Exploring Some Backroads of Spirituality

The other day  I was thinking of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  Here is the text:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

A quiet, supremely understated poem.  Not flashy, not teasing you with hidden meanings, no cryptic allusions, no brilliant maneuvers of language….. you could easily breeze by this poem thinking you “got the message,” not realizing the depths it is addressing in your own being.  I am not going to engage in a literary exercise explicating this or that aspect of the poem, but we will use it to explore some “backroads of spirituality.”

Two roads diverge in a wood…..a special moment in one’s life…a critical decision…..this yes, all of that, but these “two roads” are also present in every moment, in every thought, in every emotion.  And note:  the poem is remembering such a moment or a series of moments, a  kind of retrospective, because often it is only in looking back that we can properly discern such a moment or such a time. And it’s not the case of one road looking “bad” and the other one “good.” That would make it easy in a sense.  But both are attractive, and both are equally opaque about what the journey will be like.  But one road seems well-traveled and the other “less traveled,” implying more uncertainty taking that path, more questioning perhaps.  It’s obvious that Frost is first of all talking about his own vocation as a poet.  And choosing that road “has made all the difference.” This has to do not with anything external to him, not with any kind of rewards/successes/gains, etc.,  but with his very personhood.  In traditional religious language one might say “he is doing God’s work,” or “God made him to be a poet,” or something like that.  The trouble with that language is that the “road” then seems so external to one when in fact it is your very personhood, your real vocation so to say, who you really are.  The reason it is “less traveled” is that ONLY you can be on that road that IS you!  And the road that shows signs of much travel is the realm of roles.  Instead of being who we are meant to be we can try on all kinds of roles….like various fashions of clothes.  Instead of participating in the Divine Creativity that unfolds as  our life with all its mysterious twists and turns, all its mistakes and pain and celebrations, all its messy joys and sadness, instead of entering into the Divine Vision of it all….”and God saw that it was good,”…rather we are seduced into a chimera of various roles and looking into a mirror to see how we look…..  And the sad thing is that religion is as equally prone to this distortion as secular culture.  Religiosity is too often a role that someone takes on, one fits in a nice niche,  one is socially approved….etc.  And the ultimate problem, then, is that one never knows who  one is in a profound way; one only knows the role one has taken on and which is what others see and approve in one way or another.

Now we turn to another artist, and a very different milieu:  Billie Eilish.  You might wonder what a pop star has to contribute to a reflection on spirituality, but I am on one of those “backroads” here.  Billie is one mixed up young lady, but I like her very much.  Her songs mainly appeal to young people, especially young women; but at times she hits some striking universal notes (no pun intended!). 

 Recently she won a Grammy and an Oscar for a song which she co-wrote with her brother for the movie Barbie:  “What was I made for?” The producers of the movie came to Eilish and asked her to write what they called the “heart song” for Barbie.  This very popular movie, a kind of fantasy that has all the character of an allegory/parable pertaining to our basic humanity, but especially so for young women.  Barbie is of course the pop classic doll which millions of young girls grew up with.  She of course is made as a doll to sell and make money for her maker.  The movie has her coming to life, becoming human; and on one level it deals with the social and psychological problems young women encounter in our society, the kind of roles they are expected to play, etc.,(Barbie the doll seemed to be a kind of indoctrination of young girls into “girl roles”),  but on quite another level, almost unwittingly, it questions us all about our lives, what we see as the point of it all, the “why” of it all, asking us to shed the roles that we have taken on as a pseudo answer to that question, and to enter that road less traveled, our own humanity….  Here is a link to Billie’s performance of the song on TV on Saturday Night Live:


A more lovely rendition was given by her at the Oscar awards, but the lyrics got truncated for time purposes I suppose:


