Sunday, June 6, 2010

Western Zen

"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 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. ]


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