What Is The Sound of An Arrow Hitting Oatmeal?

Koan of the Week
Blue Cliff Record #56
Qinshan and the Arrow

Qinshan Wensui (Kinzan Bunsui, b. 841?), 12th Generation.
Line: Shitou (8th Gen.) to Yaoshan to Yunyan to Dongshan to Qinshan
Dharma brothers include Caoshan and Longya.
Qinshan also studied under Deshan, alongside friends, Yantou and Xuefeng.

A Zen devotee named Liang asked Qinshan, "What is it when one single arrow breaks through three barriers?"
Qinshan said, "Drive out the master from behind the barriers, so that I may see him."
Liang said, "If so, I will acknowledge my failure and correct it."
Qinshan said, "Till when do you want to wait?"
Liang said, "I made a nice shot, but no one could see the arrow," and he went out.
Qinshan said, "Wait, sir."
Liang turned his head.
Qinshan grasped him and said, "Let's put aside the story of the arrow which breaks through three barriers. Just shoot an arrow for me, so that I may see it."
Liang hesitated.
Qinshan hit him seven times with a stick and said, "I will allow this fellow to keep puzzling for thirty years."

What is it when . . . ?
Please. What is anything ever?
Listen. Once Master and I went to the Archery Range Cafe.
Our orders placed, we sat.
Trying to be funny and true, I said, "My shot was perfect; the target was misplaced."
Master asked, "Misplaced because you missed it or because you hit it?"
"The archer or the target?"
"Hit either one for me on your next shot," said Master.
"If you've shot one you've shot 'em all," I said, imagining how that would be as the last word.
"Sure," said Master. "So shoot one."
"Our food is here," I said.
"Who had the thin gruel?" said the server.
"Let's eat," said Master.

* * *

Next: The Old In and Out


Which Is To Be Master?

Our story so far . . .
“God” must, at least, include “reality as a whole.” What else is “God”? Which of the qualities that have at one time or another been said to be qualities of God are qualities that are instantiated in reality?

Candidates for qualities that have sometimes been said to be qualities of God include: “supernatural,” and “personal” (that is, person-like; knowing and wanting). I discussed and rejected “supernatural” in part 1. In part 2, I recognized an important poetic place of play for conceptions of nature/reality as “person-like" before turning to consider possibilities for "God" neither supernatural nor person-like.

In Part 3, I looked at such qualities as the final source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest (or highest or largest) reality to which our loyalty is owed, and, hence, the basis of the ethics that flow from that loyalty.

As Carl Sagan describes it, the cosmos has all of these qualities. Many people today, even though they may lack the detail of sophisticated understanding that professional scientists have, share Sagan’s sense of the natural world – the ecological, biological, and geological processes of planet Earth and the physical processes of electrons and atoms and stars and galaxies – as possessing attributes traditionally belonging to God. Let us call these people “Religious Naturalists.” They are naturalists by virtue of holding that “the supernatural” either doesn’t exist or is conceptually incoherent, and by virtue of holding that such attributes of personhood as knowing and wanting do not apply to nonliving nature or reality-as-a-whole. Naturalists may be nonreligious or religious, depending on whether they experience nature and the cosmos as beautiful, mysterious; inspiring gratitude, humility, awe; commanding loyalty, and grounding ethics.

Can we say that the cosmos, then, is God – even though the cosmos is neither supernatural nor person-like? May reality thus described reasonably be called God? May we call “God” a cosmos that has “most” of the qualities traditionally associated with God – or must we insist that supernatural and person-like necessarily must be a part of the definition? How shall such a question be answered?
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.' (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)
My mother was a physics and chemistry professor. My father was an English professor. Once, at dinner, Mom posed a question to my sister Alizon and me, as she was sometimes wont to do.

“If you throw a rock into the air, straight up – perfectly vertical – it will reach its topmost point, and then start to come straight down. At that instant at the top, is the rock accelerating?”

“No,” my father interjected. “For just an instant, it’s not moving at all.”

