EVERY DAY IS GOOD FRIDAY
A Zen Meditation on a Christian Holy Day
James Ishmael Ford
I am a child of the West. I learned to read from an outsized King James Bible resting on my grandmother’s lap. I am fond of saying how to this day Jesus and the Mary’s all crowd up together in my dreams. It’s true.
Unlike many of my friends I’ve never been angry at the church, either the institutions or its messages. I simply found I could not believe the religion I was taught.
Specifically, I could not believe in a god that was painfully, obviously a larger human stuck up into the skies. People would say look at the astonishing beauty of the world, and then ask how I could not see a designer? I certainly saw the astonishing beauty. And I also saw the numberless horrors. And facing into it all, both the good and the ill, I felt some power. Enormous, unspeakable power. But, to then suggest some bigger and better and even more mysterious human as that power, just seemed something extra.
And I am ever wary of extras. Occam’s famous razor is not always right. But generally, usually, the simpler explanation is going to be the likely one. And, I saw no explanation for the rising of the worlds that needed a human-like consciousness directing it.
So, in my late adolescence I left the Christian churches.
And I began a journey, my journey. Along the way two things captured me and held my attention for the larger part of my life.
The first was Zen Buddhism. Its profound teachings which are summarized in the Heart Sutra, that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” became a pointer for me. Through a combination of a spiritual discipline rooted in silence and presence and the relentless pointers of Zen’s koan tradition, anecdotes that invited my heart and my mind; I learned what those words “form” and “emptiness” meant in the sense of someone drinking water and knowing for themselves whether it was cool or warm.
Today I am a Zen priest and a teacher of the Zen way.
But there has always been that other thing. After a few years in a Zen monastery, where I learned both the rudiments of the discipline, and the limitations of human beings whether they had insight or not, I began a second, broader quest.
I was working in a bookstore in San Diego when I stumbled across a Nineteenth century pamphlet titled “On Unitarian Christianity.” It was by a New England divine, William Ellery Channing. And it opened doors for me. With a few false starts I ended up following what would be the primary course of my life. I worked as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister while for many years also continuing my Zen practice particularly focused on koan introspection guided by a lay Zen master.
I wrote a sort of memoir, “If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break,” in which I recount that dual path, my personal way “between.” It’s still in print, if you want to check it out. Essentially, I find that the deeper currents of the real can never be captured by any human enterprise. Not religion. Not science. But those things, and literature, and art, and psychology, all touch aspects of it. We are all of us like those blind men touching Buddha’s famous elephant, stroking a flank, embracing the trunk, tugging on the tail. But, as Paul sings to us, it is “through a glass darkly.” The difference is that Paul thinks there is a later time when it will be clear.
The reality is that it is always obscure. And astonish bright obscurity. Life changing. The truth is that our insights are almost always seen from the corner of the eye. As Emily Dickenson of blessed memory tells us
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
It’s more like a dream. It is more like a cloud. What is lovely, I’ve learned, is that this cloud of unknowing is okay. There is something wonderful in that not knowing. Not knowing completely. As Master Dizang sings into the great heart when he
“…asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Those words and that not knowing was Fayan’s awakening.
And, here, today, we’re in the middle of what the Christian churches call Holy Week. And specifically, we’re at Good Friday. And, I find myself reflecting on what it can mean? And for me what can it mean to people of whatever faith, or none, what might we find? Within the spirit of a profound unknowing what might we all be pointed toward?
My reclamation of the Christian part of my life, and a part, my life being some mysterious magpie’s nest, was that religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him. I am a fan of Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament, and his taking his scissors and removing anything repugnant to reason left him with a collection of sayings.
There are reasons some people see a Zen master in Jesus. They find it as they focus on his words. If you take the canonical sayings, especially from the Synoptics, and, okay, maybe throw in the teachings from the Gospel of Thomas, there are many invitations. A good word, indeed.
But, then, there’s the mythic Jesus, that religion about him. Increasingly I am interested in that story. There are bits and pieces of history attached to it. But I find the importance of it elsewhere. The truth of this part of Jesus’ story is revealed in the dream times. It is not unlike the story of Amida, Buddha of the Pure Lands. It tells of a time beyond joy, where suffering reigns, and liberation from our hurt is no longer possible through any effort we can accomplish.
But, like with Amida, from deep within the dream worlds, a door opens for us. A door that does not require our efforts. In fact, in a time where any attempt on our own is likely useless, where everything is too corrupt, too contaminated, were all our efforts fail. Still. Mysteriously. From a place on the other side of a dream, beyond a rainbow, if you will. In that place. A door is thrown wide open. Mary Oliver sings of that graceful moment when we notice
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
That last part. Only be human. And let love win. All we need do is say yes.
