The Craziest Thing: The Zen Priest’s Song of Awakening

The Craziest Thing: The Zen Priest’s Song of Awakening August 2, 2020




As it happens, today, the 2nd of August is observed in the Russian Church as a feast for Basil, sometimes called the fool, sometimes called blessed, and on occasion the Wonderworker.

I rather like that. All of it. But especially that fool thing.

Recently I wrote a brief paragraph in which I summarized my understanding of Jesus as a  historical person. In it I suggested he was half crazy. Some liked that characterization. Others did not. I didn’t get whether those who liked it or those who didn’t, in fact got what I was trying to point to. Maybe some.

Jesus kept company with the disreputable, preached about some mysterious kingdom that was at hand, that was within the heart, and among the people. Some claimed he could work miracles. Some whispered he raised a man from the dead.

Right now in my Buddhist world our meditation disciplines have become quite an industry. In a large corner of Western Buddhism (and here and there in Asia, as well), Buddhism is all about mindfulness, capturing a bit of calm in the storm. Others among my friends who apply modernist principals of reason and naturalism (a gang I generally consider my people) see the Buddha’s teachings all about this world, and ultimately the way for us as about human flourishing. I don’t disdain those things. But.

The path that calls to me is something different than either relaxation or even clarity in the mess of life and a sense of direction.

And another thing. It isn’t owned by Buddhists. Not alone.

I think of the the path. And I think of Basil. And, I think of Francis, the person who has been called the only Christian.

To me Francis is one of the most compelling figures in world spiritual history. He was probably more than a little crazy. (That crazy thing again) And, he had courage most of us can barely conceive of. And with it all some mysterious grace. Some say what followed him were miracles.

Basil is cut from the same cloth. He was born a peasant, they romance that by having him born in the doorway of a cathedral. As a child Basil was apprenticed to a shoemaker. But, he was destined for other things. He never entered a monastery. He never ordained. Instead he lived among the people. And. When people were suffering but too ashamed to beg, he begged for them. He appears to have shoplifted as well, giving the proceeds to the poor, and letting the rich know. Sometimes he walked around naked, weighed down with chains. He rebuked the Tsar for neglecting the poor and the church.

In the Eastern church he belonged to a class called yuodivy, “holy fools.” They are not unique. The Sufis speak of madzubs, people “crazed with God.”

I think of them.

And with that, what is awakening? If it isn’t lowering blood pressure, or human flourishing, what is awakening? And here’s a thought. What if it has something more in common with yuodivy or madzubs than getting one’s act together?

What if it is a kind of craziness?

What would that be? What would that look like?

In ancient China the poet Hanshan and his companion Shide are claimed by both the Taoists and the Buddhists. Buddhists say their claim is stronger because the crazed poet and his equally crazed friend frequently ate at the Chan monastery at the foot of the mountain they lived on. Or, maybe they ate because Shide was a lay monk who worked in the kitchen and stole the food they shared. Pick your story.

In Japan the monk Ikkyu, acknowledged as a Zen master, spent much of his life wandering around, sometimes living under a bridge. He also had a life long lover, the blind singer Mori. Unlike most yuodivy or madzubs, Ikkyu couldn’t fully avoid entanglements and church hierarchy. In his absence and when old, he was elected abbot of Daitokuji. Although as it had recently been burned to the ground, perhaps it still fits the bill.

Although he did have to do fundraising. Dirtying his hands for a building.

Me, I’ve spent much of my life as a minister and priest. I’ve had the cure of souls and the responsibility for historic buildings. All for the good. And maybe part of the human flourishing project. But, at the same time the call of the pillow and the koan have seeped into my dreams and left me at least a little crazy.

I have dug into the great matter, that question of why and who? I started by looking for God. And, ended up, well…

I think about that crazy.

Not the crazy of justly disgraced gurus. The crazy of Jesus and Basil and Francis and Hanshan and Shide and Ikkyu. The lineage of this crazy is long and it is vast. The crazy of those who’ve opened their hearts and found the great boundless that is also the rising and falling of our lives.

A dance.

In my old age, I live with my spouse who spends her days serving refugees and fighting the government for the poor and dispossessed. We live with our three legged cat who doesn’t care for much except laying in the sun and getting a good scratching once in a while. In our little apartment in a working class city, on an earthquake fault, nestling the Pacific coast, all under a warm sun. Occasionally it rains. But the days do tend to look similar.

I once read a story about a Taoist monk and the universe. Sometimes fiction tells the truth best.

And like in that story I shake my fist at the great empty and call it out for the ills of this world. It laughs and gives me another ten pounds, and a leaky bladder. Me, I laugh back. And it call it nothing special. In response it gives me grey hair and arthritis in my knuckles. I’m pretty sure it smiles at that. It’s all a wild openness.

It’s all wild.

And the song echoes in my heart.

So we find this fleeting world
a star in the morning, bubbles on a stream
flashing lightning in a summer cloud
a flickering lamp, a phantom – a dream.

The empty. A wink. The boundless. A nod. And dreams. An endless procession. All of it a little crazy.

I try to capture my dreams and put them to paper. They slip away and the empty laughs. Again.

I don’t feel particularly rested. I don’t know what human flourishing should be. But when I listen to Jan talking on the phone raising money to bond an undocumented immigrant, I suspect, I’m near it. A kind of craziness. Maybe something more important than mere contentment.

And here I find miracles. They trail the crazy like a bear follows honey bees.

I’ve seen miracles. And I’ve followed them. I’ve raided their sweetness. In the morning I make coffee. Jan says let’s take a walk, and I do.

The teachers sing into our hearts, just this.

Is it outside me? Inside? Or, is it me? The bees sting, but it’s okay. The wild openness of God coalesces for just a moment as the floor and the walls, the music on the radio, and a secret joy.

It really is crazy.

And the craziest thing of all, I get to be part of it. If only for a moment. Or, well, a moment that is eternity…

Just this.



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