“At that instant it is stopped,” agreed Mom. “But it’s still accelerating. Acceleration means that its velocity is changing, and the rock’s velocity is changing throughout its trajectory – on the way up and on the way down.”

“No,” said my father, “that is not what 'acceleration' means.”

Since Dad’s specialization was 18th-century British literature, perhaps Dad had in mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755.

Dr. Johnson defines accelerate as:
To make quick, to hasten, to quicken motion; to give a continual impulse to motion, so as perpetually to increase.
“You scientists,” fumed Dad, “don’t get to change the English language.”

Actually, scientists do get to change the meanings of words. Sorry, Dad. Sometimes scientists even do so through an explicit and formal process, as when the International Astronomical Union, on 2006 August 24, adopted a new definition of “planet” for our solar system. Their definition excluded Pluto, which had been within the definition of planet since its discovery in 1930. More often, the shift in meaning disseminates slowly and informally.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. As we learned more about motion, we saw that all regular changes in velocity were mathematically describable, and we needed the word “accelerate” to refer to all such changes, not just to speeding up.

Similarly, as we learned more about a planet, the word’s meaning changed. “Planet” originally meant “wandering star.” By Galileo’s lifetime, educated Europeans had pretty much universally dropped the “star” part from their understanding of the meaning of “planet.” By 1930, the definition took in nine objects in our solar system, then, in 2006, in the light of discoveries about the Kuiper belt, the definition was refined to include only eight objects in our solar system.

Other examples:

- As we learned more about what water was, we incorporated “H2O” into its definition.

- As we learned more about “atoms,” the word’s meaning changed. “Atom” originally meant “not divisible.” When we developed the ability to split atoms, we had to change the definition of “atom” so that it no longer meant “indivisible.”

- A thousand years ago, "animal" was almost universally understood to mean nonhuman -- and "human" to mean nonanimal (Aristotle's definition of humans as the "rational animal" notwithstanding). As we learned more about animals and humans, we changed the definitions to reflect our new understanding of what humans and animals are.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to. Our definitions of words reflect our understandings of things.

The word “God” points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics. As our understanding of the reality to which the word points has evolved – so that, for many of us, that reality is no longer regarded as supernatural or person-like – then dropping “supernatural” and “personal” from the definition would seem a simple matter. Since so much of the meaning of “God” is retained, then the dropped part would seem more easily releasable than, say, dropping “star” from “planet” or “indivisible” from “atom”. After all, “star” and “indivisible” were once much bigger parts of the definitions of “planet” and “atom” respectively than “supernatural and person-like” have been for “God.”

Case closed? Not so fast. We must also consider the "does not exist" option. As our understanding of things evolves, sometimes we do indeed change the meanings of words. Other times, however, instead of redefining the word, we conclude that the word fails to refer -- i.e., that the purported object pointed to does not exist.

The authors of the Biblical Book of Job evidently wrote for a populace that took leviathans to be real entities. Now we say they don’t exist.

From the late 17th-century until the late 18th-century, the phlogiston theory of combustion postulated that a fire-like element called phlogiston was contained within combustible bodies and was released during combustion. Eventually, the phlogiston theory of combustion was replaced by the oxygen theory of combustion that we have today. Scientists did not re-define “phlogiston.” Instead, they expressed their new understanding by saying, “phlogiston does not exist,” and “there is no such thing as phlogiston.”

Which route should religious naturalists take? Should we say that God is the cosmos? Or, instead, should we say that there is no God?

In the history of the evolution of human knowledge, re-definition is the norm, and the “doesn’t exist” route is the rarely necessary resort. Had there been any actual beasts that were at all close to leviathans, even if significant features of the mythical understanding were missing, we would have retained “leviathan.” Phlogiston was unusually awkward: it turned out that combustion involves the taking in of something (oxygen), rather than the giving off of something. The process itself was entirely opposite to what phlogiston theory had said. So redefining “phlogiston” as “oxygen” would have required unusual conceptual gymnastics. Moreover, the “phlogiston” concept itself was new, never broke out of scientific circles to become well-anchored in cultural understandings, and lacked a long history of accumulated associations that might have given it meanings we wouldn’t want to throw away. Phlogiston was a rare case of an easily disposable concept.

