A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 5, 2015
THE MIND OF EASTER, THE HEART OF EASTER
A Zen Buddhist Midrash
Today is Easter. The most holy of Christian holidays.
The Gospel of Mark is generally considered the oldest of the canonical gospels, the time-hallowed stories of Jesus and his ministry. The sixteenth chapter of Mark tells the story of Easter in its most unelaborated version.
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
That's it. Now, people don't like to let things hang quite like they do in this story, and so, somewhere along the line ten more verses are added on. They are largely what would be called "theological," that is they line out what this story is supposed to mean. As a bit of an aside I find it interesting it's at these added in parts we get things like handling serpents and drinking poison.
Me, I'm very taken with the actual unvarnished version. It looks a lot like something happened to the women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James in Mark, but therefore also of Jesus for those who aren't concerned that he would have siblings, and Salome. Something big happens. The tomb is empty. That could be explained easily enough. But, then who is the man in the white robe? And what does that line "he is risen" supposed to mean? What does it mean that he would be seen in Galilee? And, most of all there's that hanging ending. What about that trembling, and their silence, their amazement, and their fear? Talk about an invitation into the world of not knowing.
The Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer tells of attending an interfaith conference hosted at Gethsemane Abbey a Roman Catholic monastery in Kentucky, perhaps most famous as the writer, social justice activist, and mystic, Thomas Merton's monastery. Norman, a Buddhist who was raised Jewish, was surprised at the number and actually at the graphic quality of the crucifixes he saw everywhere in the monastery.
He wrote, "It seemed so sad to me. So I stood up in the conference and just asked everyone, "what are you thinking when you see these sad images." Many Christian monks spoke passionately to this point. Most of them said that they did see suffering in the crucifixes, but they also saw love, and they saw redemption, they saw freedom, and they saw joy. The cross wasn't just sad; it was much more than that, also."
Then Norman concluded in his reflection, "This, I suppose, is the theme of Easter." For me add in that empty tomb, that man making a strange assertion, and the women leaving trembling, and filled with amazement and fear, and I think Norman is pointing right. The whole pageant of Christianity plays out from this event. Now, as a Buddhist (of the liberal sort, by which I mean not inclined to the supernatural and finding reason a great light of human life) I also find in the Easter accounts, particularly Mark's a hint of something deep and true. Some great collection of the terribly sad, and something else, its that amazement as some profound not-knowing in the face of the mystery of our lives.
Jan and I moved my mother and her sister, my auntie in with us some twenty-three years ago. My mother died five years later. Auntie died yesterday. She is very much on my mind today. Her image or something about her arises with almost everything I think or do right now. And, she was a believer. She believed in Easter, not as a metaphor for something psychological, as profound as I find that can be, but as the simple factual truth. As she lay dying these past weeks, she knew she was in some very real sense going home, going to a risen Jesus who would embrace her with physical arms. And this marks what I'm saying today. It gives my rationalist, naturalistic heart caution, and it points beyond, to things I do believe are true, deepest true.
I believe that our human condition is characterized by hurt. Now, I don't find a lot of help in the damaged goods view of that hurt, as we get in the idea of original sin, except in so far as we have eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and with that dualistic mind have very much cast ourselves into a world filled with pain and desire, loss and longing. But, I also see that our human condition is at the same time always open to something else, to a great healing. In Buddhism it's called enlightenment, or, and I prefer the word, awakening. And, I believe I also see that sense of awakening in the Easter story. In fact I believe Easter is the Christian story of awakening.
And, and this is important. Awakening is something more than a psychological perspective, although it's that, too. It points to a reality somewhere between the firing of synapses in our brains and the literal bricks of gold, many mansions my auntie so really believed in. Or, maybe a better way to say it, we're looking to a reality that is neither the sum reduction of our material reality, nor a place somewhere else. Let me introduce another story that might illuminate what this could be. It's a famous Zen koan collected in the early Twelfth century anthology, the Blue Cliff Record. It's the sixth story in the collection and it's all about awakening.
It's really short.
Yunmen asked his assembly, "I don't ask you about before the 15th of the month. Tell me something about after the 15th." No one spoke, so he responded himself, "Every day is a good day."
This isn't a complete non sequitur. The 15th is the time of the full moon, and is a common metaphor in East Asia for the moment of awakening. Also, it probably doesn't hurt to note that Yunmen lived in harsh, politically unstable times, where armies were on the march and famine and hunger and danger the common currency of the day, So it would be very hard to find the phrase "every day is a good day" as meaning "don't worry, be happy."
In some schools of the Zen tradition people who've been acknowledged as teachers, after a ceremony that takes place in private at midnight, the next day they're often expected to give a talk on this koan. Also, just a little on that word koan. Koan has entered popular use within our English language meaning a thorny problem, or, for those a little more familiar with it as a spiritual thing, often as a question that has no answer. Neither is what koan really means, at least within the context of its use as part of a spiritual discipline. In that primary sense a koan is a statement about reality, and an invitation into presence. A koan is a pointer to the real, the deepest real, and with that an invitation to come and stand in that place.
And this is most important. It is within presence we find our awakening, our waking up from the slumber of a life that has been distracted from the most important matters. We slumber with our apparently endless desires. We slumber with our anger and hatred. We slumber as we figure something out as true and defend, fiercely that idea of true, sometimes even to the death. Sometimes our own, too often someone else's.
Waking up is waking up from all this grasping at wanting and resenting and hating, and knowing for sure, into something else. And, and this is most important: this waking up is also our common human experience. It comes to us as Christians. It comes to us as Jews. It comes to us as Muslims, and as Hindus, and as Buddhists. It comes to us without any religion at all.
Did my auntie find this place? I don't know. She seemed a bit too sure of the literal reality. But, then, it's always seeing through a glass, darkly. This why a psychological definition isn't quite right, either. We're speaking of the great universal, the one, the open, the boundless. And we only ever come to this through the particular, or more specifically as the particular. So knowing the literal, or knowing the psychological, if we hold them with open hands, then we're moving toward that place.
One can find that place, this place, this moment, this perspective at any time and anywhere. Although some times and places are perhaps more conducive to our noticing. And, so, Easter. The Easter of those women. The Easter of auntie struggling for her last breath. The Easter for Jan and me and those long hours sitting at her bedside. The Easter of our friends coming and helping prepare her body, washing it, and dressing her in her Sunday go to meeting dress, and with a shawl closed with one of her favorite dragon broaches.
Easter as this moment, as this mind, as this heart, filled with all its sadness and all its glory. And with our fully opening ourselves to what is, with that complete disruption of what we thought was the way things are. And with that awakening into something new: mystery piled upon mystery. Wonder, and joy, and, yes, absolutely, fear. And back to that story. The Mary's and Salome experienced a terrible and wonderful moment; a complete disruption of what they thought was so. Where they, each of them, had an awakening, each in their own way, as themselves and no one else, finding the one awakening.
Everyday is a good day.
Nothing is missing in that day, on this Easter day. We wake up to the whole mess. And we find it really is a blessing.
With Easter we're being invited into a new place, a moment, a stance that can change how we live in this world. So, it can be about a sweet by and bye. I have no argument. I don't know. Or, perhaps it's about a new attitude in the face of life and death. I don't know.
What I find within that not knowing is something that allows both ideas, but is trapped my neither. Rather I find Easter is a response to the invitation is to not turn away from any part, the hurt, the agonies, the failures, but to open up, and to open up more, until even death is just a part of the mystery.
Find that, and then, the stories tell us, there is a new birth.
Like the mind of Easter. Like the heart of Easter.