The title of the song made me think of my old Baltimore Catechism, the pre-Vatican II tool of religious instruction.  The whole thing flowed in question and answer format.  I still remember in 6th grade, in 1956, Sister Evangelista assigning questions and answers to be memorized.  Questions like: what is faith? what is hope?  And of course one of the early questions was something very much like “what am I made for?” though I forget (sorry, Sister) the exact words.  Now there is nothing wrong with this format as such or with the answers, but the problem is that both question and answer become merely a formula of words.  You don’t really grasp the meaning of this kind of question until that question “grasps” you, becomes your “heart song,”  and you kind of wrestle with it, and it is only then that you discover the “two roads” before you, and your answer will no longer be simply a formula of words…..and it will make all the difference.  The beauty and magic of Billie’s song is that practically inadvertently she picks up that question for Barbie and pushes it to a level where one senses the  question’s unfolding urgency and anguish when one is no  longer satisfied with just a “role” in life,  a set of clothes so to speak.  But the “road less traveled” takes one from the psychological games of identity and plunges one  into the mystery of one’s own being….which is pure gift.

In a completely different mode, coming from a totally different angle, there is then,  this interesting example:  just the other day Scottie Scheffler won the most prestigious golf tournament in the world, the Masters.  Scheffler is a devout evangelical Christian, and you might quite reasonably think the two facts are totally unconnected and really have nothing to do with our reflections above.  But look at this write-up  of Scheffler’s victory on CBS Sports:

“It struck me Sunday as the second nine unfurled and patrons hustled toward Amen Corner that Scheffler is different than his peers. He was walking upstream toward the 11th tee as the crowd rushed like water toward the green to see what he would do….  This is emblematic of how he lives. Scheffler, unlike most other golfers, is Very Not Online…..  Scheffler is guided by his Christian faith, about which he has become increasingly vocal…… About how he is not defined by his golf score or his success but rather his faith.

“While Scheffler is not devoted to his faith for the purpose of winning golf tournaments — quite the opposite, in fact — in listening to him speak about it, one would find it difficult for a golfer to have a better mindspace. He holds the line between ‘cares a lot’ and ‘identity not tethered to outcome’ perfectly.

This is not a state of mind he works hard on adopting like other golfers; it’s simply his belief system. It’s who he is.

“’I was sitting around with my buddies this morning, I was a bit overwhelmed,’ Scheffler said Sunday evening. ‘I told them, ‘I wish I didn’t want to win as badly  as I do.’ I think it would make the mornings easier.’

“’I love winning. I hate losing. I really do. And when you’re here in the biggest moments, when I’m sitting there with the lead on Sunday, I really, really want to win badly.  And my buddies told me this morning my victory was secure on the cross. And that’s a pretty special feeling to know that I’m secure for forever and it doesn’t matter if I win this tournament or lose this tournament. My identity is secure for forever.’

“The freedom Scheffler’s faith provides — allowing him to be secure in himself knowing all that’s required is doing the best he can any given week — is a trait professional golfers strive to achieve through myriad psychological tricks, coaches and techniques

“’I wish I could soak this in a little bit more. Maybe I will tonight when I get home. But at the end of the day, I think that’s what the human heart does. You always want more, and I think you have to fight those things and focus on what’s good.  Because, like I said, winning this golf tournament does not change my identity. My identity is secure, and I cannot emphasize that enough.’”

Now there’s a lot here.  Scheffler speaks of his “identity,” who he really is, what his life is about….  In good Evangelical fashion he sees it in connection with the reality of Christ, more specifically the Cross.  This can be taken superficially…just more words….just another costume one puts on…..or maybe a kind of emotional vitamin that props one up with energy for a while.  But here I  get the feeling that Scheffler is more than scratching the surface of this reality, though one should also acknowledge that there is a lot more depth here than what he experiences. 

