Letting Go: A Smallest Zen Reflection

Letting Go: A Smallest Zen Reflection February 6, 2019





I’m going to be preaching at the UU church in Fullerton this Sunday, and found myself searching for the source of a half recalled illustration. I realized it almost certainly came from the late popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

Now, I have to admit I’ve never held a book in my hand and not felt some fission of joy. But, after decades of acquisitions as Jan & I knew we were going to be retiring and as part of that moving from a house to a condo that we had to downsize.

My spouse Jan, a librarian by trade and having little sentiment attached to the artifact of books easily, fairly easily shed the vast majority of her books. She knows where to access them. Me, well, it’s been much harder. Even with two and a half major purges before moving our apartment is filled with books. Every room save the bathrooms and the kitchen have books, walls of books. Well, actually, the kitchen does, too.

But even with several thousand books crammed into our apartment, things are gone.

After a pretty serious search I’ve had to accept that I not only let go of everything I’d owned by Stephen Gould, I seem to have let go of nearly every book that touched on natural sciences. I saw a copy of Gould’s sometime nemesis, sometime ally, Edward O Wilson‘s lovely thesis Biophilla. I noticed in passing a copy of Susan Blackmore‘s Consciousness. Actually, I seem to have retained a fair amount of consciousness studies literature, at least as it touches on Buddhism. But, sadly, sadly, Gould and other writers of that sort are gone.

As sometimes happens in that loose chain of consciousness that calls itself “me,” I began to think of how we have our day and that day doesn’t last.

In some of my Zen circles there are increasing dissents from what has become normative “Western” style Zen. In particular among some of the younger Zen teachers in my circles there’s been a back to Japan movement. Of course, all along there have been connections. But, for some its stronger. And, it comes with varying degrees of rejection of the adaptations of Zen that my generation made.

Mostly this is for the good. I think. I hope. In the long haul.

Some questions are perennials within our tradition. What is enlightenment? For one. The centrality or not of awakening experiences is another. The degree to which we accept the challenges thrown down by modernity and the messiness of life as we encounter it, would be another. And, of course, what is adequate in the formation of a Zen practitioner, a priest, a teacher?

And, it’s all personal.

People sometime say it’s not. But, it is.

And, as I find that wonderful writer Stephen Jay Gould, who had a large heart, and a questing mind, and shared a love of science, well, he’s not just gone from my bookshelves. His day has passed as well. Others have stepped into that niche. As it has always been. As I begin to see for myself…

So, there’s also that little practice of letting go.

It’s an inside joke for Zen people. Letting go. Well, everything goes. You can either let go gracefully. Or, not. But, the go will go.

This is in fact the heart of our practice. it’s not zazen. It’s not koans. Yes, it is both of them. But. And.

And with that the teachings. Philip Kapleau, a terribly important teacher from my time, wrote a small book called the Wheel of Death. In the chapter “Dying: Practical Instructions” he begins by quoting three writers from diverse perspectives, pointing in one direction.

A man who dies before he dies
Does not die when he dies.

Abraham a Sancta Clara

One who sees the Way in the morning
can gladly die in the evening.


Abandon life and the world
that you may know the
life of the world


The invitation is to let go now. Learn to die. And with that learn to live, to discover what that means within that great free fall. Some suggest perhaps it might mean the healing of the world.

Sometimes it’s painful. Watching it pass. Passing itself. But, as we open our hands always, always we discover it is the beautiful way…

We can even say fun…

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