Close Enough for Government Work: Zen and the Art of Defining One’s Spiritual Path

Close Enough for Government Work: Zen and the Art of Defining One’s Spiritual Path January 17, 2022




Out in social media universe I saw a posting about Zen Christians from my old friend on the way Ken Ireland. He provided a list of Christian clergy who are authorized in formal Zen lineages. And in the middle of the pack, there I was.

I wrote him a query and he responded, “I put you in the lineage of Father Lasalle, which is not totally accurate, but close enough for government work.”

It did set me to thinking a bit about my place between.

Many years ago I devised what I call my physiology of faith. I adapted it from an anecdote they tell about the Dutch philosopher and Catholic priest Desiderus Erasmus. One Friday, the story goes, some friends came upon him eating a sausage. When chided he replied that it was true he did indeed have a Catholic heart. But, alas, he had a Lutheran stomach. I get it. I really do.

I say I have a Buddhist brain, a Christian heart, and a rationalist stomach.

I came up with this formula a good number of years ago. And, while where the emphasis goes shifts around over the years, it’s always been this mix.

That is that I find the basic Buddhist analysis maps the world I’ve experienced and points me on in critical ways. Specifically, what are called in Mahayana Buddhism, the Four Seals: First, everything made of parts will come apart. And, everything is made of parts. The universe and every blessed thing in it arises, exists, and comes apart in a play of causes and conditions. Second, this constantly moving universe manifests as a tension, a vibration, if you will. And, this is experienced by human beings as a sense of dis-ease, unsatisfactoriness, anxiousness rising for many to anguish. Third, no thing is a thing. Nothing has a permanent essence. It is all the play of cause and effect. And, fourth: There is the possibility of setting the heart at rest, a peace that passes all understanding. Nothing I’ve encountered has successfully challenged these assertions from the Mahayana tradition.

However, the content of my dreams come out of my natal tradition, Christianity. I learned to read out of a King James Bible resting on my grandmother’s lap, after all. And my dream world looks a lot like the Near East and is populated by Moses and Jesus, by Miriam and the Marys. I know them. They know me. While I do draw heavily upon the anecdotes of the Zen masters in my writing, there remains a slightly deeper core of those biblical stories, especially as framed within the King James Version.

And it is all of it tied together through an essentially rationalist disposition. In my years as a Unitarian Universalist minister when encountering people from our hard-atheistic self-described “humanist” wing, I would like to say, “I’m more rational than you.” And, usually that was true. I find this a basic stance in life, just how I meet the world.

And, as I said, my emphasis shifts now and again.

These days Jesus looms large in my dreams.

I’ve been visiting a friend, an old ministerial colleague, who has been ravaged by a swarm of strokes. He is seriously compromised. Somehow along the line I’ve been dubbed his spiritual advisor. While a Unitarian Universalist minister, he has always considered himself a Christian. UU Christians are small but vibrant subset of the UU world, and I’ve always admired the crowd. Well, most of them. Because of this and with his current limitations, I’ve suggested he try on the Jesus Prayer.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Over the years I’ve tweaked and experimented, and tried to substitute forms of the language. In the tradition the only real substitution, however, is to simply say “Jesus.”

I gave him both forms. I suggested if he used the larger form to break it in half, and when inhaling, think or as best he can, say “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God.” To notice the pause as his breath turned. Then, as he exhaled, to think or as best he could, say “Have mercy, on me a sinner.”

Then in one meeting, while his words are difficult to understand, on occasion he can make brief declarative statements. And in this meeting there were three. “The Jesus Prayer doesn’t work for me,” “God doesn’t work for me,” and “What do you have for me?”

Hard moment. And, in the moments that have passed, I’ve been living with these phrases. Yes, each sentence is framed around “me.” And it can be easy to criticize that. Unless you can sympathize with his situation, which is pretty dire.

And, here’s a small truth. Dire describes our human condition. It’s hard not to look at the world from any perspective than “me.” And I think of me. The me that finds the Mahayana Four Seals, the me who dreams of the Marys and Jesus, the me that is suspicious of any claims about the world that do not match up with what can be seen. with my senses and reason itself.

Temporary, passing as a drop of water on a summer day. But, in its moment, as real as real can be. Me. With a lot of others of the same sort. Me. And us. And with that some encounter that I think of as intimate.

My friend doesn’t find a resonance with the prayer. And I need to meet him where he is. Broken hearts call to each other.

And, I look at my own me. And how I engage. I admit some of how I see the Jesus Prayer is from the perspectives of the Pure Land. I find Jesus and Amida hard to distinguish. (And, yes. I get how they are different in that measurable comparative religions sort of way. I really do.) But I mainly am living in this place where Jesus becomes a meeting place where the truths of Buddhism, the needs of my body and brain, and a lifetime of dreaming, come together.

And at the odd moment of the day or evening I find on my in breath, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God.” And, a noticing of the turn. Then, on the out breath, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Maybe there’s a repetition. Usually not. But, there is something that lingers on the subsequent breaths. And in the air around me.

A me that is pretty porous.

At other times, other aspects of this tripartite spirituality have their place. We’re fluid things, we humans. And we need to follow the currents of our hearts. At least if we want to be true. To be present. In the sense of the Velveteen Rabbit, to be real.

And in this moment, in the spirit of that ragged real, I don’t mind that a friend has thrown me in with a bunch of Zen Christians.

Might change. It has a lot over the many years. But in the moment. This one. You know, the only one.

Buddha. Jesus. The world as it is.

Not exactly one.

But close enough for government work.



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