 Scheffler’s expressed sentiments do have a kind of “Pauline flavor”!  St. Paul, in his Letters, so often tackles the problem of identity or on what basis does one actually live his life….and in a very personal way using himself as an example.  Being a Jew and a zealot, he has a breakthrough into an identity that transcends all such boundaries.  So he teaches and preaches that being Jewish or being Gentile is no longer “who you are.”  Nor does what you do ground your identity….this is one of the meanings of his polemic against “salvation through works.” That does not mean a denial of his historical situation; he readily admits his Jewish lineage; he does not deny his Roman citizenship; he does not ignore his leadership position within the communities; but what is most truly important for him is his new-found  identity “in Christ.”  And this is not something that anyone or anything can take away/change/destroy.  So, returning to Scheffler, you can see how those who, unlike Scheffler, build their identity in winning/achieving/accomplishing, in what they do, in “works,” well, that is a “house built on sand,” and so the anxiety, fear, insecurity, and all the psychological games they undertake to deal with this.  And if you think this is found only in secular life and not monastic life, for example, well, you would be mistaken.  A monk can mouth all the right words and sincerely believe in his own monastic identity, but it just might be another costume, albeit a  more “acceptable” one.  But something can come along and completely knock the stuffings out of that monastic identity….or at the very least seem like a real threat to what once appeared so “solid.” The nature of what one is about is then no longer “out there” as a “sure thing.” Maybe the monk arrives where the two roads diverge, or maybe even the monk might sing, “What am I made for?”  And the institutional setting is not always conducive to supporting such a moment or such a period  in one’s life.

One last thought:  There is an interesting parallel to Scheffler’s stuff in Zen, especially Japanese Zen.  The Zen archer  hits the bullseye, and the Zen craftsman creates a beautiful result in his work…..not because they “tried” very diligently, not because they “wanted it” more, but precisely   because there was no more “I” achieving something in order to validate itself.  There is no anxiety or expectation that what they do grounds their “I”.

But really the people who have gone the deepest in this kind of dynamic and who seem to understand it best are our friends, the Sufis.  More about this another time.


Just Another Poor Translation

We are getting close to Ash Wednesday, one of my most favorite days….and then there’s Lent!  Who could ask for more?  And this year Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14….coinciding with Valentine’s Day.  Kind of a jarring combo there, but I’m sure there will be some who will manage to pull off a double celebration.  I won’t be doing that here.

Ash Wednesday has several layers of meaning, and even as a youngster I was intrigued by the significance of this feast.  Even then I surmised that “giving up” something “for Lent” was at best a symbolic gesture.  But when the priest called me “dust” as he put ashes on  my childhood forehead, this sent a chill down my spine…not of fear or dread or anything like that, rather a sense of something very deep yet very personal being said to me.  Since I have been writing these reflections I have on several occasions pondered the challenging mystery of Ash Wednesday.  So I will once more throw out some thoughts, some old, some new, as this feast and this season never ceases to intrigue  and amaze me.

  1. “Folly Chasing Death around the Broken Pillar of Life”  I wrote about this a while back…it is the theme of a float that appears in the great Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans just before Ash Wednesday.  The history of this float goes way back to the 19th century.  It’s a fascinating symbolic portrayal of what Ash Wednesday and Lent are suppose to cure (though it’s not always seen that way).  It is a depiction of what my ancient Chinese  friends called “boiling red dust.”  It is that constant activity, whether internal or external, to fortify and enhance the ego self, the built- in futility and delusion of all activity that is centered on self. self-interest, self affirmation.  It is also what our Buddhist friends diagnose as “suffering”(and we could learn a lot from them about all this), pushing that “rock” up that hill of life.  So, so much of social activity (even “religious”)  seems to be just that.  In this we encounter  the core delusion of existence.  So…Ash Wednesday/Lent is suppose to bring us face to face with this core delusion of our existence.
  1. Traditional Biblical religion was aware of this problem, and we see it portrayed in the Bible in various allegorical and symbolic ways….like the “Tower of Babel” story for example.  The Bible also proposes a “cure” and calls for a “change” in perspective which it names “repentance” and “conversion,” and this has certain symbolic gestures.  In Job 42:6, at the end of his confession, Job repents in sackcloth and ashes. And in the city of Nineveh, after Jonah preaches conversion and repentance, all the people proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth, and even the king covers himself with sackcloth and sits in ashes, as told in Jonah 3:5–6.  These kinds of things are all over the Bible.   The gestures seem odd at first; they seem depressing to some people, just a lot of negativity.  Certainly serious, perhaps somber, and sometimes even morose….our modern culture is not at home with this language of conversion and repentance…too filled with negativity.  A certain kind of negation is definitely an important part of Lent, but it must symbolically address the core problem:  what self centeredness and self-interest are really all about; and, more critically, point to a new awareness from which new actions, new life, a new sense of self will flow.  An illuminating comparison can be made with the Buddhist notion of “Right View,” the first on the “Noble Eightfold Path.”  On Ash Wednesday and Lent we are really invited to fundamentally change our understanding of what  is Real and what is unreal!
  1. Abhishiktananda summarized the essence of the spiritual life in this manner:  

“The essential task is the surrender of the peripheral ego to the interior mystery.”

