My Three body Problem: Zen, Jesus, and a Holy Communion

My Three body Problem: Zen, Jesus, and a Holy Communion April 15, 2024

The Reverend James Ishmael Ford celebrating the Eucharist for Maundy Thursday at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

Two things have been burrowing into my heart of late.

The first happened with a manuscript I’ve written for an introduction to Zen scheduled to be published next year. A number of my early readers commented on the Christian references in it. One noted straight out that it was “Christian Zen.” The confusion for me was that I never saw it that way. I thought I was simply enriching a pretty straight forward Mahayana Buddhist pespective. And if there were any departure from an orthodox Zen Buddhism, it was of a rationalist inclined sort. I was writing from what I’m coming to think of as my “spare Zen Buddhism.” But, it wasn’t one reader.

The second was from just a week. I was in conversation with a dear friend, a Soto Zen priest. I congratulated him on deciding to begin koan introspection work with a teacher I love and respect. He volunteered somewhat embarrassed, it seemed, that he didn’t ask me for two reasons. One was my apparent refrain that I’m getting old and more about ending things than starting things. The second, which he insisted wasn’t the big thing, but included, was your “Jesus thing.”

As I said, it’s all kind of digging into me.

I have an oft repeated summary of my faith stance. I claim a physiology of faith; a Buddhist brain, a Christian heart, and a rationalist naturalist stomach.

In my life this comes together as a song with several blending melodies.

Maybe a broken song, it certainly carries a sense of wound, and, miraculously, that has made a life.

As to the brain part.

Even this most prosaic aspect is for me a wonder and a miracle.

I unpack this as meaning my basic understanding of the world and the human condition is that “spare” Mahayana Buddhism. It’s a version of the three seals. My working hypothesis is that 1) everything made of parts will at some point come apart. 2) there are no essences to things, they are composed in a moment when causes and conditions gather, and cease when the conditions change. 3) human hurt arises as we misunderstand the nature of the world and our minds and hearts, and grasp too tightly at what is passing. And, 4) there is a way through this to a peace that passes all understanding. (Another of those Christian allusions…)

This is further enriched by my understanding of the two truths and the three bodies. The two truths as I understand it is the observation that this phenomenal world, where you and I live, the world of history and of consequences is exactly identical with that place usually called emptiness, boundlessness. The three bodies describes our encounters of the fundamental realities, including this historical world of pain and joy, and the empty world. But it notes a third place as well, a place of dream and wonder.

And that’s where the heart thing happens for me.

I have a simple anecdote to introduce this. I note how I learned to read from a large illustrated King James Bible resting on my grandmother’s lap. When I recently heard George Santayana’s “There is no God, and Mary is his mother,” I instantly understood that. If the world is made of stories, the stories I know from the core of my bones come from the Bible. I say that I dream Moses & Miriam, Jesus & the Marys. It’s often literally true.

And finally there’s that rationalist disposition. I am a child of the Western Enlightenment. I look at the natural world, and I see enough. I hear theistic friends who say they look at the majesty and grandeur of the cosmos and assume there must be a God. I witness the same things and feel awe. But I simply do not see a logical connection between what I witness and some assertion of a human-like mind behind it.

But I do love that there are those who are life committed to unpacking the mysteries of the mechanisms. Knowing the how is a wondrous thing.


The world I live in is an unfolding mystery. It’s informed by the scientific investigation of things. In our corner of the universe if follows pretty straight forward laws. Although I’m told by smart people those laws may not apply everywhere and at all times. Still, if someone makes an assertion about the world or the human condition, for me a very good test as to whether that assertion is true, is what is the evidence for the assertion? And if there is no evidence, or if the evidence is strictly anecdotal, my response is extremely skeptical.

And. I’m not simply a materialist. I find those who embrace that term are too often reductionists. I also notice often the great scientists are kinds of mystics.

