"Make of yourselves a light."

My Zafu
A couple of weeks ago I gave an address which explored our particular church's covenant. In a way this is an expansion of the call to meet in 'the spirit of Jesus.'

There are a lot of 'in parenthesis' in this address, none of which appeared in the giving of the actual address but which, as I put this down 'in print' seemed necessary to make. Apologies for them if they merely irritate you. Just skip them.)

-o0o-

Jesus memorably said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life' (John 8:12).

There is a saying of the Buddha's found in the Digha Nikaya ('Collection of Long Discourses') which resonates strongly with Jesus' words

'When a Bodhisattva descends from heaven, there appears in this world an immeasurable, splendid light surpassing the glory of the most powerful glow. And whatever dark spaces lie beyond the world's end will be illuminated by this light' (14.I.17).

(I owe my experience of the conjoing of these texts to Marcus Borg's book Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings)

Now, surely the most powerful glow - at least in the realm of human experience - is the sun and this thought instantly brought to my mind the poem entitled 'The Buddha’s Last Instruction' by Mary Oliver:
 
“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.



(Mary Oliver - New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1, Beacon Press, Boston 1992)

-o0o-

In our Christian tradition we are very used to the idea of Jesus being the light of the world, a light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness has never overcome. Although not explicitly referenced our lighting of the chalice each week is, of course, intimated related to this idea - "Divinity is present everywhere; the whole world is filled with God. But, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.

But what did Jesus mean by his saying? Or, what seems to me to be a far better question, how might we use this teaching of Jesus' honestly in our present circumstances and with our skeptical attitude towards religion? (When I use the word skeptical I use it in its positive sense which is to denote our questioning attitude and willingness to question claims that we feel are too easily taken for granted by too many.)

Well, I think the only way we can honestly use this teaching today is to shift our focus from a metaphysical understanding of it to a very, very practical one. It relies on us changing our way of thinking about the 'light of life' as being something Jesus or God has and which is passed on to us only on condition of our *believing in the right things* to a sense of it being something freely available and omnipresent but which can only be accessed on condition *doing the right things*. So, once again, this is an address that is not trying to offer you a *theory about the world* (in order to have this 'light of life') but about finding some simple way *to be in the world* (and to 'have this light').

But to *do* - because it is about doing more than thinking - to *do* this we need to be helped into a radically different way of encountering the teaching of Jesus that doesn't rely on metaphysics and theories about God/Jesus and the world (our liberal tradition's historically prevalent approach). This kind of help to new perspectives of our own tradition is one of the great benefits of engaging in real and sustained inter-faith dialogue and although much of my professional work in this area is, as most of you know, mostly in the realm of Jewish/Christian and Muslim relations my other long term inter-faith encounter has been with the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. For many years, although admittedly at times fitfully, I have practised sitting meditation (zazen). In a nutshell you just sit down and shut up.

(If you want to discover an interesting and knowledgeable exponent of Zen within the Unitarian fold go no further than James Ishmael Ford - hi James! - who has written a couple of excellent books - In this very moment and Zen Master Who? and who has his own blog - Monkey Mind. I would also recommend the two books on Zen written by another of my heroes (yes James, that means you're one of mine . . .) , Paul Wienpahl, who wrote The Matter of Zen and Zen Diary. Both are, alas, out of print but the second I particularly recommend if you are trying to move towards practising an embodied form of spirituality but who know they are *deeply* rooted in the Western philosophical and Judaeo-Christian tradition.Abe Books is a good place to start.)

The book which, in my teens, introduced me to Zen Buddhism - and also generations of people in the West since its publication in 1970 - was 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' by Shunryu Suzuki which consists of a collection of his informal talks to an American Zen group. At the end of his opening talk on posture - a simple explanation of how to sit on your cushion - he writes that 'the Buddha could not accept the religions existing at his time.'

'He studied many religions, but he was not satisfied with their practices. He could not find the answer in asceticism or in philosophies. He was not interested in some metaphysical existence, but in his own body and mind, here and now. And when he found himself, he found that everything that exists has Buddha nature. That was his enlightenment. Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism' (p.28).

The point I want you to observe is that Suzuki feels that 'in this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.'