The word “God,” however, has a very long history of referring to a source of mystery and meaning, an origin, a basis for values and commitment, an ultimate the contemplation of which cultivates well-being, humility, peace, and an ethical vision, as such contemplation does for religious naturalists such as Sagan. The list of the functions of the word “God” that are retained by religious naturalism is much longer than the functions dropped.

The great advantage of the word “God” is clarity of communication. That word, better than any other, clearly and directly specifies that what we’re talking about is indeed an ultimate ground of both concrete values and commitments and at the same time incomprehensible, mysterious, full of powers we can but dimly apprehend (e.g., dark matter; 128 dimensions; the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; reproduction; immunological response; consciousness) – a reason for living, and a beauty beyond reason.

What humans have been pointing to with that word, “God,” turns out, for religious naturalists, not to have beliefs and desires. We can now drop that nonessential meaning and speak even more clearly of the holy within which we live and breathe and have our being.

Words change their meaning as we learn more about the things they point to.


Religion brings us together, binds us, makes community of us. A religion offers a basis for an ethics. We might say that whatever is your basis for ethics is your religion. Religion is a context for cultivation of virtues. It is a field in which wisdom slowly grows. Through all this is an account that responds to the question: Who am I? Who are we? What sort of world is this? What is reality?

A shared account of what reality is supports religious community-forming power. It supports the ethical grounding and the virtue aspirations because what we hope to be and can be is framed by what is. Today our best account of reality – a dynamic and constantly shifting account – emerges from the researches of scientists. To know it as best we can gives us shared reality to ground community and hopes. And it opens for us a world of wonder, even as it affirms connectedness.

In the Book of Job, the Hebrew and eventually the Western Mind addressed suffering. “Why do I suffer?” cries Job. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come to visit him in his misery. They offer the trite moral simplifications: “You must have done something wrong to bring this on yourself; you must have sinned to incite God’s punishment.” For these friends, the universe is mechanically moral: Goodness in, reward out; badness or evil in, punishment out.

Finally, God himself/herself appears to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. A sampling:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Or who shut in the sea,... made the clouds its garment... Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place... Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?... Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?... Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?... Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?...Do you give the horse its might?... Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? (Job 38: 4, 8, 9, 12, 18, 28, 31. Job 39: 1, 19, 26-27. NRSV.)
God goes on also to invoke leviathans and behemoths (and unicorns, too, according to the King James Version, though later translations say "wild ox" instead). God’s speech is not an explanatory “answer” to the question Job had so plaintively raised to the heavens, "Why do I suffer?" Yet confronted with the vast awe of creation, Job’s complaint is stilled. Humbled and speechless, Job abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice.

What about you and me? Amidst our daily and variable discomforts, distractions, and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, where shall we look today for the “speeches of God” that will fill us afresh with such profound wonder that our sufferings fade into insignificance, replaced by an awe unto joy? We look to nature, just as God directed Job to look. Such "speeches" today are read through the Hubble and other telescopes, inscribed by particle accelerators, displayed with electron microscopes. Those of us without the training to decode those cryptic signals can nevertheless find abundance of beauty and mystery in more popular science writing. We find it in looking, naked-eyed or with simple binoculars, at the night sky or a distant flock of cranes. We find it in walking amidst uncultivated undisturbed flora of the land of our belonging.

Near the end of his life, Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot:
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.
Dear Carl: It’s here.

Thank God.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe."
Previous: Part 3: "Saganic Verses"
Beginning: Part 1: "Not Supernatural"


An Easter Story Story

This is the story about the story: the story about what happened to the story about Yeshua. Yeshua taught people about a new way to live in love with each other. After he died, Yeshua’s students and followers began gathering together in communities that they called churches. They gathered to share the stories about Yeshua, to try to try to attain this Kingdom of God that Yeshua talked about.

Soon, however, the story started changing. Very different ideas started to be added on.

SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHER: When Yeshua said Kingdom of God, did he really mean that the Kingdom was right here – that the Kingdom was created whenever people lived together with love as their law? Some people started to say, “Oh, what Yeshua really meant was that the Kingdom of God is a happy place that your soul goes to after your body dies, but only if you’ve been good.”

SUNDAY SCHOOL PUPIL [precocious, impertinent]: That’s probably not what Yeshua meant.

TEACHER: They started to say that Yeshua was God.

PUPIL: Why would they say that? Yeshua didn’t say that.

TEACHER: In those days, anyone who was very important was said to be a god. For instance, the Romans said that Augustus Caesar was God. Yeshua’s followers also started starting saying Yeshua had a miraculous birth.

PUPIL: I’m sure it was. Every birth is miraculous.

TEACHER: They said only Yeshua had this particular kind of miraculous birth, that his mother was a saint.

PUPIL: I’m sure she was. Mine is.

TEACHER: According to the story, Yeshua’s Mom was special and holy like no other woman ever. And Yeshua’s father was not a human being at all, but was God.

PUPIL: But you said they said Yeshua was God.


PUPIL: So . . . he was his own father?

TEACHER: Well, no. . . .

PUPIL: Oh, then there were two Gods: one was the father of the other.

TEACHER: No, they always said there’s just one God.

PUPIL: Then, how . . . ?

TEACHER: I don’t know. I’m just telling you what they said.

PUPIL: What else did they say?

TEACHER: They said that after he died, his body was laid in a tomb on a Friday afternoon, but then on Sunday morning he came back to life.

PUPIL: So he wasn’t really dead, then?

TEACHER: No, he was really dead. But then he came back to life.

PUPIL: What part of “dead” do you not understand?

TEACHER: I’m just telling you what they said. Besides, there are lots of stories in which the dead come back to life.

PUPIL: Uh, yeah, like Zombie stories. Do you mean Yeshua was undead?

TEACHER: Don’t say that! Have some respect!

PUPIL: I’m just trying to understand what the story is saying.

TEACHER: And I’m trying to tell you. A lot of different stories started being told about Yeshua.
In some of those stories, they say Yeshua died to take your sins away.

PUPIL: My sins? That’s awfully nice of him, but how does one person dying take away sins of another person? Also: I wasn’t born yet, so I didn’t have any sins back then. Oh! And didn’t you say that he died and then came back to life two days later? Does that mean that my sins come back in two days?

TEACHER: You ask a lot of questions.

PUPIL: Is that OK?

TEACHER: Yes, my dear. It’s wonderful.

Over the last 2000 years, a lot of different ways of telling the Yeshua story have come along. Some of those stories are all about how he was born and what happened after he died. The things he did in between don’t matter so much.

There are also people who consider themselves followers of Yeshua – Christians -- who pay no attention to anything supposedly special about Yeshua’s birth or his death, or after death. For them, the only Yeshua story is the story of what Yeshua did, how he lived, and what he taught. They also call themselves Christian because they try to live as Yeshua taught. They try to live as though God, or love, lives within us and among us, and the better we know that, the better we can love.


An Easter Story

Once upon a time, long before there was the internet or video games or even electric lights, before there were e-books – before there were books – back when stories were preserved only on scrolls and in memory – the world was different yet also very much the same. For instance, today there are poor people and rich people – and so were there then. A child was born into a poor family. His name was Yeshua: a quiet boy, with bright eyes, curious and kind.

When Yeshua was 12, his family traveled into the big city for the festival. In the big city, Yeshua got separated from his parents. They searched all over for him for three days, worried sick. When they found him, he was sitting with a circle of grown-ups next to the temple. The wisest elders in the whole city were gathered, and Yeshua was paying careful attention and asking questions.

YESHUA: Why are some people rich and others are poor? Why is there suffering? Why do we make mistakes that hurt others or ourselves? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to bad people? Is there really any such thing as bad people or good people? How can we learn how to be more kind and more loving?

Every elder had a different answer because nobody was sure.

