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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on February 8, 2009

I AND THOU: A Buddhist Perspective

I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in the darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life. I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces in continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it. Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, then as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused. Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, it conversation with the element and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confront me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.


—Martin Buber

Many years ago I was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oakland, California. I know we sat in formal Zen meditation for several hours every day, except during the monthly retreats when we sat for ten or eleven hours each day; and that, if you’ve never tried it, is physically challenging, in fact it involves a certain consistent level of pain. However, I don’t recall much of the sitting, nor of the pain. Nor do I recall the liturgical life in any detail, nor the formal study, nor even the regular round of work. What I do recall, vividly, is how I was always hungry.

One evening I was eating a thin vegetable soup, feeling seriously sorry for myself. How in the world had I gotten myself into such a mess? Perhaps late that night I would simply pack my belongings, didn’t have too many of those to worry about, and slip away. Or, at least I could go to the nearest taqueria. And I knew of one just a few blocks away. A nice big beef burrito would certainly hit the spot.

Of course the practice was paying attention. Attending while sitting in meditation, yes, but also attending while working, while reading, while doing everything, including, of course, also, very much so, eating. So, reluctantly I drew myself back from that little reverie involving refried beans, sautéed vegetables, chopped spiced beef, pico de gallo and maybe just a hint of guacamole, and returned to my thin, thin soup.

I’d quickly eaten all the vegetables and all that was left was, have I said it, a very thin broth. Another wave of regret and sorrow washed over me. But again I returned to the moment, to attending to the meal, such as it was, in front of me. As I just looked, a cabbage leaf floated up to the surface. I was ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic.

Then something magical happened. As I just watched, I had this amazing sense of gratitude for that cabbage leaf. And I felt gratitude for my companions in this strange project to which I’d committed myself. Then I was aware of our neighbors in the city and of the city itself. I felt gratitude for them and the people of the state and the country and the globe.

I felt a sense of joy wash through the cosmos itself. And then there I was, just me looking at that cabbage leaf. There was only that cabbage leaf floating there in front of me. No stories about it, no stories about me. Just this. Nothing more. I slipped the cabbage leaf onto my spoon, raised it to my mouth and ate it.

Now, a brief comment on that anecdote. As a student of Zen and in a commentary on Martin Buber’s famous book I and Thou, the important part of that story is not the grand experience of gratitude. Although that was an important prelude. It set the stage. It allowed me to enter the moment. And, I’ve since learned such experiences frequently surround the numinous moments of our lives, like the frame surrounding a painting. The important thing was after the various feelings, feeling sorry for myself, feeling regret, feeling ecstasy, feeling gratitude for all the things of the world, and for the world itself; only after that did the really important thing happen. And that was just being present to the cabbage leaf, and allowing the moment, to be. I would add, what flows out of that experience is love. The whole enterprise we’re about as we pay attention, is love. And ultimately, that is what we’re exploring today.

Now, lets move forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I learned that Martin Buber was born today in 1878. I felt, well you bet, that I had to preach about him, specifically on his book I and Thou, which I read maybe a year or two after my time in that monastery. Almost the only thing I recalled from that book was the tree anecdote. It spoke directly to my experience of the cabbage leaf. And it made me feel there is something common and human in that encounter. As I reread the book this past week I’m not sure what else I might have gotten out of it at the time. I’m sure I would have been attracted to his aphoristic style, but also he could be amazingly oblique. Walter Kauffman his principal translator into English suggests a more than passing chance Buber wasn’t always precisely sure what he meant in some passages in that book even as he wrote them. And reading it today the relentless masculine by preference usage constantly jarred my inner ear, a sour note refraining in a powerful and beautiful song.

That said it really is an amazing document. In 1959 Kenneth Rexroth wrote an essay on Buber that I read in preparation for this sermon. Rexroth summed up “…Buber’s wonder and excitement at the discovery of love in a loveless world, his astonishment that there is another ‘out there,’ mount steadily to such a pitch that by the second half of the book no human object can contain the burden of awe and ecstasy.”

Rexroth laid out Buber’s main thesis and its problem. “Love is essentially a relationship – it and its parties are relative, contingent, (and) it is this which give its pathos.” Rexroth goes on to suggest “Love can be made the final value, or the most important one in the shifting of a flowing of contingency, but if too great a burden is placed on it, any vehicle must break down. The contingent collapses into the absolute. The wine overflows the vessel and shatters it and spills into the sea.” And since Buber in the last analysis is about God, Rexroth’s next observation is critical. He notes, “But the sea is not a person.”

As I recall that description of his encounter with a tree and of my little encounter with that bit of cabbage I find something deeply compelling in that point. This, for me, is the problem with Buber. Rexroth lays it out. “As a poem, I and Thou is very beautiful. But it is this metaphysical greed which removes it from the category of the highest art. There is amongst men no absolute need. The realization of this is what makes Homer and the Greek tragedians so much sounder a Bible than the Old or New Testaments. Love does not last forever, friends betray each other, beauty fades, the mighty stumble in blood and their cities burn.”

