One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Monday, November 21, 2022

A Weed Wacking Roshi goes to Mass

Blue Cliff Record 22.1


My friend James Ford recently wrote a lovely heartfelt piece about attending a service from The Book of Common Prayer in Boston's Kings Chapel. I’ve been looking for a response to his plug--that’s not entirely accurate. I had a caution and several questions about his almost lyrical reflection, but mostly it was about the weird juxtaposition of hearing mass in a handsomely endowed Unitarian church using the arcane liturgy of the English Catholic Reformation.

I emailed him to say as long as it has some singing and dancing, I suppose I could hum along, but I was initially put off by a koan master’s flirtation with 15th century church ritual. The practice of Zen, at least in my experience, has tended to strip away some of the mystery--I want to use the word superstition--surrounding these observances. I haven’t been to a church mass in decades without any guilt or shame, and I’m not eagerly looking forward to the next wedding or funeral where I might be obliged to attend.

But further examination exposed a new level of entanglement


Seekers and Quakers, Ranters, Diggers and Collegiants

James is a well trained, thoroughly modern koan master. He is also an ordained Unitarian Minister, so he has officially set aside some of the more peculiar contortions of Church orthodoxy and their insistence on creedal formulations of the mysterious. All well and good, or at least he and I are on the same page.

I also know from our conversations that he is trying to look at the tumultuous spiritual landscape of right now from a Zen perspective. His interests include the traditional Christian denominations, evangelical churches, fringe spiritual movements and the relatively small but growing number of western Buddhist practitioners from various Asian schools. After some digging, I discovered that King Henry’s abrogating the authority of Rome unleashed a tidal wave of non-conforming religious expression that was in many ways as stormy as our own, but most of the ramifications lay hidden beneath the doctrinal garb of our inherited religions.

I stumbled upon a YouTube series of lectures by Alec Ryrie, Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London. He’s a committed Christian, and he’s also brilliant. Of course I had studied the history of what we call the early Reformation, at least enough to satisfy my Jesuit examiners, but my training was focused through the narrow lens of the Counter Reformation which my order spearheaded..

I had carefully examined Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists and, I suppose by extension, the Jansenists, but there were also many many splinter sect; historians call them the radical reformation. Who were they? They included the first radical Quakers, but also Seekers, Ranters, Diggers, and Collegiants. They questioned the very foundations of the Christian enterprise.

The events of these few decades were momentous. So much of what transpired continues to shape our spiritual lives; the language of prayer; the separation of religious belief from philosophical discourse (I didn’t know for example that Baruch Spinoza had been a member of the Dutch version of the Quakers); secularization or the end of the total domination of the church-state (the far reaching economic impact of King Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church assets).

Alec Ryrie says that battles are rarely determined by the pacifists. Who can dispute that? However I am loath to give up my cherished position as a Skeptic.

John Earle. (c. 1601 – 17 November 1665) whom I regard as an English Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) who was his contemporary, also felt that one has to take sides. But he is far less rarefied than Blaise. Earle presents the philosophical wager as a conundrum with a poor resolution: “Whilst he fears to believe a miss, he believes nothing.”

Can I believe anything and do I really have to?


An Age of Atrocity

If I were an actual actor in the real drama of the early Reformation, I might have been forced to take a stance about my beliefs. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Avery Dulles (not sure if this was before or after he was elevated to the rank of Cardinal) but he was serving on some high level ecumenical commission. He told me that he worked long hours on some presentation papers. Then came the meeting. It began with a prayer petitioning the God of the doctrinal points they knew they could agree upon. Then Avery stated and explained the Roman Catholic position. He was thanked and applauded. Then the other side’s theologians presented a similar paper outlining their position. They sat down and were applauded. Then together they worked out the closing statement: we can agree on X for Y reason and we continue to disagree on the following points for Z reason. We were happy to have this exchange, and pray for our continued growth in the Spirit.

During the Reformation, one of those parties might have been burned at the stake. In those troubled times, the untimely deaths of the heretics or martyrs, depending on your side, could be made into myths, to warn succeeding generations, to train them in some self sacrificial virtue or remind them that some truths could never be compromised. The Inquisitions made decisions about who needs to be celebrated, who needs to be blamed and what lessons the survivors need to draw.

It was a bloody time. Thousands were tortured and executed. The authorities of the newly reformed English Church did it as well as the Catholics. The Spanish Inquisition is now the stuff of jokes, but it was a  matter of life and death for the Jews, conversos, and dissenters who were murdered. A lot has changed in the course of a few centuries, but I don’t think that I can erase that part of history that is an affront to the sensibilities that are the product of my own time and religious culture. The temptation for revisionists is to write out the parts of your history that don’t conform with your myth.


