Friday, February 15, 2019

Journey thru Hell to Heaven

I didn’t grow up with any religious or spiritual inclinations, at all. I didn’t have any desire to ponder what I considered un-useful speculations. It was only after I was 40 years of age, having traveled far, suffered much and stood at death’s door twice that I began to reach into the unreachable for a practical reason: I wanted to live but knew there was something very wrong with the way I had lived thus far.

At that juncture I chose to leave “the world” behind and close myself off from one dimension and close myself into to another, and my choice was Zen. I chose that path because it held out the hope that I could learn to get beyond the horrors I had experienced that dwelled in memories too egregious to live with. These horrors occupied my unending thoughts and Zen was all about cleansing my mind by suspending thought. I lived in a Zen monastery for nine months during which time I joined hands with Dante and walked through the bowels of the Hell I had created. When my journey came to an end I had drained myself of the infinite swamp of corruption that dwelt in memory only and cleansed my heart and mind of contamination.

I discovered something very rare and special during that time: when all cognitive processes are gone, what remained was emptiness—the face of God. By the time I arrived at seminary I had seen that face and knew that God was the source of everything. So I began to construct a new life blending thoughts with no thoughts: God in my heart and thoughts in my head.

Seminary was a most curious experience for me. Theology is all about words, thinking and objectifying what I knew could never be adequately expressed in words. The study of theology was thus most frustrating as I grappled to fuse my ineffable experience with an abstraction of the same thing. It was a process that took me years beyond to assimilate the two with some continuous and serious academic study. I found myself in constant conflict with people who wanted to do what I had rejected: fill their heads with words and abstractions of an experience I knew was a road to nowhere.

However, one of the most helpful of all words came from Zen Master Bassui Tokusho, who said: “One moment seeing your own mind is better than reading ten thousand volumes of scriptures and incantations a day for ten thousand years; these formal practices form only causal conditions for a day of blessings, but when those blessings are exhausted again, you suffer the pains of miserable forms of existence. A moment of meditational effort, however, because it leads eventually to enlightenment, becomes a cause for the attainment of buddhahood.”

Nevertheless I realized that if was ever going to be able to convey the experience I had been graced with I had to travel the path they had chosen. It took me 30 years more before I was ready. I suppose it was like a pianist who must practice until the music comes out of them naturally.

There was a message spoken by Jesus in the middle of the beatitudes that says, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” (Mat. 5:8) The passage is not well understood but it spoke directly to me. I had to read that passage in Koine Greek: the language used to write the New Testament, to really grasp the essence of that statement and when I did I found the key that unlocked the bridge between Zen (the discipline transcendent to words) and Christianity (a religion of words). To Zen, words are reflections: illusions of matters too deep to grasp with our true mind—dreams that dance on hot pavement and create heat waves. To the ordinary Christian the heat waves are all there is.

So what was the key contained in that passage (Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.)? First it’s necessary to understand what the authors of the New Testament meant by the Greek word λόγος (Logos, English translation for The Word). Unlike our contemporary understanding of words, λόγος meant the embodiment of meaning expressed abstractly of the ineffable: the very matter that bent my brain for years on end. What Jesus intended in that statement of purity was to cleanse our hearts of an admixture of thoughts, whether good or evil.

When Western man imagines heart they think of the organ that pumps blood. But to the Greeks the heart was the center of life. However, to people of Zen, there is no difference between the heart and the mind and was known first by the Chinese as “xin” and later by the Japanese as “shin,” and there is a profound statement in both Chinese Zen (Chan) and Japanese: “Mu shin, Shin.” The little “shin” means that admixture of thought that affects our hearts, whether good or evil. When the admixture is gone, then “Shin” arises: the face of God—that space of emptiness out of which emerges our true nature and everything else. Shin is the unity between our corporal selves and the source of all and these two, as it turns out, are really not two. They are the two bound together aspects of life (embodiment): one part limited and objective and the other part eternal. Shin IS the embodiment of God within this limited body and when anyone experiences that fusion the world is changed forever.

So now I stand between the two worlds of East and West and my challenge is to fuse the two just as they were for me, and neither the East nor the West seems to have any interest with fusing with anything not like them.

One of the greatest mystical poets of all time is Rabindranath Tagore.  Sadly, while he lived, he was little known outside of the Calcutta area, and not known at all outside of India, but he captured the essence of my journey when he said,

“The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.” 

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