Easter as a Zen Koan

Easter as a Zen Koan April 21, 2019

Easter as a Zen Koan

James Ishmael Ford

April 21st, 2019
Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim


I served most of my years as a parish minister among our New England congregations. They are generally more traditional in their structures. And, frankly, more comfortable with our Christian origins and heritage than are either the majority of our Midwestern or Western churches. Don’t get me wrong, they’re full on Unitarian Universalist as we understand it today, wildly eclectic and in the midst of it all proclaiming a universalist message of our complete interdependence with each other and the world itself. It’s just that for the most part they’re more comfortable with our historic roots and the traditions associated with those roots.

What that meant for me as a minister in Massachusetts and then Rhode Island was that I was always expected to lead a “real” Christmas Eve service. You know candles, lessons, carols, the whole thing. Also, for that Easter Sunday sermon, despite our much vaunted “freedom of the pulpit” for our ministers, they generally expected me not to go for a bunny rabbits or “it’s all about Spring” sermon. Frankly, they seemed to like watching me twist around and struggle with what this holiday can mean to us. You know, a crowd that despite those Christian origins today includes humanists, Jews, pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and, yes, if not traditional Christians, certainly friends of Jesus.

And I’ve gotten used to that exercise. So, with some genuine respect for what the tradition is, and acknowledging we UUs very much have a connection to the Christian inheritance even if today we stand at the farthest edge of the tradition, what can Easter mean for us? Us, that motley spiritual crew that are barely religious?

Of course, we are Unitarian Universalists, so maybe a quick review of what that Easter story is might be in order at the beginning. The Gospel of Mark is generally considered the oldest of the canonical gospels, the time-hallowed stories of Jesus and his ministry. The sixteenth chapter of Mark tells the story of Easter in its most unelaborated version. We heard it already once, but let’s hear it again. The most ancient version of the story, written down within the lifetime of people who actually might have met the good rabbi.

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome… came… at the rising of the sun with sweet spices, that they might… anoint him.. They were worried who they could get to roll the great stone away from the entrance. However, when they arrived they saw that the stone was already rolled away… And.. inside they saw a young man sitting… there clothed in a long white garment; and they were afraid. …He said to them, Be not afraid: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, (who) was crucified: he is risen; he is not here… Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you to Galilee: there you shall see him… And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; trembling and amazed: none saying anything to any man; for they were afraid.

That’s it. Now, people don’t like to let things hang quite like they do in this story, and so, somewhere along the line, maybe as early as a hundred years later, but probably in the early Middle Ages, ten more verses are added on. They are largely what would be called “theological,” that is they line out what this story is supposed to mean. As a bit of an aside I find it interesting it’s at these added in parts we get things like handling serpents and drinking poison.

Me, I’m very taken with the actual unvarnished version. In the plain telling it looks a lot like something happened to the women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James in Mark, but therefore also of Jesus for those who aren’t concerned that he would have siblings, and Salome. Something distressing happens. The tomb is empty. That could be explained easily enough. But, then who is the man in the white robe? And what does that line “he is risen” mean? What does it mean that he would be seen in Galilee? And, most of all there’s that hanging ending. What about that trembling, and amazement, and fear? What about that silence? Talk about an invitation into the world of not knowing, what I’ve found to be the mysterious source of all learning.

The Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer tells of attending an interfaith conference hosted at Gethsemane Abbey a Roman Catholic monastery in Kentucky, perhaps most famous as the spiritual writer and social justice advocate Thomas Merton’s monastery. Norman, a Buddhist who was raised Jewish, was surprised at the number and actually at the graphic quality of the crucifixes he saw everywhere in the monastery. Another aside for our birthright UUs. A cross is a bare image of a cross. A crucifix has a person hanging from the cross.

So, looking at that image of a person crucified he asked the monks why such a terrible and sad symbol? And, also, why so many of them? Norman described their responses, “Most… said that they did see suffering in the crucifixes, but they also saw love, and they saw redemption, they saw freedom, and they saw joy. The cross wasn’t just sad; it was much more than that, also.”

