A Zen Priest Dreams of Angels

A Zen Priest Dreams of Angels September 29, 2018




Today within the Christian liturgical calendar is Michaelmas. Or, and actually my preferred name, today is the Feast of the Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Or, if you prefer, the shorter while still more accurate version, today is the Feast of the Archangels.

An archangel is a chief or principal angel. Angels are supernatural beings who often serve as mediators between the heavenly and earthly realms. It appears angels enter Judaism and later Christianity through the influence of Zoroastrianism. Where they got it, I don’t think we know with any certainty, but on first blush it does sort of look like they’re a positive adaptation of local deities by monotheistic religions.

In Buddhism we have devas. They don’t precisely map. In the West there is a romancing of individual immortality that doesn’t exist in the same way within the Buddhadharma. Although I would suggest we who claim our way within the path of the Buddhas and ancestors often mistake the mystery and nuance for a reductionism, often some substitution of our Western materialism, that just isn’t the tradition. It’s all much messier than any reductionism can ever point toward.

All that said, and wherever they come from, the idea of spiritual beings that muck about between heaven and earth, whispering warnings, making announcements, and occasionally directly intervening, certainly has its appeals. And, I suggest, realities.

And so on this festival day I find myself thinking of what those mediators between heaven and earth might be for me.

I have found in my life that we live and breathe and take our being within the meeting of two worlds. The problem is the two are not actually two. Nor, are they precisely one. So, when we open our hearts to the realities we find our vision complicated, mysteries emerge, the divine erupts into the ordinary.

Last year I described visiting with an old friend, an Episcopal priest who is also a Zen teacher. I attended a mass she celebrated. And, among the small band of mostly elderly people I suddenly noticed “the whole universe was present. All the angels of Western faith and all the devas of the East were present and circling around that little altar that somehow became the navel of the cosmos.”

And, perhaps critically, “Without thinking about it, without worry about theology or proper decorum, without any concern but a longing to come ever closer to the moment of creation, I stepped into that small circle.”

Later I was attending a Zen Buddhist service where the doshi, the principal celebrant was another friend, a Japanese Soto Zen priest. In “service” the liturgical act of reciting sutras, offering incense, and bowing, all done with the intent of thanking and offering any merit surrounding those acts to the healing of the world, I watched my friend take a stick of incense and hold it to his forehead. And, in that moment I saw the same thing, for me the same thing, as my friend the Episcopal priest holding in her hands a bit of bread.

There simply are moments when the two worlds come together. There simply are moments when the angels, the devas do indeed travel between heaven and earth.

And then every act, every step, every word becomes a mystery, a communion, a sacred dance.

Within our silent hearts we can witness the whole mystery.

It is always waiting. All we have to do is enter the silence and witness.

A song of the archangels…

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