OUR ANCESTOR’S DREAMS: Engaging a Zen koan from the Bible

OUR ANCESTOR’S DREAMS: Engaging a Zen koan from the Bible August 3, 2019



Engaging a koan from the Bible

A Dharma talk delivered at the
Anaheim Zen Sangha
Empty Moon Zen Network

3 August, 2019

James Myoun Ford

One of my dearer friends was once asked if he believed in God. He said no. The questioner then asked, “So, you’re an atheist?” He replied no. Frustrated the person asked, “what do you believe?” And he replied, “As little as I can.”

In my life I’ve tried to strip away unnecessary assumptions. And in the process of looking and letting go of things I find don’t resonate with reality as I encounter it or as can be plausibly explained, what I believe, in the sense of consciously confessing as a belief is relatively small.

For one thing, I can say I am a Buddhist.  Out of my experiences and study I have come to believe a number of things as axiomatic about life and my life. I believe the world and everything in it is impermanent. I believe all things made of parts exist in a tension, which in human experience creates an abiding anxiety, a pervading sense of dis-ease. I believe there are no essential substances unconnected to the play of cause and effect, nothing like souls that exist outside of time and space. And, I believe there is a settling of the human heart, a way to see into and through the connections, and finding, if you will, a peace that passes all understanding.

Now, this is a pretty orthodox summation of Buddhism, if with some washes that put me at a particular place on the continuum that can be called Buddhist. And where that is, is worth exploring. But, not here. It’s that last line, which I want to raise in the moment, notice, and reflect on before going into that matter of dis-ease and seeing through, and what exists as my experience, and, who knows, maybe yours. The phrase “peace that passes all understanding” is lifted from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It comes from the Christian canon. It’s a delicious turn of phrase. And it points.

A peace beyond all understanding.

It points to something truest true. A promise sung to us by our ancestors.

It is what we’re about here.

Me, speaking of causes and conditions, I am the product of many things. I am a confessed Zen Buddhist. I’ve lived in monasteries. I’ve passed literally hundreds of koans. In the arcane tradition developed in Japanese Zen. I’ve been ordained a priest in the Soto Zen tradition. And, I’ve received what is called “dharma transmission,” or the mind-seal as a Zen teacher. I am these things. And, I learned how to read quite literally at my grandmother’s knee, out of a large illustrated King James version of the Bible. I was raised what is perhaps best called a “poor-people’s Baptist.” I formally rejected the Christianity of my childhood in my adolescence, first embracing pretty full on a naturalistic view of things, but also over the years have studied at varying degrees of depth several of the world’s religions. At the greatest depth, Christianity and most especially Buddhism.

And, as a Buddhist, in our time and this place, I find the best way to express myself is as frequently as not, by alluding to something from the Jewish or Christian scriptures or traditions. And, what that means, is that my Buddhism, whatever else may be said of it, is hybridized. As, I in fact, has always been the case for all religions, including Buddhism. Things add. Things subtract. And, the great rule: all things change. Because of this as it is in my life, I often cannot say where I have an assumption or even turn of phrase that arises out of my natal tradition or my adopted one.

There are good things and bad that come with this. But, here in this reflection, I want to hold up the call to modesty and even a little humility. And, as one of our Zen sages declared herself, to be ready to teach a white haired venerable, and learn from a six-year old child, as the circumstances present. A deep curiosity is the practice. And a confidence the truths of our lives can be found in a deep examination of the world’s spiritual traditions.

We, here, within our Zen community are gifted with some amazing things. We have a basket of practices that are astonishing. Our meditation discipline of the awakened heart is a gift from the unknown to the known. It literally brings heaven and earth together and shows us who we really are. Additionally, we have the gift of koan introspection. Using stories as a framework of engagement, allowing us to front straight on, to understand, if through a cloud darkly, always through a cloud darkly, and over time to integrate. We also have covenants of relationship, precepts that cradle our lives, protect us from many of the consequences that can arise from choosing and acting in unhealthy ways.

And, with that as a bit more than preamble, let me tell you a story about a peace that passes all understanding.

Once upon a time, long ago, and far away there was a man.

He’d been following the intimate way for many years. Eventually this led him on a pilgrimage. On that journey he encountered many teachers, and experienced things that captured his heart and redirected it from what he had long thought was true.

Finally, he was living in the desert, making his living by weaving baskets out of reeds, and selling them to passersby on the road between two great cities. He prayed and worked, and throughout he tried to pay attention. He noticed his body. It’s discomforts. It’s small pleasures. He noticed the heat and the dryness. He felt the smells of desert, of heat, and dust, and when they presented, green things. He heard distant birds and other animals. At night he contemplated the starry sky.

Always, always, he tried to be present.

One night he dreamed a dream.

A stranger entered into his hut and grabbed him by the arm. They began to wrestle. He couldn’t understand what was happening, but he knew it had something to do with life and with death. To lose was to die. To win, well, he didn’t have time to think about what that meant. All he knew was there was nothing more important. So, he threw himself into the struggle with all the energy he had. And with the desperation of someone drowing.

At some point the stranger put his knee into the man’s hip and disjointed it. The pain was excruciating. It felt like stars were exploding. But, he continued to struggle. Throughout the night, they contended. He could smell the sweat. He felt the pain. And it was exhausting.