I actually disagree with Rexroth even as I disagree with Buber. Even as we don’t need to put a human face on the great mess of life, the whole of life, my experience of paying close attention isn’t about courage in the face of meaninglessness, either. I found in that encounter so many years ago, if not meaning in the sense of a narrative that explains it all, a powerful sense of reconciliation with the universe found in attending to a single moment, and specifically to one person or thing in that moment. Rexroth almost gets it, but in my opinion not quite.

I am profoundly moved by Buber’s insight into our interrelatedness, and how we can engage each other in two ways, instrumentally or intimately. I’m also very taken with his insight into communalism, into how much we rely upon each other in the here and now. There is much wisdom in this book. There is something powerful here. No doubt. The question is, do our experiences of intimacy with one another necessarily take us to some great being, capital “B” being as we find in Western religion, and which is the final part of his book? I don’t think this is necessarily so. And it doesn’t necessarily take us to some noble stand in the face of meaninglessness, as Rexroth seems to be suggesting. Today, I want to posit a third view.

While rummaging around the web I found another commentator on Buber’s book that put my experience into words. In his 2000 article “Non-I and Thou: Nishida, Buber, and the Moral Consequences of Self-actualization,” the Buddhist scholar James Hesig offers a challenging alternative to both Buber and Rexroth.

Personally I think the mistake Buber made was trying to posit some grand over arching thing that subsumes everything in its warm embrace. In fact I think there’s another way, more rigorous, and more useful for those of us trying to find our way through the hurt of this world and to find healing, purpose and direction as we live our lives. Buber was trying to describe love. And like all human beings, like you and me, in the wake of our deep experience of love, as we try to describe it, are inclined naturally to put a human face on it, to make this love Being, capital “B” Being.

Hesig’s essay compares Buber with some thinkers in the Kyoto School. That was a Japanese philosophical school, at least in a loose sense, of Western trained philosophers who were also for the most part practicing Buddhists, mostly Rinzai Zen, but also Pure Land. In recent years they’ve been dragged over the coals a bit because of their common interest in a concept of Japanese uniqueness, which philosophically supported Japanese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. But they were about a lot more than that.

Among their central figures is Kitaro Nishida. And Nishida introduces into the conversation that instead of some idea of Being at the center, the idea of an absolute nothingness at the core of it all. Influenced about equally by the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata and Western philosophical traditions, Nishida replaces Being at the center of things with nothingness.

Now this is not a nothing as in lack, but rather nothing as in the absolute contingency that Rexroth almost gets. While a philosophical category, this nothing is also meant to be something we actually experience, you and I. And the absolutely wondrous thing is how the experience of this nothingness is not despair or deadness. Rexroth and a host of others turn away too quickly. Rather this nothingness is lively. It is a flowing well bubbling with life giving waters. So, perhaps it’s natural for human beings to try and project a loving parent, a mother or a father upon this experience. And I have no problem with words like God, mother or father for naming it. But, if we too quickly give this experience a name, any name, we are in danger of losing the real gift.

For Nishida as for Buber we exist in a dynamic moment, you and I. We are created by events, which will shift in a moment and create something new. There is no special essence to this, but there are characteristics discovered in its very dynamism. And what is particularly important here is that it isn’t abstract, at least not ultimately. In fact it is about our experience, again, yours and mine, and what we actually are.

The dynamic at the heart of our very passingness seems to have three aspects. The first is a sort of active intuition. That is as we draw our attention to the moment we find it lively and nourishing. I can’t find any particular reason it should be so. But the good news is it does. It’s lively. And that’s the second point; in that liveliness it has power. And because this moment has power, the motion itself is creative. Here we find everything past and future coalesced into the moment. And third, somehow, every individual experience is now an individual experience, now the universe itself revealed. Sometimes two, sometimes one, sometimes zero.

One way this has been described is how when I entered the great way mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. As I moved more deeply, mountains ceased to be mountains, and rivers ceased to be rivers. Now, mature on the path, I see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Or, that the way is realized when self and other both fall away. Or, as Buber tells us at the beginning, before he gets confused by his own dreams and longing, “What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.”

Here we find an I Thou that is more a not-I Thou. I know that’s cute. But it really points to something joyful. This isn’t a classroom lecture rather it is a call to our lives. Here we let the cabbage leaves of our lives just be cabbage leaves and our lives - in an intimate encounter. In the most intimate encounter. And opening ourselves to what follows that.

If we really look at just that one thing, cabbage leaf, tree, another person, just this one, then, I suggest, we can move beyond the instrumental, we can move into an I Thou. But don’t stop there; the next step is looking even more closely. Just this, just this. One thing. Nothing more. Here we find the echoes of an ancient spiritual text which tells us that each thing and the absolute nothingness, absolute openness, absolute boundlessness are one thing. This is where we find love as an overflowing spring.

And within that is the secret to lives of joy, to lives committed to each other. If we attend to this just as it is, I suggest the universe will reveal itself, as it really is, an endless play of relationship, of possibility, of joy and hope.

There is nothing more. Nor need there be.

Amen.