When Yeshua became a grown up, he was still trying to find the answers. He read all the scrolls, and asked every teacher he could find. He went into the desert to get away from other people and be alone to think and to feel, to hear the quiet message of his own heart, and to experience more deeply the Earth and the sky.

Yeshua stayed in the desert many days with very little food.

One day in the desert a gazelle walked up to him.

GAZELLE: Why are you here, human?

Yeshua didn’t know if he was imagining, or if a Gazelle was really talking.

YESHUA: I want answers.

GAZELLE: What are the questions?

YESHUA: Why is there suffering? Why are some rich while others are poor? Why do we make hurtful mistakes? Why do bad things happen?

GAZELLE: Why, why, why.

Gazelle left. She came back the next day. Yeshua looked at her and repeated his question.


Gazelle looked at him, and spoke quietly.

GAZELLE: What do you already know?

YESHUA: Everybody I ask gives a different answer.

GAZELLE: There are many different reasons then.

Gazelle left again. The next day, the sun was sinking low before Gazelle trotted by where Yeshua was sitting. Yeshua looked up.

YESHUA: There are many different reasons.

GAZELLE: Yes, many reasons.

YESHUA: So how can we learn to be kinder?

GAZELLE: Good question. Much better than the other ones.

Gazelle left and did not return. A week later, Yeshua left the desert and returned to the villages of people. He began talking to people and teaching them.

YESHUA: I know that you suffer, and are poor, that you have made mistakes and are sorry, and others have made mistakes that harmed you. I have some good news.

CROWD: What? What? What is the news?

YESHUA: The kin[g]dom of God is within and among you.

CROWD: What did he say? What was that word?

PERSON 1: He said "Kingdom" of God. Like God is the King and will rule over us.

PERSON 2: No, he didn’t say "Kingdom" of God. He said the "Kin-dom" of God. Like we’re all kin – we’re all related to each other. When we know we are kin, that’s when we live in a holy way, like God.

YESHUA: The good news is the kindom of God. It is where love rules. Where love is the only law. Love is inside you, and love is among you. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you.

Wherever Yeshua went, he tried to teach people how to be kinder. One day a man approached him.

PERSON 3: How can I live from love and for love?

YESHUA: Follow the rules and follow the love, for the rule is love.

PERSON 3: What’s the rule?

YESHUA: There are really only two. The first is: love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And the second is like the first: love your neighbor as yourself.

PERSON 3: My neighbor as myself?

YESHUA: Your neighbor as yourself.

PERSON 3: Who is my neighbor?

YESHUA: Let me tell you a story. Once there was a man who was robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. Two people passed by and did nothing to help. A third person went to the man, bandaged his wounds, brought him to an inn and took care of him, paid for his care. So who was a neighbor to that robbed and beaten man?

PERSON 3: The one who showed him mercy.

YESHUA: Go, and do likewise.

Another time, another man approached Yeshua.

PERSON 4: How can I live from love and for love?

YESHUA: You know the commandments: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.

PERSON 4: I have kept the commandments since my youth, yet my heart is not satisfied. How can I have a larger love?

Yeshua looked at the man and loved him.

YESHUA: Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Wherever he went, Yeshua talked to people and taught them to have hope in each other, taught them to care for each other, and how to be together in a community where love is the only law – a community that he called the kingdom, or the kin-dom, of God.

PERSON 5: Sounds like a liberal.

Yeshua especially emphasized taking care of the poor: providing everyone with housing, and food, and health care.

PERSON 5: Yep. Definitely a liberal.