Then Norman concluded, “This, I suppose, is the theme of Easter.” For me add in that empty tomb, that man making a strange assertion, and the women leaving trembling, and filled with amazement and fear, and yes, silence; and I think Norman is pointing right. The whole pageant of Christianity the religion plays out from this event. I acknowledge that like most within our heritage, I tend to be more interested in what we call the “religion of Jesus.” That is those words that have been captured and written down. Some haunting teachings. This, however, is the very heart of the “religion about Jesus.” And, let’s be frank. It too is worthy of reflection. At least for us, perhaps, on an Easter Sunday.

Now, as a Buddhist (of the naturalist and rational sort, by which I mean not inclined to the supernatural and finding reason a great light of human life) I also find in the Easter accounts, particularly Mark’s a hint of something deep and true, part of that treasure trove of human culture. It is about something terribly sad, and at the same time something else, as well. It’s all about our facing into not-knowing, fronting the mystery of our lives.

And it’s personal, real personal, profoundly intimate.

My spouse Jan and I moved my mother and her sister, my auntie in with us shortly after I began parish ministry, now a good thirty years ago. My mother died five years later, I’m happy to be able to say at home with her family. Auntie died the day before Easter bare months before we returned home to Southern California, now four years ago. The second bedroom in our Long Beach condo was supposed to be hers. Actually, even now, we still frequently call it “auntie’s room.”

She is very much on my mind today. She was a believer. She believed in Easter, not as a metaphor for something psychological, as profound as I find that can be, but as a simple factual truth. As she lay dying in the midst of Easter tide, through Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday, she knew she was in some very real sense going home, going to a risen Jesus who would embrace her with physical arms. And this marks what I’m saying today. It gives my rationalist, naturalistic Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist heart caution. And it points beyond the mere details of the story, to things I myself believe are true, deepest true.

I believe that our human condition is characterized by hurt. Now, I don’t find a lot of help in the damaged goods view of that hurt, as we get in the idea of original sin. Except in so far as we have eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and with that dualistic mind have very much cast ourselves into a world filled with pain and desire, loss and longing. But I also see that our human condition is at the same time always open to something else, to some great healing. In Buddhism it’s called enlightenment, or, and I prefer the word, awakening. And, I believe I also see that sense of awakening in the Easter story. In fact, I believe Easter is the Christian story of awakening.

Let me introduce another story that might illuminate what this means. It’s a famous Zen koan collected in the early Twelfth century anthology, the Blue Cliff Record. It’s the sixth story in the collection and it’s all about awakening. It’s really short. The great Zen master Yunmen asked his assembly, “I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month. Tell me something about after the 15th.” No one spoke, so he responded himself, “Every day is a good day.”

This isn’t a complete non sequitur. The 15th is the time of the full moon and is a common metaphor in East Asia for the moment of awakening. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt to note that Yunmen lived in harsh, politically unstable times, where armies were on the march and famine and hunger and danger the common currency of the day, So it would be very hard to find the phrase “every day is a good day” meaning “don’t worry, be happy.” No smiley faces in this assertion.

In some schools of the Zen tradition people who’ve been acknowledged as teachers, after a ceremony that takes place in private at midnight, the next day they’re often expected to give a talk on this koan. Also, just a little on that word “koan.” The word has entered popular use within our English language meaning a question without an answer or as a particularly thorny problem with no obvious answer. In fact neither is what koan really means, at least within the context of its use as part of the spiritual discipline from which it comes. In that primary sense a koan is a statement about reality, and an invitation into presence. A koan is a pointer to the real, the deepest real, and with that an invitation to come and stand in that real place.

And this is most important. Here’s what I’ve come to understand about this. It is within presence, not presence in some abstract way, not some magical presence with a capital “P,” but presence in the ordinary sense of the word. You present here. Me present here. We find our awakening, our waking up from the slumber of a life that has been distracted from the most important matters. We slumber with our apparently endless desires. We slumber with our anger and hatred. We slumber as we figure something out as true and defend, fiercely that idea of true, sometimes even to the death. Sometimes our own, but more likely someone else’s.

