|Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Fountain in New York's Central Park|
The essay below is one that I posted in 2012. It holds a "double treasure" for me. I originally wrote it to bring together several strands in my own search in order to highlight how the wisdom tradition can be found in our western culture. I was able to bring in some important information from a couple of my mentors in addition to more recent experiences that helped me to see our “western Zen” tradition.
As it happened, that original essay was printed in a local newsletter back in 2003 when Marcus Borg presented a series of lectures in Birmingham. I had never heard Marcus Borg before. As the lectures proceeded, I was impressed with the way that he brought deep personal meaning and spirituality to modern scholarship. During one of the breaks, I approached Mr. Borg to get him to autograph his book The Heart of Christianity.
He had evidently read the newsletter which provided the details of the lecture series that weekend, and which contained my essay. As he was signing the book, much to my surprise he said, "I really liked that article you wrote. I mean every aspect of it was so good." He had recognized me because my picture had been in the newsletter. He even commented on particular things I had noted in the article. I was amazed that he had taken time to read it and that he expressed genuine interest in what we were doing in our small corner of the world – and he wanted to encourage that. What an immense gift of encouragement Marcus Borg gave to me that day!
"Imagine there's no Heaven…"
~ John Lennon
I love Zen stories. Zen stories are wisdom stories that have a way of getting right to the heart of the matter. Often they show in simple ways how conventional ideology falls short. They have a beautiful way of dramatizing that certain things are true except when they are not. I call them Zen stories because they are usually from an Eastern religious tradition. Actually, we have a kind of Zen tradition in the West, but it has always been more peripheral or underground rather than mainstream.
Years ago, a professor of mine, Dr. William Hendricks, told us that Western civilization has inherited three views of reality: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He boiled down each of those views to a basic question. The Greek approach to reality is, "What does it look like?" (e.g., classical Greek sculptures). The Latin approach asks, "How does it work?" (e.g. Leonardo DaVinci). The Hebrew approach asks, "What is it for?" (e.g., the Hebrew prophets who advocated for a higher purpose). It is probably true that those three questions dominate our Western culture.
However it came to be, activity, acquisition, and development so dominate the West that there has been little room for a wisdom tradition. Perhaps that is why today many of us are hungry for those wisdom stories from the East. Even so, there is indeed a wisdom tradition in the West. It just takes a little more effort to find it since it has often been underground or even suppressed by the authorities in charge. That is why I am even more delighted when I discover an example of Western Zen.
One Sunday, I heard a Catholic priest relate an old legend* that I had never heard before. To me, it falls into that category of Western Zen. The legend has it that one day an angel was walking down the road carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Someone asked the angel what he was doing with those things.
"With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of Heaven," the angel said, "and with the bucket of water, I am going to put out the fires of Hell. Then we shall see who really loves God."
I love those stories that catch us off guard and show us so succinctly the nature of motive and reality. I appreciate Zen whenever I find it. I am particularly pleased when I find it within my own Western tradition. I think Paul Tillich must have known something of Zen. One of my mentors from my teaching days in Hong Kong, Dr. Paul Clasper, had been a student of Tillich. He told me that the professor would spend the whole term meticulously plotting out his systematic theology. At the end of the term, he would essentially destroy the whole notion that there can be a systematic theology. C. S. Lewis knew something of Zen when he wrote the novel, Till We Have Faces, where he demonstrated that our perceptions may not reflect reality.
Imagine no mansions in Heaven, no fires in Hell. Imagine no theology. Imagine seeing the world with new eyes. "You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." We have a treasure of wisdom tales and Zen stories to help us to understand that certain things are true except when they are not. Celebrate wisdom and greet your neighbor with awakened eyes.
[* I later learned that the story the priest told has been attributed to two different holy women: Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and the 8th century Muslim mystic, Rabi’ah. ]
Photo Credit: Alberto Manuel Urosa Toleda (Getty Images)