- - - - -

Sources (from NRSV):
When Yeshua was 12 . . .
Luke 2: 40-48:

The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." [No parallels in other gospels]

He went into the desert
Mark 1: 12-13:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. [Parallel passages: Matt 4: 1-11, and Luke 4: 1-13]

The news
Luke 4: 43:
But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose."
Luke 8:1:
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.
Luke 17: 21:
For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among (Or within) you.
Deut 30: 11-14:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Love your enemies...
Luke 6: 27-28:
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse your, pray for those who abuse you." [Parallel passage: Matt 5: 44]

The rule is love
Matthew 22: 37-40:
He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Parallel passages: Mark 12: 28-31, and Luke 10: 25-28]
Deut 6:4-6:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Leviticus 19: 18:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Who is my neighbor?
Luke 10: 29-37:
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." [Parallel passages: Matt 22: 34-40, and Mark 12: 28-34]

Sell what you own, give to the poor
Mark 10: 17-22:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. [Parallel passages: Matt 19: 16-22, and Luke 18: 18-23]
Luke 12: 33:
Sell your possessions and give alms
Luke 14: 33:
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


To Recognize, Look

Pang asked Mazu, "If you met someone who was a distinctly authentic person, how would you recognize him?"
Mazu directed his gaze downward.
Pang asked, "Only you are able to play a tune on a stringless harp."
Mazu looked up, and Pang bowed.
Mazu then returned to his room.
Pang followed him, saying, "Just now, I tried to trick you, but you made a fool out of me instead."
(The Sayings of Layman Pang, #4: "A Distinctly Authentic Person")

Look down, Angel, upon this very spot.
Right where we are, we're on holy ground.
Look down, Angel: the blessing of your glance upon the
Look up, Angel.
See me with the music of your harp.
Dance with me to the tune that from no strings comes.
Dance with me, no strings attached, til we melt
With ruth.
Look homeward, Angel.
I am following the direction of your gaze.

"We're on holy ground right where we are" - Amy Carol Webb
"Look homeward Angel, now and melt with ruth" - John Milton


Hard (or Easy) to Swallow

On this blog two days ago we saw Pang ask Shitou, "What about someone who has no connection with the ten thousand dharmas?" Today, he asks the same question of a different master. The question reminded me this morning of "Baizhang (a.k.a. Hyakujo) and the Fox," in which we consider that, while an enlightened one might not be subject to cause-and-effect (the law of causation, karma), she also is one with cause-and-effect.
Pang went to study with Mazu and asked him, "What about someone who has no connection with the ten thousand dharmas?"
Mazu said, "I will tell you after you have drunk down the waters of the West River in one gulp."
Pang understood the meaning implied, and composed a verse:

With an empty mind
The examination is passed.

After he'd stayed with Mazu for two years he composed a verse:

The world over:
Men without wives
Women without husbands
Face to face,
Speaking of what is unborn.
(The Sayings of Layman Pang, #3: "One Gulp")

Not falling under, not ignoring: like a fox.
The whole thing gulped down -- without espousal.
No wedding bells ring for marriage bonds and baby making.
What could be born?
Everything possible is already facing his face, already gulped.
What is there to talk about?


Prayers That Reach the Gods. Or Not.

Note: Shitou's question about wearing black or white refers to becoming a monk (wearing black) or not.
One day Shitou said to Pang, "I've come to visit you. What have you been doing?"
Pang said, "If you're asking what I do every day, there's nothing to say about it."
Shitou said, "What did you think you were doing before I asked you about it?"
Pang made up a verse:

What I do every day
Is nothing special:
I simply stumble around.
What I do is not thought out,
Where I go is unplanned.
No matter who tries to leave their mark,
The hills and dales are not impressed.
Collecting firewood and carrying water
Are prayers that reach the gods.

Shitou approved, saying, "So, are you going to wear black or white?"
Pang said, "I will do whatever is best."
It came to pass that he never shaved his head to join the sangha.
(The Sayings of Layman Pang, #2: "Subtleties of Daily Life")

The stew has ten thousand ingredients.
There is a single quarter-slice sliver of carrot in the ladle.
It tracelessly abides.
You may say, "The stew would be different without it" -- this is impossible.
The impossibility of otherwise: this is tracelessness.
Or: It leaves a mark, all right: a mark
Indistinguishable from
The effect of the whole --
A mark without impress to hill or dale, master or novice:
An unseen movement of lips silently praying.


"Shut up," he explained.

