PEACE BE UPON YOU. YOU ARE FREE. A Zen meditation April 18, 2020





A Zen meditation

James Myoun Ford

Today, let’s consider a koan. In the curricular system associated with the Eighteenth-century Japanese master Hakuin Ekaku and transmitted in our lineage, once one has dug deeply into the first koan, what is sometimes called the breakthrough koan, most commonly the Mu or dog koan, the one that helps us see past the snares of our egos and into the larger mystery, we begin to wander through that land, perhaps before only visited in our dreams.

We do this first through a consideration of a number of cases as we call individual koans. Later we explore some of the great collections like the Gateless Gate, the Blue Cliff Record, and the Book of Equanimity. But here it’s in house, each lineage offers a slightly different collection. They’re curated to meet the needs of a particular time and place.

One, that I’ve found very helpful and maybe can be of use to you, goes like this:

You find yourself in a stone crypt. There are no windows. The sole door is locked from the outside. How are you free?

Recently in a number of meetings with friends within the Zen community here on the West coast, I’ve found this koan keeps intruding into our conversations. It can happen that way with koans. For those of us for whom they are a central part of our spiritual lives, they can pop up in the strangest places. Winking. Inviting. Even, on occasion grabbing us by the ears and pulling into the depths.

Once one realizes that Zen is not about controlling our blood pressure or even capturing a moment of calm in the midst of the gathered storm, we begin to find we are on a pilgrimage, a sacred journey to heal the great hurt, ours and not just ours; to find the meaning of our lives and our deaths, the way to live fully into the wonder and too often, the horror of it all.

This certainly points us to that place. Again: “You find yourself in a stone crypt. A tomb. The door is locked from the outside. And there are no windows.”

Koans bring a point with them. The poke in the eye. The cold slap from the universe. A call to our hearts. “In the face of that, all that: How are you free?

Over these weeks there’s been a gathering emotion around this case for some of my friends. Well, me too. Strange times. Freakish weather that may no longer be freakish. Politics and crime touching a tad too closely for a republic that relies of some basic trust. A time when mass shootings have slipped off the front page. I’m sure you have your own version of the litany.

In this case, at first it was sort of casual, just a recollection noted by a friend. “Do you remember the stone crypt koan?” But as time has passed the references have become more frequently and visceral. I feel like I’m in that stone crypt. It’s cold. It’s dark. I’m beginning to feel afraid.

Mostly we get the idea behind the image, the intellectual part. No matter who we are, our lives are constrained. Whatever our desire for autonomy might be, we always, always will find walls. But then there is constrained and there is constrained. For most people in the affluent west, what increasingly is called the Global North, if you’re not an hourly worker, you might not even see the walls most of the time.

But. Now. Here. In the gathering years flowing from that dreadful plague that swept the globe, many of us who maybe have been able to avoid the harsher face of the question, of what that stone tomb genuinely points to, are now finding it up front and, well, it can be pretty ugly. We’re not just in the crypt. The crypt, the tomb is our bodies. It is our minds. It is the stories we tell about ourselves. And.

A lot of people who’ve heard of koans think they’re non sequiturs, words empty of meaning. People who don’t practice with them as a spiritual discipline easily confuse them with other word games, as a Facebook friend recently did with me, citing the question about a tree falling in the woods and whether there’s a sound. Assuming that was a koan.

Word game, maybe. But the stakes are much higher. They speak to who we really are. And, they offer us an invitation to find what that real might be. It is in that context, I find myself thinking of Herschel Schacter.

He was a leader of the Modern Orthodox movement who died in 2013. But outside of that spiritual community he is mostly recalled for an incident at the close of the second world war. It was the 11th of April 1945. Hard to get more specific. He was a Jewish chaplain attached to the VIII Corps of the Third Army that drove into the heart of Nazi Germany.

Because of that Herschel Schacter was the first Jewish chaplain to enter Buchenwald. In fact no more than an hour after its liberation. In her obituary for the rabbi in the New York Times, Margalit Fox describes how “the smoke was still rising…” He later would describe the memories seared into his heart. That “smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh and the hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.”

Personally, I read those words and I can feel the sting in my eyes. And, I understand, in a safely distant way, the stench of the camps. It was something horrendous. Walking into Buchenwald was walking into the wreck of a slaughterhouse. It seemed everyone had been murdered, and he had to ask were any Jews still alive?

He was taken to the barracks where people too weak to move lay in bunks, confused, and terrified, not knowing what was happening. It fell to him to tell them. “Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” he called out in Yiddish. “Ihr zint frei!” Peace be upon you, Jews. You are free!” He ran to every one of the barracks repeating his call of rescue, of freedom.

The rabbi spent months there, helping. Among the survivors were a thousand orphans alone and needed tending. Among them he helped a teenager named Elie Wiesel. I am hesitant to tell such a story here. I don’t want to cheapen the reality of Buchenwald. And. We are talking a horror. But what we’re invited into is something that is of a piece with this terrible story.

We are being invited into a moment where stars die. And it is hard to look.

