Zen in Five Minutes


James Ishmael Ford

In the Christian calendar today is the feast of one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Julian of Norwich.

One of the cool things about her for me, anyway, is that we know almost nothing about Julian, we don’t even know what her real name was. What we have is her record of a series of visions and her reflections on them, the Revelations of Divine Love.

In a nutshell Julian divined three things out of those visions. One, maybe the most important was that there was a great love in the universe, something that appeared to be able to overcome even hell. Second, she saw that sin was in fact ignorance. And third was her imagery of the divine, where both God and Jesus were feminine. A totally lovely, lovely version of Christianity. A mystical expression with a cornucopia of practical possibilities following.

And. In Zen, we are past suspicious of visions. In fact, it’s Zen teacher 101, that when someone comes with a vision to say, “Don’t worry, they will pass.”

The name for visions in Zen, is makyo. Makyo literally means a ghost or a devil cave. I’ve seen the term freely rendered as “diabolic interference.” And some of my most important guides in the Zen way, Hakuin immediately comes to mind, had numerous visions along their way.

On my own spiritual path, I’ve had a number of my own visionary experiences. The one that most rises in my heart as I tell this is how many years ago during an intensive Zen meditation retreat having a vision of Jesus walking toward me, his hands, palm to palm together like the Christian prayer mudra, Hindu namaste, or Zen’s gassho, and saying, “I have a great gift for you.” My immediate thought was of my childhood Jesus, the one with all the little children. And I felt waves of love washing over me. Then. He spreads his hands to reveal those infamous bleeding wounds. A terrible visceral fear leapt into my throat, as he then grasped my own hands with those bleeding hands.

And, with that the pain of worlds birthing and dying ran from his wounds into what are now mine. And it was over. I was back in the meditation hall. My hands hurt for weeks. Actually, I can still touch an echo of that hurt.

Now. I take it as makyo. Full on. With all that makyo means. And. It isn’t a matter of subtraction, not this, not this, finally coming to some irreducible final hard truth. Rather it’s noticing each thing that presents is partial. True. But only from one angle. And, slippery, as well. The path, our path, you know, the human one is receiving one partial truth after another. And, if we’re fortunate, in the process discovering some mysterious dream reality, that at least echoes the truest true. But its less some philosophy, and way more some being with which we find ourselves wrestling. Wrestling through the night and into the dawn. All of it bringing some mysterious blessing.

In my own life that encounter is now a story, now polished with the retelling. So, I don’t take it seriously. Well, I do. That’s not quite the right language. I take that vision deadly seriously. The wrestling match continues. But I also hold it lightly. I hold it as part of a world of experiences. It is part of who I am. And, in that part I see into something mysterious and true.

What my encounter with vision with makyo does more me more than anything is lead me into the ways of not knowing.

Julian’s most famous words, “all shall be well, and all shall we well, and all manner of things shall be well” reminds me of Yunmen’s great koan, “Every day is a good day.” As with Yunmen those words come in the midst of war and starvation. A koan, an invitation delivered in the midst of much hurt.

I find these true pointings. All of them.

So, my small take away on encountering visions, on encountering makyo.

Consider your encounters in the world as one makyo after another. Remember, this too, will pass. (And, yes, as the wag says, it may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.)

If you’re seeking the wise heart, accept the disruption of what you might ordinarily consider “real.” Don’t chase after it. But rather let it come to you. And when it comes, if it comes, hold it all lightly. Sincerely, passionately even. But let don’t squeeze the life out of it. Hold with open hands.

Our Zen way.

(The icon of Julian of Norwich is by Robert Lentz)

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