I find when we wander into the fields of hurt, longing, and mystery, stories can often be more helpful than simple assertions. Sort of how Jesus seems to have liked to address things, as well. So, a third story. In the pageant of Jesus’ life, it actually takes place three days before Easter. He has been condemned for sedition. He did preach the coming of a new kingdom and the Romans were clear that meant they had to go. And, the did not treat such things lightly. So, he was crucified. There are thieves on either side of Jesus as he is hoisted up on the cross. One mocks him. I get that guy. Actually, in two of the other gospels that share this account both thieves mock him. However, in Luke’s version, not the oldest, but not as far away from the event as John, the other thief says something to the effect of we deserved our fate, but, you, Jesus, didn’t. And then asks to be remembered “when you come into your kingdom.”

Then there’s some delightful confusion about what Jesus said in reply. The generally accepted understanding is Jesus promises, yes, you will be. To me a totally uninteresting statement in the midst of a terrible scene. The other version, consider it a minority report from the center of the heart, is that Jesus said, “you are with me in paradise,” as in you are with me in paradise now. Now. This place. This most terrible, terrible of places.

Waking up is waking up from all this grasping at wanting and resenting and hating, and knowing for sure, into something else. And, and this is most important: this waking up is also our common human experience. It comes to us as Jews. It comes to us as Muslims, and as Hindus, and as Buddhists. It comes to us without any religion at all. And it comes to us as Christians. And, I suggest, it is found in that weird, weird little story told in Mark and expanded and shall we say enriched in Matthew and Luke and, nearly a century after the events in John. But in all these versions of that story, there is a pointing to something miraculous in the midst of the worst things.

Did my auntie find this place? I don’t know. She seemed a bit too sure of the literal reality. But, then, it’s always seeing through a glass, darkly. This is why a psychological definition for this experience isn’t quite on point, either. We’re speaking of what that interdependent web really is, the one, the open, the boundless. And we only ever come to know it through the particular, or more specifically as the particular. You. Me. Eating. Walking. Playing with a child. Standing up to one oppression or another. The stuff of life. Here. Life and death here. Crucifixion and resurrection here. All of it brought together in this moment.

And, so, Easter. The Easter of those women. The Easter of auntie struggling for her last breath. The Easter for Jan and me and those long hours sitting at her bedside. She, too, was fortunate enough to die at home with her loved ones at her bedside. Would that we all could be so fortunate. Later, the Easter of our friends coming and helping prepare her body, washing it, and dressing her in her Sunday go to meeting dress, and with a shawl closed with one of her favorite dragon broaches.

Easter as this moment, as this mind, as this heart, filled with all its sadness and all its glory. And with our fully opening ourselves to what is, with that complete disruption of what we thought was the way things are. And with that awakening into something new: mystery piled upon mystery. Wonder, and joy, and, yes, absolutely, fear. All together. Nothing absent.

And with that back to the story, not of the thieves, not of the Zen master, well, with those in the back of our hearts, back to the story of those women and that tomb. In the story, take it as history, or, like me take it as a true story of our common inheritance as human beings, the Mary’s and Salome experienced a terrible and wonderful moment; a complete disruption of what they thought was so. Where they, each of them, had an awakening, each in their own way, as themselves and no one else, each finding the one awakening. Every day is a good day.

With Easter we’re being invited into a new place, a moment, a stance that can change how we live in this world. I find Easter is a response to the invitation to not turn away from any part, the hurt, the agonies, the failures, the sweet and joyful moments. To open up, and to open up more, until even death is just a part of the mystery.

Find that, and then, the stories tell us, there is a new birth. Like Spring. Like Easter. Like the mind of Easter. Like the heart of Easter.

Amen. Shalom. Salaam. Nameste. Blessed be.

And, absolutely, Hallelujah.

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