Now it may not look like it, but Ash Wednesday and this incredible statement are both pointing to the same thing.  The “peripheral ego” is as insubstantial as dust, but it claims everything we do, everything we perceive, everything we think …so all becomes a kind of “folly”….recall the  opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes.   To “de-center” from this psychological mirage is at the heart of what we call “conversion.”  And the call to “repentance” is an opening and an invitation to a much deeper and very different sense of self…sometimes called “no-self.”  There is no other liberation from this “folly” which ultimately ends in futility, despair, death.  To help us understand this we can do no better than call on our Sufi friends, who have a profound and amazing grasp of the issue.

  1. From Rumi:

“Knock, And He’ll open the door
Vanish, And He’ll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He’ll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything.”

The whole Sufi program in a nutshell! 

For the Sufis, Abhishiktananda’s  “peripheral ego” is called the “nafs, and“surrender” is called “fana,” which translates best as “extinction” or “annihilation”…ouch!….sure sounds like a term that can scare someone!   But it’s not like one comes down with a sledge hammer on  one’s psychological “I,” a kind of suppression  No, nothing like that at all….rather more like realizing the “right view” of this “I.”  It is a deep existential realization that this “I” that claims center stage is as insubstantial as dust, a real nothingness as it were.  But from the Sufi standpoint the main problem with this “I,” the nafs, is that it stands in opposition to God.  Here “I” am; there is God….it makes an “otherness” of God that is never really bridgeable.  

Only the word “I” divides me from God.
Yunus Emre

But the Sufis know that this “separation” is a kind of mirage; there is a much deeper sense of “I” which is both you and not-you at the same time; it is the mystery of mysteries, the inner sanctum of what is most real, the place where God’s “I” and your “I” are one….the most incomprehensible and inexpressible reality.  Someone like Meister Eckhart pointed to this mystery in his own way:  “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”  And recall some Pauline statements (which sometimes become religious platitudes) like:  There is NOTHING that can come between you and the love of God for you in Christ.

And I cherish this from al-Hallaj:

“I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart
I asked, ‘Who are You?’
He replied, ‘You’”

There is also the Islamic notion of the “faqir,” sometimes written in English as “fakir,” and usually translated as “the poor one.”  Among the Sufis this was a very important reality, and it had much more to do with interior poverty than with material things…but those also.  You might say that the poverty of the faqir is a poverty of “I-ness.”  If this is not at the heart of all Lenten “giving up” of this or that, then that gesture becomes a religious façade and even worse, an enhancement of that peripheral ego.  In any case, we do have an example of an “ultimate faqir”:  al-Hallaj.

  1. Mansur Al-Hallaj.  The most remarkable Sufi in all of history, and the one who leaves you in absolute silence when you meet him.  For a good part of his life he lived in Baghdad in the 9th century.  And what was peculiar for him he preached openly and in the streets and markets of Baghdad his mystical spirituality of oneness with God….stuff that was suppose to be discreetly talked about in small, almost secret groups.  Also, he had a deep regard for Jesus (true for Islam as a whole) and a most intense longing to be like him even to the point of being crucified.  Well, as they say, be careful  what you wish for….this is exactly what happened to him.  The authorities in Baghdad arrested him for preaching heresy openly to the public…as in the quote above.  (Eerie the similarity with Jesus!)  He was jailed for a long time, would not recant, and finally they crucified him(the details of all this are not clear but the top scholar on his life puts it like this).  On the cross he proclaimed, “Anā al-ḥaqq,” “I am the Truth,” meaning “I am God,”(al-Haqq can be translated either as “Truth,” or as “Reality”…. as al-Haqq was/is one of the most sacred names for God in the fascinating Islamic theology of God’s Names. )  And you can see the implications of this word in all its translations.  This so outraged the authorities that they dismembered him, burnt the remains, and scattered his ashes in the Tigris River.