It is easy to turn away. I’ve read that today about a third of Americans don’t actually believe there was a holocaust. More minimize it. Two thirds of millennials don’t even recognize the word Auschwitz. So. So, there we are as human beings. Horrors too terrible to hold. So. We forget. We deny. It’s a trick we like to play with reality.

Somethings are sufficiently terrible that we don’t want to believe them. We certainly don’t want to face them square.


As the song goes
I travel the world
and the seven seas,

Everybody’s looking for something.
Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you
Some of them want to abuse you
Some of them want to be abused.

Of course, in the song the answer is “hold your head up” and keep “movin’ on.”  Sort of the existentialist response to the absurdity of the world. A more lyrical version of the World War II English poster, “keep calm, and carry on.”

We do this. It can be important to move on, to carry on. But, deeper truths await those who pause and look. The story that we, each of us, calls “me” is a construct. It is based in real things like genes and experiences. But, how it comes together is, well, a stone crypt.

We each have one. We are one.

And that’s what the koan calls us to. After all our coping devices have failed us. They will. Ultimately, they will. We are all of us mortal. We are all of us constrained. We can deny and limp along. Or, we can move in another direction.

So. Then. Now. Here we are. In all our various ways. With our internal worlds and the external world. Each bumping into the other. After all, they’re not unconnected. Here where we’re living and breathing right now. A lot of people are on the streets. Each damaged in their own way. Mental illness and addiction. Sure. Missing two paychecks. Sometimes. Others are not quite there but are in danger of losing their homes. Some are hungry. Hungry. While some are growing fat within their isolation. Each a blending of harsh realities and dreams of meaning.

Real rubber meeting the road time.

With that there is that dreaming world, the interior world. Inside and out are not one. But neither are they two. Here we find mysterious reality. Us. You. And me. A crypt. A tomb.

In that moment. In this moment. How are you free?

This is the promise. Once our hearts have opened, just a little, just where we get a taste of the reality that the inner and outer worlds are in fact connected. Or, when we notice perhaps more correctly, they’re not one, but neither are they two. The connections are subtle. Except when they hit you like a brick. Or a hurricane.

And, here you are. Here I am. In a stone crypt. A tomb. Refugees fleeing horrors in Central America. Sitting in a camp in Gaza. Looking for clean water in Flint. Still. The list is very long. And not all of it dramatic. Isolation. Despair. Addiction. In the big scheme, maybe small things. Personal tragedies.

And. And, of course, love, and work that satisfies, and friends. Joys.

They all are the tomb.

Can you see the connections? After the stories we tell about them are exhausted, can you notice? After we’ve set down judgment? And justification? What is then plain as the nose on your face?

I think of Brother Lawrence. He was a peasant in Seventeenth century France. He had been a soldier and fought in the Thirty Years’ War. He’d been wounded and was lame for the rest of his life. He also had some sort of experience in those horrific times. Some mysterious encounter that would not leave his heart and informed how he acted.

After a period of convalescence, he worked as a footman for a nobleman, wearing livery and opening doors and attending at meals. But this deep encounter that would not leave his heart called him on. Eventually he was admitted as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery. Lay brother. As a peasant he was not admitted into full vows as a monk and didn’t join the monastic choir in the rhythms of monastic prayer. Instead, he worked in the kitchen. He did this for the rest of his life, except toward the end, where his wounded leg ulcerated and he was put to work mending sandals, so he could sit.

We only know about him because people, at first simply the other lay brothers, and from them peasants who heard about him began talking. He had some sense of grace, something truly and deeply alive just in who he was, that captured people’s attention. He was them, totally one of them. And, there was something else.

People would meet him and want to spill the wounds of their souls out to him. In response he would give them his attention and, it felt, his love for them just as they were. He wasn’t a priest, he couldn’t forgive sins. Apparently, he could do something more than that.

Gradually the monks became aware of him. And eventually important people would find their way to the kitchen to talk. One of those important people, a priest named Joseph de Beaufort collected notes from his visits. And after Brother Lawrence died published a small volume about his encounters with this remarkable peasant lay brother.

All that a bit of a long way around to offer some words about the key, not the key to attitude adjustment, to lowering blood pressure, but to something rather more. To something that justifies referencing Buchenwald. To remind people there was such a hell as Auschwitz.

“I have,” the lay brother was quoted as saying. “Abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God…” Please note he says conversation. He could have said dance. If he were of another character, he could have cited Jacob’s long night wrestling with that angel. Or, as another character, he could sing of love making. But for him conversation. And, the brother concludes, out of this something “fills me with overwhelming joy.”

All of it. All of it. Excepting no part.

Here in this place, in this body, as this body, as this place.

Peace be upon you. You are free.

With that the invitation.

Today, here, now. How are we free?

In this moment, with all the strife and hurt of this world, our shortcomings as human beings, our collaboration with the killers, our fears, our heroic acts, our shameful acts, mostly our small acts – we’re involved into all of it: in this moment, how are we free?

The question.

Which contains the answer.

Peace be upon you.

(This talk was rewritten and delivered at the North Carolina Zen Center on the 3rd of September, 2023)

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