The Layman went to see Zen Master Shitou and asked him, "What about someone who has no connection with the ten thousand dharmas?"
Shitou put his hand over the Layman's mouth, and the Layman had a sudden realization.
(The Sayings of Layman Pang, #1, trans. James Green)

In the silence: no connection to the myriad beings.
In the silence: fully connected to the myriad beings.
In the silence: constant chatter.
In the chatter-chatter: silence.
Pointing to the moon: so futile, therefore necessary.
A dance pointless and beautiful and required.


Not Waiting for the Bread to Rise (Passover 2)

Exodus 12: 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: ‘Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: “What do you mean by this observance?” You shall say: “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.”’ And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’ The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
When you have a chance for freedom, when that opening appears: Go! Don’t wait around for your bread to rise.

Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Surrender plans for a nice, hot yeasty loaf and make do with the blandest unsalted crackers, all for the sake of an unknown world? Give up what you know in order to wander in the desert for 40 years of hardship?


Giving up risen bread is the least of it. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. It’s scary out there. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses:
Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (Ex 14: 11-12)
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. You will run out of all bread, leavened or not, run out of meat, face starvation. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses:
If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (Ex. 16: 3)
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain.

Let us take a closer look at that story. The Passover story in Exodus appears to account for the origin of rituals: the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn. Bible scholars suppose that the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals – that in at least some ways the rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know “how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 92).

Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. “The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at the expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 93). Today we can read it as literary device rather than literal history. Even so, here’s this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns.

For me, the story makes particularly poignant the ruling question: What is mine to do?

There is so much suffering. How much do I devote to the work of my liberation so that I’ll be free to be more effective in bringing myself to the suffering? How much do I just try to work with the chains I’ve got, dragging them with me though they hamper and slow me?

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors? Pharaoh got the same warning you did. He hardened his heart and disregarded it. Perhaps Pharaoh represents all the Egyptians. Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming. Can you help? They’re telling you to just leave – which happens to be what you’ve always wanted.

What is yours to do? Work out with diligence your liberation. Compassion for others must manifest as the work of your liberation. Otherwise, what is at work isn't so much compassion as as moral obligations that can distract us from the liberation work. Freeing ourselves will release a much greater and more whole compassion through you to others.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. My friend, call her Gloria, is an activist. I agree with Gloria in the qualified way that Tevye assents to Perchik. You may remember that in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Perchik, the young radical, proclaims, “In this world it is the rich who are the criminals. Someday their wealth will be ours.”

The older Tevye’s qualified assent is: “That would be nice. If they would agree, I would agree.” Tevye sympathizes with the goal of a fairer distribution of wealth, yet he frames that goal within a recognition of the rights and personhood of all, including the wealthy.

Gloria has anger about some of our government’s actions and inactions. I have anger about some of that, too. When I have responded best – which isn’t always -- I have noticed the anger, named it, made a decision about what to do with it. Gloria’s anger takes her straight to blaming, and the anger just builds on itself. Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind. Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others.

Gloria is working for good. The legislation she advocates would, I also believe, increase fairness and reduce suffering. With Gloria, the conversation quickly goes to condemnation. At first I tried to bring some light to what might be the universal need motivating these supposedly evil others. Everybody wants food, air, water, shelter; exercise and rest; security and autonomy; affirmation, respect, trust, creativity, beauty, harmony. I thought if we could identify which, among the needs we all have, were motivating these others, then we could relate to them a little better, even if we still thought that their strategies for meeting the needs weren’t very skillful.

However, my strategy for identifying what might be sympathetic common ground wasn’t working. Then I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me.

Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people."

So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?" Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. Now I was hearing about Gloria, instead of denunciations of people who weren’t in the room. That was a more fruitful conversation, for a while. Eventually, we reached the point where the self-blame was as stymieing as the other-blame had been.

I’m hopeful that Gloria and I might be able to identify the universal motivators that were behind some her acknowledgedly unskillful strategies. That that might be a ground for self-forgiveness -- which might be a ground of forgiveness toward those in the other political party. I’m hopeful, in other words, for the possibilities of Gloria’s liberation. Freedom will make her a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more. She wants to address human suffering through building collective action. Yet these objectives can be a distraction from doing the work for her own liberation. What is it the flight attendants always tell us? "Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others." That's something we need to know before we can fly.