Mansur Al-Hallaj was not a raving madman.  In his ecstatic proclamation he was bearing witness to the “annihilation” of that superficial “I,” becoming the ultimate faqir….all that was left of him was the Divine Reality in al-Hallaj….”God’s I” manifest as his “I”.  This is at the heart of all Sufi teaching.  A Sufi saying:  You are not you when you are you but (you are you) when God is you!  

A Christian example of a true faqir:  St. Francis of Assisi.  Think of his stigmata.  Whether legendry or historical, the story of the stigmata is not some religious sideshow or spurious validation of his life(as presented in some other cases).  Rather think of this story in the light of al-Hallaj.  Also, there is that remarkable parable Francis tells his disciple:  “What is Perfect Joy?”  You can only misunderstand this parable as a call to a masochistic life if you don’t see it as a witness to the total faqir ideal of the Sufis.

  1. In the spirit of Mansur al-Hallaj recall St. Paul’s radical statement:  “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.”  That “not I” is what Lent is all about.  That “not I” is a negation, yes, but what it negates is as insubstantial as dust yet it seems like your very being.  That “not I” opens you to your liberation from the shackles and limitations of your ego identity.  
  1. If you’re wondering about the title of this reflection, maybe this Sufi saying will help:

“God’s language is silence; all else is a poor translation.”

Happy Lent!

Han Shan, Poet, Buddhist Fool, Hermit, Spiritual Guide, Good Friend

Han Shan, otherwise in translation known as Cold Mountain, lived around 700/800 CE in the late Tang Period, China’s real “Golden Age.”  I feel very close to this person; he has been a kind of spiritual guide for me for many years.  Granted this might seem strange…after all he is so far away in time and space!  And you couldn’t have a greater difference than the one between our cultural setting and his.  But I am reminded of what T. S. Eliot once said when he was criticized for seemingly ignoring his contemporaries in his poetic work.  He asked:  “Who are my contemporaries?  My contemporaries are the people who have the same questions I have!” You kind of get the idea!  In any case, let me go into this a bit more.

By the way, there is a decent write-up of Han Shan in an online encyclopedia at this link with some translations by Burton Watson:


Han Shan, the poet.  Best place to start because frankly it is the only place you can meet him:  his poetry.  He has written no books, no treatises, no essays; he has no “teaching,” he pushes no doctrine; he has no “spiritual methods” to pass on.  Right away I like the guy!  But if you think this makes him a vacuous purveyor of spiritual fluff, you would be very wrong.  For several decades that he lived as a vagabond hermit he wrote scattered poems; it was other folk who collected them up in time and published them.  Even today he is an  iconic figure in Chinese lore.  And this brings us to a key problem for us:  he wrote of course in Chinese!  If his writing were expository of some kind, a reasonable translation would capture most of the meaning.  But we are talking about  poetry, ancient Chinese poetry, one of the most subtle art of all arts.  Han Shan is difficult even for modern Chinese!  The subtle allusions, the double and triple meanings of a word, the quiet symbolism that can slip right by you, all this and more prove to be quite a challenge to the modern Chinese speaker whose language now is a flattened  out modern conveyer of information….like all the other modern languages.  So you can imagine what a translation does to Han Shan!  You’re probably getting about 40 to 50 percent of what is in the poem at best, but for some of us even that little is enough to enchant us.  I readily admit, though, that Han Shan is not everybody’s cup of tea.  And in translation he can seem at times very bland and pedestrian….but like in the case of the proverbial iceberg you are then seeing only the “tip.”  Fortunately for those of us whose only access to Han Shan is in translation, we  have quite a few good ones to help us.  

Back in mid-century there was Arthus Waley, then Burton Watson, Gary Snyder, Red Pine, and most recently the team of Peter Levitt and Kazuaki Tanahashi, and then a number of others.  This team and Red Pine translated the whole Han Shan canon; the others only a small portion of the poems. 

