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

Showing posts with label Avery Cardinal Dulles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Avery Cardinal Dulles. Show all posts

Monday, November 21, 2022

A Weed Wacking Roshi goes to Mass

Blue Cliff Record 22.1

My friend James Ford recently wrote a heartfelt piece about attending a service in Boston's Kings Chapel. I’ve been looking for a response. I had several questions about his almost lyrical reflection on the juxtaposition of hearing mass using a truncated version of the English Catholic Reformation's arcane liturgy in a handsomely endowed Unitarian church.

I emailed him to say as long as it has some singing and dancing, I suppose I could hum along, but I confess, I was initially put off by a koan master’s flirtation with 15th century ritual. The practice of Zen, at least in my experience, has tended to strip away some of the mystery surrounding these observances.

But further examination exposed a new level of entanglement and possibility.

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 set aside some Church orthodoxy and its insistence on creedal formulations of the mysterious. All well and good. He, I and the Boston Unitarians 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 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 similar and even more stormy than 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 I can include Jansenists to get ecumenical, but there were also many many smaller splinter sects; 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 transpired that 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); the far reaching economic impact of King Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church assets led to secularization and the end of the total domination of the church-state.

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) and his contemporary, also felt that one has to take sides. But he is far less rarefied than Blaise. Earle presents the famous philosophical wager as a conundrum with a nihilist 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'd 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 politely 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 bloody 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 needed to be celebrated, who needed to be blamed and what lessons the survivors needed to draw.

Thousands were tortured and executed. The authorities of the newly reformed English Church did it as well as the Catholics. In the Spanish Inquisition 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 Jesuit Saint Robert Bellarmine may have saved Galileo from the stake but I am deeply troubled by his role in the execution of Giordano Bruno and Friar Fulgenzio Manfredi. 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.* I tried to apply Foucault's question about understanding bridging history. I began using a Buddhist technique to cut away the weeds. It dates from medieval China about contemporaneous with William the Conqueror. Can the record of an ancient Zen master help me decipher the experience of an arcane ritual dating 5 centuries after 1066, during the reign of King Edward VI?

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

A koan: 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.”

(Allow me to decode some of the language: in 9th Century China "enlightenment" in Zen practice--according to the ancient sect is possible. Feng reports that he experienced it, but apparently that doesn’t settle the matter. Can I might include a modern Zen Roshi using the ancient prayer 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.”

(The part of propagating the great teaching is not coded. We get the part about flowing from your own heart. 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 and mastering the art of snake handling. What is he talking about?)

“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 truncated Book of Common Prayer service in a revered Unitarian Church. 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, but I won't rule out the power of the experience. 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 my 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 don't want to set myself up, in the words of John Earle, as “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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Case 32: A Philosopher Asks Buddha

Stepping out from under the shadow of God

The case

A philosopher asked Buddha:

"Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"

The Buddha kept silence.

The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: "With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path."

After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.

The Buddha replied, "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."

Mumon's Comment

Ananda was the Buddha's disciple, but his understanding was not equal to that of the non-Buddhist. I want to ask you, what difference is there between the Buddha's disciple and the non-Buddhist?

Mumon's Verse 

On the edge of a sword,

Over the ridge of an iceberg,

With no steps, no ladders,

Climbing the cliffs without hands.


A friend asked, “If convert Western Buddhists just set up a competing cult, what’s the value in that?’ Then, because it was a rhetorical question, he answered himself, “The West doesn’t need another religion.” My first impulse was to agree, but when I realized that the koan was about asking questions, that put every answer into a new perspective. I believe some of the answers to my own questions; others I rebel against; some cannot be answered.

Although we cannot identify with certainty the “philosopher”—sometimes it’s rendered, “the pagan” and one teacher even calls him a “Hindu”—this much is clear, the Buddha’s questioner is not a member of the sangha or a lay follower. Hindus, philosophical atheists, pagans, Unitarians, even Jesuits, people who may not even be interested in learning about the Buddhist Path, I have many friends in all those categories.

When I first heard this koan, I took it as validation of my strongly held opinion that no one, not even Buddhists, should try to convert anyone. Who am I to convert anyone? I have a hard enough time with myself. And as the Lord Buddha himself didn’t have anything to say, it was further proof that I was on the right side, or if I were a betting man à la manière de Blaise Pascal,* that I’d picked the right pony.

The Buddha kept silent. For a meditator this is an invitation for introspection and not a confirmation of some rule not to proselytize. But the Buddha also did not pass over the philosopher’s question in silence. What if I began to examine my own questions to see how much they were merely a reaction to the unspoken admonitions of my training both as a Jesuit and an ordinary human? 

I entered the Jesuits just after Jean-Baptiste Janssens’ tenure as Father General. His letters to the brethren were filled with more admonitions than Saint Paul. He began sentences with the Latin heads up, “Taceo--I pass over in silence reports that many Jesuits are smoking,” which was in no uncertain terms an order: “stop smoking.” 

Father Janssens was a remarkable man, the recipient of the title, “Righteous among the nations” for his courageous act of hiding a large group of Jewish children in the Provincial's residence in Brussels, and he was not known for a lax interpretation of Jesuit discipline. Needless to say, examining the restrictive Jesuit norms brought a great sense of freedom, almost as much as rebelling against them. But even Buddhists agree that behavioural norms can promote liberation. 