But this is a terrible thing as well as a good one. The sufferings of Amida are in the distant past. But there were many. The sufferings of Jesus are brought into the moment itself.
Good Friday is a pivot point in that Jesus of the dream worlds. Worlds that touch this one enough so we can smell the heat and taste the dust of Jerusalem. There was before this a triumphant entry into the city, although marked with hints of something more complex, less triumph, and more a venture into the valley of the shadow.
He goes to the temple and drives out the money changers.
Then there’s a meal. And foot washing. Somehow that last part becomes background in the telling and retelling.
And then, today. Good Friday. He has been taken captive, betrayed by one of his own. Actually, abandoned by all but some women. Another part overlooked in the telling and retelling. And, I believe, important to recapture. Whatever. He is given a quick trial by the Roman authorities who don’t like messiness, especially in the provinces. And they don’t like itinerate preachers who may or may not be calling for a revolution. And, with the full-on support of the religious authorities, he is tortured, made to drag a cross out of town, unceremoniously nailed to it, and hung up to die.
In the Christian story, in the Christian calendar, that’s this moment. Today. It will be followed by an emptiness, the despair of the worlds. And, that will be followed by some magic thing. Every element of every Spring story ever told.
But today it is the cross.
What about this day?
One of the greatest koans is that presented by the master Yunmen
“I do not ask you about the fifteenth of month. Come. Tell me about after the fifteenth. He then gave his own response, “Every day is a good day.”
The fifteenth is the full moon, the set-up is not a question about approaching awakening, liberation, saving. It’s a question about the awakened heart. And. This story told in the midst of very, very hard times. And no one on the Zen way takes it as a nostrum.
The Zen teacher Susan Murphy, in her wonderful book Upside Down Zen writes of a friend who was dying of AIDS. He offered his comment on the koan
“’Every day is Good Friday.’” That’s it. From a dying man’s mouth. Every day is Good Friday. Roshi Murphy tells us how “This is a powerful and illuminating turning phrase. The mystery and the passion of Good Friday – and the astonishing fact that such a day is called ‘Good’ – is enacted every day in every life upon the Earth, in some measure. This is where we live.”
She reminds us, “Yunmen was offering no blandishments at all, but the hardest of all possible challenges.” Slyly she adds,We notice, with gratitude, that he didn’t say ‘Every day is a nice day.’”
Every day is a nice day is a lie. Every day is a good day is the truth. As is every day is Good Friday.
Jesus’s last words as he hung dying on that cross, as captured by the gospel writers are each a bit different. Luke says he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” then “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” said to a thief, and for which there’s a lovely midrash where a Japanese Zen priest was told by an Orthodox Christian priest that this line should read “Today you are with me in paradise,” and probably finally, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
John, whose composition is at least three generations after the events and so the farthest out of any of the canonical gospels has Jesus say “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother,” then “I thirst,” and finally “It is finished.”
The words I find most compelling, haunting, of them all is reported by both Matthew and Mark, generally believed to be the closest texts to the actual event, where Jesus says “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”
The sermon-like last words, I take with a grain. Despair last words, those I get. When the great Zen master Yantou was old, his monastery was sacked by bandits. One of them stabbed him. It is said his dying scream could be heard ten miles away.
That this renowned master could scream at his death so haunted a later young monk, Hakuin, that he would despair of even finding awakening, doubting that it could even be true.
Hakuin would eventually see through to the heart of the matter. And it could be found in that scream. And, our own saving can be found in those last words, My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”
Now Christian thinkers have had a terrible time trying to put this story, all of it from the entry into Jerusalem to this horrific death, and then to a story of resurrection, into some clear explanation. In fact, there are to this day contending explanations, what they call “doctrines of atonement.” Few of them square.
That’s because as powerful and important as reason and putting it all together is, I do love Occam and his terrible razor to this day, when we come to this story, in fact, to the whole of it, we are fully into the dream world of our human heart’s longing. The heart’s reasons are of a completely different physics.
Here we are invited into the Mandala of Holy Week, where the human journey is revealed.
And here’s where it points.
In the midst of our suffering we are liberated. All the parts of our lives are it. There is no moment to be despised.
The entry into Jerusalem and those palm fronds. They are it. Turning over the tables of the money changers. That’s it. Sitting together with his friends. That’s it. He particularly points to that “it” of it, when he calls their attention to what the bread and the wine really are. Just bread. Just wine. And, him. Both. And. Later, the empty tomb. That’s it. And, later the dream conversations. They are it, each of them.
And. And, right here, today, as the day turns to night, and thirst and blood and pain, and dying are the matter at hand.
Every day is Good Friday.
For those have ears to hear, this is good news.
Every day is the good day.