The Exodus story shows a people becoming liberated, against a backdrop of massive loss: every firstborn. “There was not a house without someone dead.” What kind of God would do that? The kind that is the way the world is. There is massive suffering. It is more than you or I can fix. Our own freedom lets us bring presence and compassion to those who suffer. It's appropriate to be horrified by the mass death of Egyptians. At the same time, the Israelites' best possible response was to go ahead and get out of there. Under those unusual circumstances, that's what was theirs to do.

In the Exodus story we see that the path to freedom has two stages: the sudden exhilarating dash out the gate, followed by the slow tedium and hardship for 40 years of wilderness, lost, going in circles, getting nowhere, not to mention the lengthy and toilsome process of building a new city once the promised land finally is reached. We won't reach freedom unless we are ready to move quickly to seize an opportunity. If we delay, wait for the bread to rise, the chance may pass. Or, more likely, since there's always something in our pipeline that we're tempted to want to see through before departing, we may never get around to breaking free. Please understand the urgency of the call to freedom. Don't wait around, putting it off. Go! Now!

After making that first initial exciting break with the past, then comes the long and arduous sojourn in the desert.

I got a call about a month ago from a director of a rehab facility for people in recovery from substance abuse. She asked me about our the labyrinth that we have on our Fellowship grounds. Would it be all right to bring over a group to walk our labyrinth? Would I be available to talk about it with them and guide the experience? Yes, and yes, I said. The appointment was made, and last Friday (Apr 15), the group came.

There were fifty of them: men and women, rebuilding their lives, wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery and addiction. They now face the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We went out and gathered by the labyrinth. I stood on a bench to address them.

The labyrinth is not a maze, it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other.

You must go into your center. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bring the true self you have found back to the encounter. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you,” says Yeshua, in the Gospel of Thomas. “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This was a group that knows a lot about what will destroy them.

Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and winding and terribly inefficient. Notice the temptations. It is so easy to cheat, to step over the rows of rocks, to walk straight in. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further, by any objective measure, from your destination rather than closer.

When you get to the center, I said, hang out there as long as you feel like it, then head back. Folks heading back and folks still heading in will encounter each other. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and it is always a simple matter to step back on.

I instructed them to hold their hands in front of their waist; to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize it with their steps: in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in at five-second intervals. And I went last, walking the labyrinth, as I have many times before, though never with a group, let alone such a large one.

Afterwards we went over to the Fellowship sanctuary to debrief about the experience. Most of them had something to say. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow.

One spoke of noticing how a few of their fellows had stepped over the rocks and taken shortcuts. He wrestled with judging them for that – but he said he knew that the judging voice was about him, not about them. I mentioned the little proverb, "whenever you point the finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back you," -- they all knew that one already very well.

They were so wise. I was moved and touched to be among them. It was clear to me how much they have learned from the hard work they have done – because one walk through the labyrinth will not teach such lessons except to those who have done much to prepare themselves to think and see and understand that way.

We all have our addictions. Whenever and wherever an enjoyment – an enjoyment that you can relish if it comes, and move on, with unperturbed equanimity, if it doesn’t – turns into an attachment that you gotta have, and will be perturbed if you don’t get – then that’s where the addictive tendency has entered the picture.

What are your addictions? What is the Pharaoh that holds you in bondage in the land of Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before every one of us. As they say in the recovery community: You can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering: Recovering – never recovered. Freedom is never complete. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while.

One other lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together. Then take courage, friends. You are not alone.

Freedom, the Half-Won Blessing (Passover 1)

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom."

Passover begins at sundown on Monday April 18. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tuesday April 26. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive.

The first two days commemorate the 10th plague, when the mystery beyond naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover. At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

Celebrate, then, and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you are reading this blog, you probably are not enslaved in that full-scale way, and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free. Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom.

Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand midway between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. The unfinished work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.