A Zen Priest Offers a Couple of Pointers on the Spiritual Way After Religion

A Zen Priest Offers a Couple of Pointers on the Spiritual Way After Religion May 29, 2020




A Zen Priest Offers a Couple of Pointers on the Spiritual Way After Religion

James Ishmael Ford


We look around us and we see the world’s religions in turmoil. Too much certainty, too much violence, too much of the things that make little sense in a world where tribalisms of various sorts seem at the heart of much of this planet’s ills.

And yet many still feel some calling. It’s the deep urge at the heart of that phrase “spiritual but not religious.” Today I’d like to briefly look at what the spiritual life might mean as the world’s religions seem to be convulsing, if not crumbling.

The spiritual life is a life focused on that which gives us meaning and purpose. It delves into those things that our most distant ancestors felt, awe, and wonder, and, fear. This is why the word spiritual means “breath.” For those called into it, the spiritual life is as important as the air we breathe.

And it turns out even for many who are revulsed at many of the claims of the world’s religions, still feel a call into something that seems to deserve the word “spiritual.”

I’ve come to see that there are three different ways people across cultures and time have taken on the spiritual life with intention and discipline. And both these things, intention and discipline are necessary. Setting a goal, and then following through, step by step. In case you only have a couple of minutes here, the three ways are monastic, priestly, and householder. Each are part of religion, but none, not even. The priestly is necessarily bound by religion, if we define religion as the set of beliefs that set one group aside from all the others, beliefs that define and reinforce cultural norms.

I want to focus mostly on what the spiritual life for a householder can look like, because I think that’s the emerging normal. But I feel it’s important to be aware of the other paths, as well. In my own life I’ve touched all three, the monastic most briefly, a couple of years, priestly for most of my adult life, and householder co-mingling with priest.

I have walked a way “between.” The bulk of my adult life I’ve been both a Zen Buddhist a radical form of Buddhism that some assert has moved outside of Buddhism, but still is very much an East Asian thing, and as a Unitarian Universalist, that peculiar spiritual tradition at the farthest left wing of the Christian spectrum, so far in fact that most no longer define it as a Christian sect, although still firmly a Western thing, this place between them has liberated me from being too sure of any one set of truth claims.

This way between has opened me to the great spiritual practice that happens on the other side of religion; curiosity, wonder, not knowing. It’s a perpetual opening of the heart.

I believe this perspective between is emerging all around the globe. People straining at the bounds of cultural certainty are finding themselves, ourselves turning to a more universalist approach to the mystery that surrounds us.

Sometimes as a monastic, on occasion as a priest, and most of all, especially these days, as a Householder.

A monastic is someone who has resigned from the world to some greater than lesser degree. A nun or a monk vows into a rhythm of life that is totally focused on the great goal of liberation or salvation. This path takes different shapes in the different religions, and even within them. Some monastics practice alone, usually after a period of formation, and almost always with some kind of continuing supervision from elders. Others spend a lifetime in community. And a few mix it up. Mostly, but not always monastics are celibates, relinquishing the joys, obligations, and sorrows of intimate relationships. Some do this for a lifetime, others, like me, do it for a period of time.

Priests are another form of spiritual practitioners. One those who step away from the ties of orthodox religions sometimes miss. Priests give some significant part of their life to the rites of religion. Including with that negative sense I’m using here. But, there’s more to it. They perform rituals that keep the world spinning, that heal the broken heart, that connect the world and the heavens. Again, each religion uses priests, who are usually prepared and marked out through ritual acts. They might be nuns or monks. But, they can just as easily live Householder lives. The rise of “Interfaith ministers” hints at this continuing need even if we really are moving past the old religions.

And then there is the Householder path. Sometimes they’re called lay practitioners. Lay as opposed to the professionals, those monastics or priests. But I think in general, if we’re talking about serious practitioners of the intimate ways, Householder becomes a better term. It acknowledges the special marks of their engagement, taking on intimate relationships, making a living, and continuing with responsibilities in this world, even as they commit to the intimate way, the path of the wise heart.

The foundation is a regular practice. As a Zen person that cornerstone for it all is Zen meditation, called in Japanese “Shikantaza,” or “just sitting.” Others do Mindfulness. Others the Jesus Prayer. There are many gates to the intimate way. What is critical is that part of most days is devoted to this practice. In addition, I look for ways to join others in intensive retreats, taking on most of the same disciplines of monastics for somewhere between half a day to seven days at a stretch. Others attend ninety or one hundred-day retreats, although that’s obviously difficult and for many Householders, impossible. The most important thing, however, is the rhythms of regular practice.

Joining others in liturgical life can be a very important thing as well. Liturgy as in work of the people. It can be as simple as chanting, singing, or reciting sacred texts, usually with intentions set and usually said dedicating the merit of such projects to the benefit of beings beyond those gathered. Here we find a regular gathering, following whatever is an appropriate rhythm, celebrating the mysteries of birth, and coming of age, of vowed relationships, and of death along with the small and great joys and sorrows along the way. Christian communion, Hindu puja, Buddhist “service” or liturgy, there are many different ways to join into the great dance.

Study is another important component. Reading one’s sacred texts. Maybe studying other people’s sacred texts. But, investigating the wisdom of the ancestors can be enormously enriching.

Here’s another important thing.

If you’re a Householder, being involved in events beyond your immediate concern is also important. In modern Democracies this includes involving oneself in the nitty gritty, making decisions, taking stands, and engaging. However, with a caution. The call ultimately is to intimacy. So, one’s politics needs always to be challengeable and challenged. The quest for justice, which I find co-arises with a quest for meaning and purpose, needs to be tempered first by realizing one never knows all one needs to, that we’re driven by impulses that we’re barely ever fully aware of, and by “we” I mean you and me; and in the last analysis mercy is the true handmaid of the divine.

For the moment that’s it, just a few pointers on the spiritual life, the intimate way after religion.

Well, other than to remind you how this life and death thing, it passes so quickly.

Don’t waste your time.

Every moment is precious.

Pay attention.


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