 I first met Han Shan through the poetry of Gary Snyder.  I was interested in the literature of the Beat Movement of the mid ‘50s, and I picked up an anthology of Beat writings when I was a freshman in college.  Gary Snyder, who did not strictly belong to this movement, was included in the anthology.  He was a poet, and at times hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Kerouac, so he was in!   More importantly, Snyder was a serious student of Chinese at  UC Berkeley and for a seminar project he translated about 20 of Han Shan’s poems, and the anthology picked up some of these translations.  To these folks Han Shan seemed like a Beat figure of the late Tang!  In any case I was immediately taken by the poetry of Han Shan.  Having read a lot of poetry,  even at that age I recognized that this was a beautiful work of translation (and I still regard his translations as the best…too bad there’s so few of them), and my own spiritual quest was deeply attracted to this ancient figure. 

There is very little we know for sure about the historical life of Han Shan.  Needless to say the scholars are all over the place trying to determine “facts” about his life and “facts” about his poetry.   We won’t go into all that.  To be sure we can glean a little bit about him from his own poetry.   He seems to have been born into a well-to-do ambience; then well educated and earning some kind of position in the current ruling government.  Also he got married.  However, in the tensions and the turmoil and strife of the late Tang, at a certain point he had to run for his life (Red Pine surmises).  His wife seems to have died, and around the age of 30 he becomes a vagabond hermit.  A small chunk of his poems are about his life in society, but even there you can see the orientation to a spiritual quest.  The majority of his poems, however, were written in Tientai, the mountain range where the mountain called “Cold Mountain” was located.

Here is Han Shan in his own words, summarizing his life’s journey:

In my first thirty years of life

I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.

Walked by rivers through deep green grass,

Entered cities of boiling red dust.

Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;

Read books and wrote poems on history.

Today I am back at Cold Mountain:

I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.

(trans. By Gary Snyder)

Some notes:

  1. Note the implied restlessness of his young life, constantly looking for something,  both inner and outer, neither civilization nor the natural world bring him peace.


  1. “drugs”….an allusion to the pop religion of his time,  pop Taoism which was already prevalent….the profound mysticism of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi transformed into a magical search for elixirs of immortality.  Then, an allusion to the Confucian training that he got in becoming an official of the government.
  1. “Cold Mountain”……MOST IMPORTANT….”Han Shan” translated into English is “Cold Mountain”…..so the line can read:  “Today I’ve come home to Han Shan.”  There is layer upon layer of meaning here.  In ALL his poems, the words “Cold Mountain” always have at least three meanings: 1. The person of Han Shan; it was not his original name, but it’s the name he took upon himself when he became a hermit; 2. The geographical location, this mountain where he lived as a hermit; 3. And his state of heart, his mind, his level of awareness….and this of course is the key.  It reminds one of that notion in Cistercian spirituality, one begins one’s journey in the land of “unlikeness,” alienated from one’s true self, and one journeys to the land of “likeness,” where one is “in the image of God.”  In other words, a profound return to who you really are.  Similar dynamic in Buddhism….always really a kind of “return.”  
  1. Note now a different relationship to nature.

Now look at this poem (also trans. By Snyder):

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart’s not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You’d get it and be right here.

Such beautiful economy of expression….physical geography and “spiritual geography” blending into one.

Han Shan, the Buddhist fool.  Several things to say here.  This is one of the most remarkable aspects of Han Shan’s life:  his total severance from any institutional ties.  He is not a “monk” belonging to a monastery.  He could have easily joined a  monastery (either Buddhist or Taoist), which then as now would have been the usual thing to do.  In fact, there was then (and still there today) a monastery a few miles from his mountain.  Sometimes he would go there begging for food, and he befriended a ragged worker in the kitchen (Shi te or Shide) who would help him out.  So, like the Christian Desert Fathers, when he “left the world” he set out on his own, no map….really not even a religious one.  Many regard him as Buddhist, and he shows signs that he was well-versed in Buddhist thought; but he also blends in a lot of the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi.  The fact is that “officially” he is not anything!  And at times he seems to enjoy poking fun at the official members of both religions.  You really can’t nail him down to some category of belonging.

And then there is his physical appearance!  There also he meets all criteria for a “fool”!   Han Shan in his own words!

