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A meditation by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, Sept 18, 2011

The Practice of Presence Within Liberal Religion

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

—Eihei Dogen, Genjokoan

A while back there was a Zen story that made the rounds of the Buddhist blogosphere. Here’s a version. Once there was a famous Zen monastery on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in central New Hampshire. It was old and known for its traditional style of training, and while too harsh a place for most, those who really desired to get to the heart of the matter, eventually would find themselves there, for a season, or a year, sometimes a decade or two.

One such monk, let’s call him Jimmy, made his way there shortly after graduating college, burning with a desire to wake up, to find his true nature, to set his hurting heart at ease. He was quite thin and quite tall. Jimmy habitually stood slightly stooped probably because many of the doorways he had to pass through were in fact too low for him.

At the time of this story he’d been at the monastery for thirty years. The stubble on his head and face was beginning to show gray. He had gradually become part of the leadership and had been the master’s attendant for the previous decade. He’d sat in meditation long and hard, had mastered the traditional texts of the Buddha way, and could lead every position in the meditation hall. He’d even been cook for a year, although the less said about that, probably, is all for the best.

And along that way he’d had various insights, some even had creped into his heart and changed some of the ways he viewed the world. And, slowly, over the past couple of years he began to think perhaps it was time for him to strike out on his own and begin to teach.

Of course, in the Zen way, one doesn’t just decide to do such a thing on one’s own. You need formal sanction, Dharma transmission as it is called. So, he waited. But the master never brought the matter up. Finally, he decided to screw up his courage, and to go to her and ask right out for permission to teach.

The day he decided to formally ask that permission it was pouring rain. Think cats and dogs. Think somewhere between Nor’easter and hurricane. The master’s cottage was a walk away from the main building of the monastery where Jimmy had his room. The path was unpaved and would be muddy and even, perhaps, at this point a rushing stream; so at the vestibule he pulled on a pair of galoshes, and at the front entrance he picked up a large umbrella that had been donated to the monastery. It was bright red and was covered with cartoons from the New Yorker. Thus protected, he made his way out into the rain.

It was a good brisk walk up a hill. The rain was tossed about with the wind and his glasses were splattered as he walked. He’d been there uncounted times before, but he always felt his chest tighten, knowing Master Sally could sometimes see right through him. But, also he felt a wave of gratitude for her guidance and knew whatever happened he would continue to return to this monastery to sit with his old teacher for as long as she lived.

Under the small porch outside her door, he closed the umbrella, shook it out, leaned it against the wall, took off his galoshes and set them next to the umbrella, wiped his glasses, then knocked on the door.

“Come,” came the familiar voice.

He swallowed hard, and walked in. Master Sally was sitting at a small writing desk, a steaming cup of coffee at her left hand, a pen in her right. She looked up from what appeared to a card she was writing. “Yes, Jimmy?”

With only the slightest gesture of a bow he launched into the small speech he had prepared, recalling his practice history, his movement up the ladder of leadership, and concluded abruptly with the question, “Do you think I’m ready to go and teach on my own?”

She looked at him for what seemed like an hour, probably five or ten seconds. And she asked, “What side of your galoshes did you rest your umbrella?”

He had no answer. And she sent him back to sit some more. End of story.

The only problem with this story is that other than the setting, it has nothing to do with Zen. Not a thing. Improving one’s memory is a good thing. No doubt. But, the practice of Zen and in particular Zen meditation is all about presence, just being present, and not at all about recalling this or that.

That’s actually the problem with calling the discipline mindfulness. Now mindfulness is a term for a constellation of spiritual practices, mostly Buddhist, that are about being present; but, the term kind of implies you’re filling your mind with something. Mind. Full. Ness. But, Zen meditation is not about improving memory, or, lowering one’s blood pressure, or controlling one’s brain’s alpha waves, or, gaining anything at all. What is called mindfulness could just as easily be called forgetting, or even absent-mindedness, although then I’m sure the web would be filled with stories of Zen students proving their mastery by walking into telephone poles.

So, what? What does this anecdote and comment have to do with us as Unitarian Universalists, as religious liberals? Well, I think, quite a lot.

These are, in case you haven’t noticed, dreadful times. The ancient Chinese curse that one live in interesting times has come to us. We live in terrible interesting times. Given this fact, how do we fulfill our own personal needs? How best to care for our children and each other? How to engage the burning concerns of what to do within our larger society where inequalities, always a real problem, are now being enshrined as custom and law, as the way things are “supposed to be” with the poor getting poorer and more numerous, with a shrinking but vastly, even obscenely rich minority at the top, and in between a precarious, unsure, and shrinking middle class? Interesting times, indeed. And hanging behind all these burning questions, that other one: how to engage all this in some healthful and useful way?

