying to advance, in darkness and in light, on the road to uncompromising meaning.

“I also became a pilgrim in the many corridors of the hospital ward. The doctors recommended that I walk and exercise my arm to help the recovery. It was the oncology war. Looking at all of us, some young people, half eaten by cancer, some courageous, terminally ill old gentlemen, and others, I recalled the 23rd psalm: ‘The Lord is my shepherd… Even though I walk in the vally of the dead I shall not fear.‘”

She then adds, “But I felt fear, the fear of death, of protracted illness, of losing mastery over my life.” I found that very important. No fear. And, of course, fear…

Continuing my google search I found a former Catholic priest and psychologist, Ron Roth commenting on the 23rd Psalm, “The Zen master Rinzai, who lived in China in the ninth century, would hold up a finger to his students and ask, ‘What, in this moment, is lacking?’ Perhaps his greatest interpreter, the 18th-century Japanese Zen master Hakuin, wrote, ‘At this moment, what more need we seek?'”

Here a lot of things began to come together.

So, if it isn’t petition, what is prayer? I think Dr Roth gives as good a pointer as we might want. If there is no place to go, if this place, whether it is dinner with friends or a walk down a cancer ward trailing gone’s meds on a pole, what about this place? What about our own heart? My heart? Your heart? What about fear and fearlessness?

Here is the secret place of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Here is the meeting of heaven and earth. Here in the broken place, in the valley of the shadow of death; this is where we meet the divine.

And for those of us who walk the Zen way, this is pretty much exactly what shikantaza is. Zazen is the song of our longing.  Zazen is the invitation into the secret places. It is the raw facing into our own death. And, coming to presence within our fully lived lives.

Right here. Right here.

A  mysterious and terrible joy.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad