Recognizing Spirit–Keep Your Eyes Open or You Will Miss It

Misty Branch DSC05513Winifred Gallagher, in her memoir, Working on God, chronicled her own spiritual search in the context of what she called “millennial spirituality among the neo-agnostics.” Neo-agnostics are well-educated skeptics who are mistrustful of traditional religious dogma. Unlike believers, neo-agnostics don’t have ready answers to the big questions about the meaning of life. But unlike secular atheists, they sense something important beyond the tools of intellect and learning.

As part of her search, Gallagher studied Zen Buddhist meditation. She was curious about the Zen experience of kensho, which is translated as “see nature.” Kensho is a sudden, ecstatic transformation of a person’s perception of reality. She describes one practitioner’s experience of kensho:

One morning toward the end of a retreat, he despaired of his practice and wished to ‘turn back to the “normal” world.’ For some reason, he recalled the roshi saying ‘Keep your eyes open or you will miss it!’ Suddenly, he says… ‘the teacup in front of me seemed to “fly apart” and all the constituent matter in the cup, and in my body, and in the universe, were the same from all past to all future for endless time. I saw that what seems to be me or a cup is only due to where my self was sitting. This experience totally freed my self from the coming and going and caused the greatest gratitude to well up in my heart.

The word Buddha means the awakened one, and Buddhism offers itself as a method for waking up to the deep unity of reality all around us. Gallagher discovered, however, that Zen practitioners actually put little attention on these peak spiritual experiences. Part of their realization seems to be that ultimately ecstatic experiences do not matter, except perhaps as a help to waking up. The center of devotion for Zen is in the humble and simple practice of sitting and breathing meditation.

There is a similar lesson in the story of Elijah told in the Hebrew Bible. Elijah had displayed the power of his God Yahweh with great signs and wonders in a showdown with the prophets of the God Baal. But the queen, who was loyal to Baal and unconvinced by miracles, wanted to kill him, and he had to flee for his life. He walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

The story goes on to say that he was told to wait out on the mountain and Yahweh would be passing by. Then there came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire there came the sound of a still small voice, like a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak, for he knew that Yahweh was near.

Rabbi Burton Visottzky says, “A miracle is not God, but that which calls your attention to God, as pyrotechnics do. You have to stop, look—pay attention—before you hear God’s voice. Otherwise, you miss the miracle.”

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A Finger Pointing to the Moon

Moon in branches DSC02496The Zen Buddhists tell this story:

The nun Wu Jincang said to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, “I have studied the Mahapari-nirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”

Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger…”

I want to call us to a deeper appreciation of truth—that we not be attached to any ideology in a way that becomes a kind of idolatry of the mind. Words and ideas about spirituality are not meant to be literal. They are like the finger pointing to the moon. If we spend a lot of energy debating the nature of the finger—what good will that do for us? If we defend the finger, or try to ridicule the finger, or argue about the finger—we’re missing the point. The point is that the finger is pointing to the moon. I hope that we might learn to shift our gaze, and discover that beauty and mystery!

Bread

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”  Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. 

BreadTake an object—any object. He talked about a table, but I would like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand. First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil.

Think about the sun that shines on the earth, and the rain that falls, and the earth itself turning round in its orbit of seasons, and the moon that shapes the tides and the weather, all utterly necessary. Think about the wind, which helps the plants to self-pollinate, and the ancient peoples in the Middle East who began to cultivate the grain during the seventh pre-Christian millennium, and those who developed it and carried it to many continents through the intervening centuries. The wheat that is used in bread co-evolved with human beings, and does not thrive in the wild.

If your bread is made from organic wheat, it doesn’t use petroleum for fertilizer, but it took petroleum in the form of gasoline to harvest it and ship it to the bread makers. Non-organic wheat uses even more petroleum. Petroleum is created from the remains of ancient plants, so this bread is also dependent on them. Think about the metal in the trucks that drove the wheat and in the machines that mixed the bread, and the mines it came from and the factories where the machines were made.

Think about the yeast, and the process by which human peoples discovered and developed the properties of yeast to raise the dough of bread. The honey, and the bees that work tirelessly to make it, and the flowers and their nectar. Think about the water that enabled these ingredients to be blended together. Think about the fuel to heat the ovens.

Think about the farmer, and the miner, and the bread-maker and the factory worker; think about the food they needed to eat, and the clothing they needed to wear in order to do their part of the work that brought this bread to your hand. The trucker, the grocery stocker, the clerk. The houses they live in, their schools and their doctors and their dentists.

Think about their parents, and their grandparents and their great grandparents, and what kept them alive, to bring forth their children, that these people who work might be here today. If you are holding organic whole wheat bread, think about the growing environmental consciousness, that created a market for organic whole wheat bread, after many farmers, bakers and corporations had abandoned the old methods for the soft white appeal of Wonderbread.

I could keep talking all day if I followed all the threads of connection just linked to this one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hahn would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

 As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.”

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Translated by Mobi Ho, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975) p. 47-48.