People hereabouts call me
“The crazy hermit of Cold Mountain.”
They say: “His face is butt-ugly,”
“His rags smell of mange,”
“Everything he utters is jabberwocky,”
“Anything we say dumbs his ears!”
What do I reply?
“Climb Cold Mountain and sit with me awhile

(trans. by Stanton Hager)

And this poem:

Men who see the Master

Of Cold Mountain, say he’s mad.

A nothing face,

Body clothed in rags.

Who dare say what he says?

When he speaks we can’t understand.

Just one word to you who pass –

Take the trail to Cold Mountain!

(trans. by A. S. Kline)

Han Shan, the hermit.  What can you say?  The hermit life, in whatever tradition and in whatever era, basically defies articulation.  The less words, the better.  The hermit’s natural home is a deep silence and an unspeakable simplicity.  Or as Merton once put it in the Japanese edition of Thoughts in Solitude:

“This book says nothing that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.  Its pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and the forests.  But what can the wind say when there is no hearer?  There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer.”

To begin to understand Han Shan you have to approach him in that mindset.  If your notion of the hermit life is filled with a lot of formalities, a lot of “religious” sentiments, a lot of “specialness,”  then you will miss Han Shan by the width of the universe!

And here he is once more in his own words telling you about his hermit life:

I divined and chose a distant place to dwell-
T’ien-t’ai: what more is there to say?
Monkeys cry where valley mists are cold;
My grass gate blends with the color of the crags.
I pick leaves to thatch a hut among the pines,
Scoop out a pond and lead a runnel from the spring.
By now I am used to doing without the world.
Picking ferns, I pass the years that are left.

(trans.by Burton Watson)

 Han Shan does not romanticize the hermit life, nor does he minimize its hardness:

The trail to Cold Mountain is faint
the banks of Cold Stream are a jungle
birds constantly chatter away
I hear no sound of people
gusts of wind lash my face
flurries of snow bury my body
day after day no sun
year after year no spring

(trans. by Burton Watson)

Han Shan, the spiritual guide.  This is most interesting and probably not many would agree with this title for him.  He seems to be lacking  in all the credentials you need for this position! I mean he is not like Milarepa, an awesome figure of amazing powers; he is not like one of the Desert Fathers who practiced great austerity.  He has no “program” for “spiritual realization”; he is not a proponent of any teaching.  And certainly he is not like a modern spiritual director who makes a living teaching spirituality.  So, it seems like there’s nothing there!

And unlike spiritual teachers of legend, Han Shan admits to feelings of sadness and loss (not unlike Jesus!)….he comes across as a fragile, vulnerable human being, who has journeyed through his own tangled humanity into the depths of his own heart and mind.  What he finds there is only hinted at; what is beyond words is also beyond poetry!

But frankly I think this whole thing about spiritual guides is overblown and over rated.  Some people are always looking for that “special” person, and God knows what that “specialness” is all about!  But in any given situation your true spiritual guide may be your neighbor, your spouse, your teacher, your co-worker, etc.  All you need is “attention.”  Simone Weil made attention the key to the whole spiritual life.  From a Christian perspective, God always provides the “spiritual guide” that we need in all circumstances.  We can begin the real journey by paying attention in that deepest sense.  And really it is to this that Han Shan invites us in all his poetry.  There is a “path” that Han Shan has taken, certainly not an easy, magical, powerful way; there is no program, no formula for this path.  And like a good, humble spiritual guide Han Shan is inviting you in so many ways to your own path that passes right through your own personhood, into the depths of your mind and heart.  At a certain point the Path and the person become one.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

(trans. by Snyder)

Han Shan, good friend.

Question:  Why do you consider Han Shan a good friend?

Answer:  See all of the above!

Christmas Without the Eggnog

A little Christmas reflection here.  Lots of good ones out there; one of my favorites from long ago was Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  It is not the sentimental story that many  have made it out to be.  But my all time favorite and, in my opinion, the best Christmas reflection of all time is Merton’s essay in a little known book, Raids on the Unspeakable:  “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.” Merton lifts the meaning of Christmas  from a kind of mushy “never, neverland” setting where people decorate trees, drink eggnog and buy gifts, etc.  Lots of temporary good feeling with a slight reference to some vague religious sentiments.  But Merton also lifts the meaning of Christmas from theological objectification where Christmas is an event “out there” long time ago, and then you try to draw various meanings from it.  Meister  Eckhart in the 14th Century already said that it matters little to worship Christ being born in Bethlehem if Christ is not born in your heart.