And now to another type of question. During our last meeting Avery Dulles said to me: “I hear that Buddhists haven’t settled the God question.” Of course he knew the answer—most Buddhism is non-theistic; it does not entertain the question of divinity, neither affirming nor denying a supreme deity, certainly not in the same way that Christians do. In the realm of dogmatic theology these kinds of statements about the nature of divinity are the coin of the realm, and for Avery the existence of a godhead, a personal deity, was central. 

But that afternoon, despite our friendship, or perhaps because of that bond, I felt as though Avery was trying to pry out an answer that would undermine my Buddhist “beliefs.” His tone was friendly and loving, not disapproving or forceful. He may have been trying to push me towards a more traditional faith, but I couldn’t respond of course I still believed in God, because honestly I was leaning more towards the agnostic end of the spectrum, an answer that would surely have disappointed him. My love for the man overrode any other considerations. Again, we’re back to questions and answers. 

Avery however was a Jesuit through and through, and I might have countered his proposition with an invitation to inquiry, but I didn’t have the skill to turn a rhetorical or speculative question into an opening for discovery. I didn’t know how my friend would take it, perhaps almost as blasphemy although my real fear was that he would have just made fun of the question—and me.

We might have waded into the tricky currents of sweeping, generalized truth statements that leave one floundering on rocky shores, or to return to my original thoughts about placing my bet on the right pony, the kind of restrictive notions about God that Jesuits liked to argue about with M. Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists.

Working with the koan opened up that opportunity again.

Avery had framed his statement as a tautology. In logic it’s known as the excluded middle: the law (or principle) of the excluded third, principium tertii exclusi. Another Latin designation for this law is tertium non datur: "no third [possibility] is given." Ludwig Wittgenstein says this constitutes a statement empty of meaning.  

Framing the question as Avery did cuts off the possibility of even seeing or imagining anything but God-or-no-god. Despite what’s almost universal acceptance of monotheism at this point in time, it is simply one formulation that won the cultural and political “god” debate. It wiped out a huge range of numenistic experience, or reduced it to a series of distinctions within the “God, Yes or No” conversation, turning monotheism into a kind of shibboleth* that separates believers and excludes atheists and materialists.

The questioner (my questioner) couldn’t force the Buddha to either take that position into account or exclude him or herself from the Way. That would be simply asking a question looking for a wrong answer. Our philosopher doesn’t misstep.

There is an old adage in spiritual life that there are no bad questions. Frankly in my view this is little more than just trying to ease any inhibition from asking whatever questions might pop up. Given no picking and choosing, bad questions do not exist, but in the realm of good questions, there are better or more ‘useful’ questions when we are seeking to clear our path.

I’ve always felt the empathy, compassion and acknowledgment in this story. I am a former Jesuit, and to be clear, I left the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. However it is impossible for me to change that part of my training, no matter how much I find myself outside the tradition. For me the practice of meditation has been more like stepping out of the shadow of God. There are innumerable spiritual possibilities hidden in between dogmatic statements, mixed in with syncretism and heresy. They exist in a kind of shadow world that is a rich vein for exploration. Maybe Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected from the dead, but the myth still opens a window into the human psyche. I can happily remain agnostic and explore that possibility.

After the philosopher leaves, Ananda asks the Buddha what the philosopher had attained. Poor Ananda. He missed the opportunity to ask someone who might have pointed him towards a useful answer. If he’d asked the philosopher, for example, how meditation had changed his worldview, we’d be in practice territory.

So Ananda just gets to wrestle with a puzzling shadow. Perhaps that was a gift. 

I know I need balance. If not, I get lost in a long theological rant and call it spiritual practice. Sitting quiets my mind just enough so that I can hear other voices besides my own. The rants calm down. Hearing and listening, however, are just the first steps towards understanding, and ultimately compassion. I encourage anyone, no matter what beliefs they cherish, to practice meditation with their whole heart. 

There are several “philosophers” who have attained fluency in Zen practice, Christians, Jesuits, other Catholic religious, a Unitarian minister, and one UCC minister, a friend, who have followed this path and become teachers in the koan tradition. I won’t even try to predict where their practice will take them or their students, but may their practice help relieve suffering and free all beings.

Father Ignatius would have approved of the Buddha's “shadow of the whip” answer. I think that it might point to the heart of the Jesuit-Zen connection. Go ahead ask the question of your own self: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"

I have translated Wittengenstein’s answer into Latin.

De quibus loqui non possumus, nobis tacendum est.

[About what we cannot speak, we have to remain silent. Or

What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.]

I will let the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins cap this conversation (from The Habit of Perfection):

Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent

From there where all surrenders come

Which only makes you eloquent.

Avery died on
12 December 2008; I was told that among the few personal items he carried with him when he went into hospice care was the image of a painting I did when we lived together in New York. Your friendship was a precious gift. Thank you.


Because this has become a Jesuit koan, footnotes are mandatory (and jokes are also helpful). 

*Shibboleth comes from the Hebrew for “ear of corn.” In the Book of Judges we learn that the Isrealites used it as a password because it was difficult for foreigners to pronounce. Mispronunciation didn’t just exclude. It marked them for death.

*Here is Pascal’s bet. 

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.[12]

The End of The World as We Know It

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