Now, at one level Suzuki is clearly talking specifically here about the posture you should adopt in meditation. But the whole point about engaging in any genuine spiritual or religious practice is that it doesn't stop when you stand up from your cushion or from other kinds of meditation or prayers. You 'take' the practice with you into the world - or better, you become that practice in the world.The absolutely key thing to notice is that you will not succeed if you simply take a theory about the world into the world! Suzuki clearly knows this and points specifically to driving a car and to reading but these are just examples. How you are in the world is what matters. Though sitting meditation clearly not driving a car, reading a book, riding a bicycle, working at a computer, making tea, taking a bath, fixing a puncture, eating or drinking the thing that you learn through sitting is to be natural. As Suzuki says later in the book - 'the true practice of Zen is to sit as if drinking water when thirsty' (ibid p. 108): 

'The seed has no idea of being some particular plant, but it has its own form and is in perfect harmony with the ground, with its surroundings. As it grows, in the course of time it expresses its nature.  Nothing exists without form or colour. Whatever it is, it has some form or colour, and that form and colour are in perfect harmony with other beings. And there is no trouble. That is what we mean by naturalness (ibid. p. 108).

Now in Oliver's poem (and to me she appears to be a writer nearly always transparent in her naturalness) - although she experiences that she is not needed (is nothing special or indispensable) she also experiences that she is something of inexplicable value. She imagines the Buddha experiencing this too and looking into the faces of that frightened crowd - a crowd that surrounds us still, a crowd to which we may ourselves still belong.

This sensation of being nothing special or indispensable but yet something of inexplicable value seems to me, at least, to be the 'light of life' and when we sense that we become a light to the world for others.

In Zen practise you sit. This is in some real sense the beginning (though not the end) of your doing, it is the way by which you access the light of life, a light which, with patience and disciplined practice, will spread through every aspect of your natural being-in-the-world. (Here I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not in anyway claiming I'm a Zen Buddhist - that would be, if not a lie, then stretching the definition of Zen Buddhist a bit far! If I am anything I'm some kind of flawed disciple of Jesus who has simply found the insights and practises of Zen - especially in its Soto form - extremely helpful. Dogen's writings continue to inspire my own practise and thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.)

The basic doing, the practise, that we inherit from our liberal Christian tradition is, alas, not for us so clearly defined as it is with zazen but it is clearly related to modelling our way of being of the life of Jesus. When you come to examine his life and teachings you find very little to do with belief - it's all about following, walking with, imitating him in prayer and service to all who are poor and needy - whether in spirit, body or both. It is a 'posture' - an attitude one takes up in the world - and in this sense I think it meaningfully relates to the posture one takes up on the cushion. To return to Suzuki's phase 'In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.'

None of this is, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, so that we may become little Jesuses (sometimes represented by the worrying 'What-Would-Jesus-Do' syndrome - Jesus did what Jesus needed to to to be natural, we need to do different things even as we might do them in the 'same spirit') but another proven way to become ever more natural expressions of ourselves as sons and daughters of God -beings of inexplicable value. Surely to understand one is a son or daughter of God is another way of saying we (and all beings) have 'inexplicable value.'?

The message (or at least one important part of the message) of Jesus, the Buddha, Suzuki and Oliver (and me!) is that YOU are of inexplicable value - YOU are that light of life - but to experience it, to become that light, requires that you commit yourself to a real spiritual discipline whether it be sitting or following the example of Jesus. That is, at times, a hard and difficult work but only when you do this work will you begin to leave the crowd of frightened people and begin to start "the real work" the “What is to be done.” 

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire –
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.


-o0o-

In the period of conversation after the address it was pointed out that there were many examples (other than Mary Oliver) in English that connected with what one might call Zen thought. I recommended R. H. Blyth's  Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics - a book, again alas, out of print.

However, today (31/07/2010), I have just found this online edition.

Comments

nick Stibbs said…
The light of the world

The sun burns not as a unitary mass, but more, as if, a field full of flowers were lit like candles, then gathered up together and tossed into the sky to find a perch up above.

This is poetry - none of it is real - but it can make the real come alive so we can perceive it clearly afresh.

The light of the sun is THE LIGHT - or at least one of its lamps.

Your face and my face and all the strange, curious, beautiful, jaded, sad, happy faces are, like the flaming flowers, gathered together in the divine orb which shines in the sky.

When we look up and face the intense glare of the sun, we are seeing our original face - in all its primordial splendour. And in the shadows we are many.

Does it matter? This material life - una materia - the divine body which WE ARE.

Touch me....and touch star-light condensed into flesh.

Read more: http://www.myspace.com/nickstibbs

Written in response to Andrew's address.