While I share a desire for the bare truth of a thing, I’ve noticed how elusive that sort of thing is. And, meaning (as well as meaninglessness) lives within a different place than a description of the how of it. The mysteries of the universe are not reducible to the described and tested. As I’ve noted the smart people tell us the fundamental rules are not at all certain. And, very much the truths of our hearts, our feeling lives, where we actually exist, are not reducible to the testable. Although they can help us sort some of the assertions and incline our engagement with other assertions.

My observation is that our minds are wonderful things. They have a quasi-independence. That is while it seems obvious to me our minds are rooted in our material existence and specifically located in our brains, they are not strictly epiphenomenal. The brain’s mind exists in some sort of biological feedback loop with the rest of the body. Hence both psychosomatic illness and the power of the placebo effect.

Our minds are somewhat independent but are also totally of the body. What we think of as normal or sane is largely informed by a complex and moving balance of chemicals. But that’s just a description.

Then there’s where and how we live.

As Emily Dickinson sang to us somewhere around 1862:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

What I’ve come to find in this life is how we all build worlds out of stories vastly more than from facts as in those things that can be tested. A truth, I’ve found, universally applicable.

At this stage of my life, living in a world, this world, accepting the natural, embracing it with all my being, I allow it to teach me through those stories, to inform and direct my life.

The first of these stories is that guidance from those four seals.

A truth, the truth that lives within my being. It is how I see the world is, the unfolding of the mystery.

So. With that the next question. How to live this?

The next among those stories is the unfolding out of my culture’s ancient root wisdoms found in the narratives of Judaism and Christianity. With the odd adjustment from the stories of Islam, especially those Sufis. And, also, over the many years enriched and directed from the stories of the Zen tradition, most especially those enshrined in the koan literature, driven into my being, framing my being through the disciplines of the koan way.

The koan way, the question that contains its answer, the pointer and the invitation. The way of the deep.

It is learning to live with what is as it unfolds as it is.

And through the gift of my three body problem, I have a life.

From one angle I’m a rationalist, and a naturalist.

From another a pretty straight forward Zen Buddhist of a koan school.

And, from another a child of Jesus and those Marys.

I’m a kind of atheist. But, I don’t fear God language. I know to take off my shoes when I approach the mystery.

The mighty one for me is beyond all categories. My God is a pregnant emptiness. The nothing that is constantly birthing the worlds.

And that God calls with each in breath, with every out breath.

My longing and my home.

Out of that beautiful gift of a sense of a natural world, out of the deep wisdom of the Buddha and Nagarjuna and my Zen ancestors, I’m given a way to understand my dream worlds of Moses and Jesus and, especially of our mother Mary who is also Guanyin.

If I were to name the face of God, the door to God, the heart of God, it’s Mary.

Mary, sweet, terrifying Mary. Here I hear the dream of the dream, the manifestation of a life, of our lives. The playing out of all our hearts, an the call of the mystery into mystery.

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God! My heart rejoices in you, my Savior,

because you have showered your servant with blessing! From now to the end of time,

all generations will know the great things you have done for me.

Mighty One! Your name is holy! In every age, your compassion flows to those who reverence you! But all who seek to exalt themselves in arrogance will be leveled by your power.

You have deposed the mighty from their seats of power, and have raised the lowly to high places. Those who suffer hunger, you have filled with good things. Those who are privileged, you have turned away empty-handed.

You have come to the aid of your people, in fulfillment of the promise you made to our ancestors when you spoke blessing to Sarah and Hagar and all their descendants, to the utmost generation!

I notice the ecstatic gift.

And this is where I live with my rational heart, my great lens through which to engage with the invitation of the koan way, dreaming the world through those stories of scripture…

And I notice the call to serve. Symboled most of all by the poor and the left behind.

The call of this broken world. So full of pain. So full of love.

And a life to be lived.

Maybe this is my three body problem.

But problems, well, another interesting word. More like invitations, it seems.

Maybe there’s something for you in this, my little confession? Only you will know, of course.

But. My confession. The gift given me by this world and my heart.

A broken hallelujah.

A holy communion…

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