Koan Practice for Tudor England

We are already living in the 21st century. Before I introduce some koan practice, I would like to introduce perhaps a consideration, or a caution. Following Foucault, “. . . you cannot find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by other people.” (Michel Foucault, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow,“ On the Genealogy of Ethics,” 229. In this context the other people were the ancient Greeks.)

By chance, I started working with this elliptical koan that I unfolded from Yuanwu’s Commentary for Case 22 of the Blue Cliff Record*. To apply Foucault's question about understanding bridging history, I began looking among the weeds of medieval China about the time of William the Conqueror to decipher the experience of an arcane ritual surviving from 5 centuries after 1066, during the reign of King Edward VI.

Science fiction loves time travel. Let’s see if religious studies linked up with Zen practice can be equally anachronistic. Paraphrasing Yuanwu, can a 21st century Westerner zennie have a truly authentic Zen experience? At least this might be fun.


The Family Jewels

When [Hsueh] Feng got to Te Shan he asked. “Do I have a part in the affair of the most ancient sect, or not?” Shan struck me a blow of his staff and said, “What are you saying?” At that time it was like the bottom of the bucket dropping out for me.”

(So the answer in 9th Century China is that enlightenment according to the ancient sect was possible--Feng reports that he experienced it, but apparently that doesn’t settle the matter. Perhaps it might include a modern Zen Roshi sitting in the ancient liturgy of the Church of England)

Yen T’ou shouted and said, “Haven’t you heard it said that what comes in through the gate is not the family jewels?” Feng said, “Then what should I do?” T’ou said, “In the future, if you want to propagate the great teaching, let each point flow out from your own breast, to come out and cover heaven and earth for me.”


Master the art of snake handling.

(Skipping ahead through several bouts of drinking tea and getting whacked, we move onto what Hsueh Tou’s disciple has to say about tracing the matter back to their root teacher Yun Men.)

“How many lose their bodies and their lives?” This praises Ch’ang Ch’ing’s saying, “In the hall today there certainly are people who lose their bodies and lives.” To get here, first you must be thoroughly versed in snake handling. 

Hsueh Tou is descended from Yun Men, so he brushes the others away at once and just keeps one, Yun Men: Hsueh Tou says “Shao Yang knows, again he searches the weeds.” Since Yun Men knew the meaning of Hsueh Feng’s saying, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,” therefore “Again he searches through the weeds.”

After Hsueh Tou has taken his verse this far, he still has more marvels. He says, “South, north, east, west, no place to search.” You tell me where the snake is. “Suddenly he trusts his staff.” From the beginning the snake has been right here. But you must not then go to the staff for sustenance.

Yun Men took his staff and threw it down in front of Hsueh Feng, making a gesture of fright.

Thus Yun Men used his staff as the turtle-nosed snake. Once, though, he said, “The staff changed into a dragon and has swallowed the universe; where are the mountains, rivers and the great earth to be found?” Just this one staff--sometimes it’s a dragon, sometimes it’s a snake.

(Then after some detailed snake handling instructions, Yuanwu tries to encourage us by asking one of those pesky Zen Master questions.) Since ancient times, how many people have picked up the snake and played with it?


I personally prefer opera

James Ford attended a Book of Common Prayer service in a revered Unitarian Church in Boston. I hope that at least part of the motivation was aesthetic. And that’s perfect. He’s a Unitarian. I am what’s politely called a lapsed Catholic and an ex-Jesuit to boot. I find that after years of meditation, my love for the ritual of the mass has waned. Actually I prefer opera, but then I am also gay so it might be genetic.

But after doing some introspection, I am left seeing the similarity with our own situation as well as wondering about the huge waves that lie just beneath any attempt to deal with the numinous ocean that supports our lives. I am a skeptic as much as I am a Buddhist. There is a war inside about what to believe, what is worthy of belief and what beliefs are pointers and which ones might simply be a smoke screen. I would like to remain neutral, but also realize that I can’t really be in the words of John Earle, “a hapless peacemaker trying to intervene in a duel getting shot by both sides.”

The contribution of the Zen practice here might be to clear the weeds from the battlefield and perhaps reveal the turtle nosed snake. I can carry a staff, at least in my imagination. “The staff changed into a dragon and has swallowed the universe; where are the mountains, rivers and the great earth to be found?”

For my verse, I’ll echo James with the two stanzas from from Leonard Cohen’s “Treaty” that he uses to close his meditation:

I've seen you change the water into wine
I've seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don't get high with you

I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the snake within
But born again is born without a skin
The poison enters into everything



* Here is Case 22 and the portion of the commentary that I used.

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Blue Cliff Record Case 22

This is the case of the portion of the commentary that I used for my piece  A Weed Wacking Roshi goes to Mass The Case (Sato) Xuefeng, instr...