Our faith is ultimately humanist, an unfortunate term in some ways, as well, as it can be thought to mean concerned only with our selves as human beings, when in fact it speaks to a simple naturalism; our faith, whatever else may be involved, and we are pretty wide on that, is always primarily concerned with how to manifest here and now in this, our shared world, as part of it all.

We will be addressing that call to act throughout the year, in many different ways. Today, I want to talk about how we prepare ourselves, how we find our moral compass, how we nurture and sustain ourselves for life in this rough and dangerous place we call home.

And, I want to suggest it is that discipline of presence, which gives us what we need. Now, it can be found through disciplines like Zen and Dzogchen, both offered here at this church, or Vipassana, also called Insight, which can be found in the area. There are other disciplines, as well. Lots of them. Paying attention is a natural human practice. But, the one I want to hold up for you today, to remind you about, and to encourage you to consider, is our homegrown spiritual practice often called within our Association small group ministry, and here at First Unitarian, chalice circles.

Now, there are any number of reasons one might take up with chalice circles. They’re a great way to have some social connections. We covenant with a small group of people, ideally about nine in all, to come together regularly. For some having grown-up company can be a great inducement to sign on. For others it just gets you out of the house. But like those other disciplines of presence where the side effects are sometimes the selling point, in Zen, for instance people talk about how it can lower the blood pressure; these social benefits in chalice circles are secondary.

There’s something else that happens when people gather together in chalice circles and commit to the discipline, trying to avoid making it simply a social club or a support group, even though those things sometimes happen as a part of the package, particularly in groups that continue for long periods of time.

And that is the power one finds in presence. There are several gifts given to us when we hold ourselves to the discipline. One, we begin to see ourselves ever more clearly, not that that is always a happy thing. It is, however, a necessary thing should we hope to be of use in this world and not to cause heedless harm. Know yourself was carved over the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Those words continue to be wise counsel for all of us. I can say holding ourselves to the practice of attending; we will come to know ourselves. No doubt.

But, wait, as they say, there’s more. If we continue on this path of paying attention we might be graced with small and large insights into how we are connected to each other and with the whole glorious mess of existence. These insights can come as a flash. They can creep up on us like a thief in the night and surprise us in the most unexpected moments. Of course, they may come to anyone under almost any circumstances. That old line about how the spirit rests where it will comes to mind. But, somehow these graces are most commonly found among those who pay attention, in a disciplined way. Such as our chalice circles.

This insight is the great moral compass. It shows us how we are once individuals precious and unique and at the very same time all members of the same family. With this body knowing our actions are almost always more useful and less harmful. As we find ourselves called to action, this can be critical. And, these are times that call for action.

So, how does this miracle come about?

In chalice circles the project is simple as pie, we commit to come together, and for a set period of time to discuss in a very structured way something. God, maybe. Love, perhaps. Our mothers, anger, children, school, work, the possible list is very long. We quickly discover that while it may be thought of as a conversation, with nine people, it is in fact mostly a practice of listening. In chalice circles, in small group ministry, the discipline of presence is found in how we listen.

One of my heroes on the great way is Eihei Dogen, he was a Buddhist monk who lived in Japan in the first half of the thirteenth century. In an essay he wrote called the genjokoan, about the mysteries of living life full, finding our way in our everyday life, he offered a pointer I find explains all of this, tells us just exactly how to engage the disciplines of presence, whatever sense we’re using to find that presence, silence or discussion, whatever.

To paraphrase only slightly, he told us “to study the great way is to study our selves. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by the ten thousand things.” Let’s unpack this just a little. The great way is the path of presence. In order to do this we need to let the focus shift, if only for moments at a time, from ourselves to another. So, in the chalice circle we’re invited to be, just for a moment, genuinely curious about each other’s view, and just a little less concerned with our own. If we forget ourselves, as it were, for half a moment, and listen, really listen to the others we are gathered with, well, master Dogen, that old monk tells us, that is awakening, awakening to our larger connections, to the world as our mother and everyone on it as our family.

Good advice, I think. A pointer to how this simple act of talking with each other becomes a powerful expression of what we genuinely are, one family on this globe circling our middling star out in a far corner of the Milky Way, itself, itself who knows, who knows…

Do this and when it comes to time to act, perhaps what we choose to do will be a blessing on this poor world.

A good thing in hard times, don’t you think?