The One Sermon: A Reflection on the Zen Life

The One Sermon: A Reflection on the Zen Life October 17, 2018




Yangshan Huiji had a dream. In it he traveled to Maitreya’s hall, where he was led to the third seat. No sooner had he sat than a senior monk struck the bell and announced, “Today the one sitting in the third seat will preach.”

Yangshan immediately stood up, and also gave the bell a strike. He then said, “The truth of the great way is beyond the four propositions and transcends the hundred negations. Listen. Listen.”

Case 25, Wumenquan, the Gateless Gate

The other day my friend the Zen teacher and Episcopal priest Mary Gates commented on how in my dharma talks and in my sermons I have a tendency to wander around a bit but I pretty much always circle around to one point. She noted it’s always about love. Actually, I was a little taken aback by that. Because I had a little different view on what I was doing.

A million years ago when in seminary I so vividly recall my homiletics professor and that first day of that first class in the fine arts of preaching. The professor was the Reverend Dr James Chuck, a working preacher, as well as adjunct professor of homiletics at both the American Baptist Seminary of the West and the Pacific School of Religion where I was training. He was at the time also senior minister of the First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco, which he would go on to serve for forty years.

That moment, some twenty-six or seven years ago, he stood as our small band walked into that first class. He wore a three-piece suit with a watch chain that extended across his stomach, and which included a dangling Phi Beta Kappa key that he idly fingered. In my memory he glowered at us. I’m pretty sure he glowered at us. I looked down at my Birkenstocks and Hawaiian print shirt and felt somehow I missed the memo telling us to wear suits or dresses.

When we finally took our seats Dr Chuck launched into a brief explanation of what is what. First he offered an observation about the steady decline in both the intellectual and spiritual capacities of seminarians since his day. He then moved on to the heart of the deal, explaining how the great preacher comes to have three sermons. And, with an even deeper glower, offered how it would behoove us all to quickly figure out what our meager single sermon was.

As I look back over my preaching life I note that I seemed to have had three sermons. Not claiming I was a great preacher. But, over the many years I did come to have three themes I explored. However. There was overlapping, and I’d return to the earlier ones from time to time, but mostly, I had one, then, it shifted, and then, it shifted one more time.

My first sermon was “Can’t we just get along?” What can I say, I was nervous at the time. Later my sermon was “Each of us is precious, and we are all woven out of one another.” In Buddhist terms, which helped inform my understanding of this mystery at ever-deeper levels, the summary goes, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” I love that sermon. It speaks a deep truth, and is worth repeating and exploring in its many expressions.

Over those twenty-five years I was also a devoted practitioner of Zen. I first ordained as an unsui, a Soto Zen novice priest a full on forty-nine years ago. And I’ve been committed to an ever more authentic life, opening myself, being vulnerable, first struggling with the mystery, and eventually surrendering into the mystery.

And, out of that I found my third sermon. What I called it, how I named it, was: It’s all about intimacy.

So, as I said, Mary’s words took me aback. At the time I smiled and looked, I’m pretty sure, a little embarrassed.

And, I just held her words in the back of my head, in the corner of my heart.

Then this morning as I looked at my Facebook page, I saw this.

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

It’s a poem by Ryokan. (In John Steven‘s translation)

Of course, what is love if it isn’t about intimacy?

And, what better way to decenter one’s perspective than to surrender into love? And, yes, love itself is the mystery. What does it mean? And, just as import, what does it not mean? So many emotions and longings attach to that ancient and complex word.

And, of course, how do we find it?

Yangshan Huiji was one of those lovely figures at the dawn of the Zen way. I’ve reflected on the master and that famous story of his dream of taking the third seat before. Here I just want to hold it up briefly. To recall it is a dream. And, it is one of those dreams that tell the truth.

Attention. Attention. The whole of the Zen way is founded upon this truth. Zazen. Koan introspection. Retreat. The monastery. All of it. Attention. This is the Zen life.

And what is attention? In the last place, what is attention? Nothing other than intimacy. Intimacy with the other. Intimacy with one’s self. And with it a discovery of intimacy.

And, what is intimacy?

Intimacy is the discovery of how the world rises, is sustained, and, even how it falls away. It is turning our whole being toward the great mystery that is love. It is like a dance. And. This is the Zen life.

Attention. Intimacy. Love.

There is in fact one sermon. Maybe it looks like three. Or, more. But. We may think we’re inviting everyone to try and get along. We may think we’re teaching the intricacies of form and emptiness. We may think we’re calling ourselves and the world to intimacy. And it turns out to be all about love.

Attention. Intimacy. Love.

The Buddha twirls a flower. Yangshan strikes the bell. Ryokan puts it into plain words.

The Zen way is revealed. Everything is in the Heart.

Love. The One Sermon.

This is the Zen life.

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