Finally, as day light began to pour through the open doorway of his hut, the stranger said, “It’s now morning. Let me go.”

Not knowing what this was supposed to mean, but also sensing that something to do with life and death was now birthing into the moment, the man replied, “I will not release you unless you give me your blessing.” After he said this, he realized he had no idea where the question had come from. But he also knew it was true. And it was what he needed. Maybe what he had needed from long before he began his pilgrimage of spirit.

The stranger said in a husky voice, obviously tired from the night’s struggle, “What’s your name?”

The man replied, “My name is Supplanter.” He felt a wave of shame, knowing his name came from his aggressive nature, and his desire to take the first place. And it recalled the shameful things he’d done that led to his being given that name.

The stranger replied, “This is no longer your name. You are now “Wrestles with God.”

This sent a current of fear through the man’s body. And shivering despite the alreading rising morning heat Wrestles with God responded, “So, what is your name?” Although in his heart he had a sense he knew. The starry sky, the desert, the calling of distant birds, the smell of heat and sweat. And he shivered.

The stranger laughed and said, “Why do you want to know?” And then gave Wrestles with God a blessing.

The world opened up. That sky. That desert. The distant birds. The smells. All were open. All became gates to walk through. And all had been walked through since before the birthing of the first dream.

The man and the stranger let go of each other and the stranger walked out the door into the dawn.

Later Wrestles with God called that spot, “Encountering the Intimate.”

And for the rest of his days he walked with a limp.

That story is my, how shall we call it, creative retelling of a tale found in the first book of the Bible. So its shared by the Jewish and Christian traditions and now, at least by me, adopted into the Zen world. Nothing so strange in that. It has been around a while and others have taken it up. While it isn’t repeated in the Quran, Muslim religious scholars refence it in their commentaries. There’s a delightful Marxist interpretation that has it a match between an oppressive deity and a clever human who outsmarts the god.

Here, however, I would like to provide a Buddhist commentary, an exhortation, and an invitation. We’re all on a journey. Every blessed one of us. And, at various moments in time we are gifted with portals that take us for a moment and sometimes more to another world. Sometimes it turns out to be the same world, but we get to see it with new eyes., to listen with new ears. Whatever, if we’re open, something happens.

Here the character called Supplanter encounters a mysterious being and is forced into a wrestling match. We never know who that being is, at least not within the original version of the story. Interpreters sometimes say an angel and sometimes say God. Which can make sense, in classical antiquity in areas not all that far from where this story comes, people are caught in matches with several divinities, Achilles and the river god Scamander to begin a list.

And, of course, there’s a Zen way to engage this story. It really is a koan. A koan is a story, or a fragment of a poem, or an account of a conversation. But, the point to it, what makes it a koan is different than in other literary forms. Here we are invited to believe there is a true pointing. That there is some assertion about reality, and with that an invitation to occupy that space. We start imaginatively, but in the doing, something can happen.

So, Supplanter, the man with that awful name, born out of conflict and theft, meets the mystery. And he’s forced into a wrestling match. Not unlike that buzz of anxiety, the hum of change that so distresses our lives as human beings. We are born into a world constantly shifting, turning, and, wounding. And, still, truth of it is there is no escape. There is no other place to go. So, he engages. A pointer for us. He enters into the match with all he has. And it runs through the night. Anyone who has experienced a Zen meditation retreat, even for one day, knows something of what this can be like. But, actually, it is the course of our ordinary lives. If we notice.

And then there is a dawn. All the stories of the great religions have a dawn. Or, many. And at that dawn the mystery itself asks the human a question. What is your name? Another pointer for us. Names are magical things. They are not what we are. Lots of koans force us into a confrontation with that truth. And, yet, somehow, they are exactly what we are. Lots of other koans push us into that engagement. Here both is and is not come together.

They become one of the primordial koans. Who are you? Who am I? What was your true face from before when your parents were born?

And in response he confesses that terrible truth. He is Supplanter. He is the product of so many things, and heavy among them is his betrayal of his brother and his father. We’re all in that boat. Our true name contains many things. Some laudable. Some not. We are all of them. And, we need to face into it. All of it.

But here’s the promise. In that moment there is a great turning. Supplanter is renamed. He becomes Wrestles with God. Now there’s a harsh truth. He is not let off the hook for the bad things he’s done before. There are consequences which will continue to play out until there’s nothing to play out. But, he’s no longer just that. He is something more. Something much larger.

Oh, and did I mention this is about you. And me. We all are invited into that more. We all can become Wrestles with God.

I want to believe as little as possible. So, another question follows. Who is Wrestles with God?

And of the great question of all religions, maybe, it’s just this one question. It may be the gate to that peace which passes all understanding. Or, another pointer. It may in itself be that peace which passes all understanding.

The question. Who are you? Who are you truly? When you let go of all you can let go of. When the lies we tell ourselves burn away in the face of what is. When the distractions are set down. When the ancient songs are ended. In this moment, this moment, following this particular path, beyond differentiation and connection, how are you free?

Peace. Understanding. Beyond.

Beyond East and West, here, now, how are you free?

Let it sink into your bones. All of it. Let it be your ancestor’s dreams.

And you will know for yourself.

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