Merton’s reflection turns on one phrase in the Nativity narrative:  “There was no room for them in the inn.”  And In a stroke of genius he melds the Advent theme with the Nativity narrative.  

Here is a beginning excerpt  from that essay:

“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end.  The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quality, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration.

The primordial blessing, “increase and multiply,” has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror.  We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.

As the end approaches, there is no room for nature.  The cities crowd it off the face of the Earth.  As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet.  There is no room for solitude.  There is no room for thought.  There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.”

And then Merton turns sharply and more explicitly to the Nativity narrative itself:

“Is this pessimism?  Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody really feels?  Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer?  Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better every day, because the time of the end is also – for some at any rate – the time of great prosperity?  

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination.  They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the voice to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.

For those who are stubborn enough, devoted enough to power, there remains this last apocalyptic myth of machinery propagating its own kind in the eschatological wilderness of space – while on Earth, the bombs make room!

But the others: they remain imprisoned in other hopes, and in more pedestrian despairs, despairs and hopes which are held down to Earth, down to street level, and to the pavement only: desire to be at least half-human, to taste a little human joy, to do a fairly decent job of productive work, to come home to the family…desires for which there is no room.  It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.”

At the end of the essay Merton recalls us to the Joy of Christmas, the Joy which we sing of (“Joy to the world”),  which joy is not that as the world gives; the Great Joy which suffuses the Nativity scene is not the vacuous ephemeral joy proposed by the world, which in fact does not take away our pervasive anxiety, our frantic loneliness, our buried despair.    Rather, the Great Joy is the first taste of that unspeakable actuality which is beyond all our conceptions.  It will truly seem foolish to so many of us!

Merton wrote this reflection in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam nightmare and in the midst of the tensions and strife of the Civil Rights struggle.  A lot has changed since then, and yet spiritually speaking it is more pertinent than ever.  To borrow from Thoreau:  “Most men lead lives of quiet despair.”  Well, today it is anything but quiet!  And those of our contemporaries who wallow in excess make Merton’s remarks look very current.  Recently I saw these two news stories….at first I thought this must be Onion material, but no it is real!  The first one is about Sam Altman, one of the big names in AI. He has amassed about 100 million dollars worth of properties in Hawaii, Napa, San Francisco, and Big Sur, and here he is in his own words:

“Altman told the founders of the startup Shypmate that, ‘I prep for survival,’ and warned of either a ‘lethal synthetic virus,’ AI attacking humans, or nuclear war.

‘I try not to think about it too much,’ Altman told the founders in 2016. ‘But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.’”

Source: The New Yorker via Business Insider 

And then there is the well-known Mark Zuckerberg and you can read about his project in Hawaii with its enormous self-sufficient underground bunker and with multi mansions costing more than any other private dwelling ever:


And then there is this quote from Business Insider:

“LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman once told the New Yorker he estimates more than half of Silicon Valley billionaires have invested in some type of ‘apocalypse insurance,’ like an underground bunker.”

Now I am not going to dwell on these examples; they are just extreme symptoms of a whole culture poisoned by greed, paranoia, power, lust, etc.  It’s as bad as ancient Rome, just more high tech!  Interesting and paradoxical that the accumulation of great wealth leads to great fear and great insecurity….the opposite of what your average poor person thinks….!

In any case, what I really want to get to with these examples is to highlight an incredible contrast with the Nativity scene.  The vulnerability of the Holy Family in contrast to the “walls” and security these people need.  We will discover the Divine Presence only in our own   vulnerability, our own personal poverty, our own namelessness.  The Angel came THAT night not to the mansions and fortresses of that society, but to “outsiders,” the shepherds tending their flocks.  The Great Joy was announced not to the “makers & shakers” of society but to those who symbolically represent all whose only resource is the Divine Presence.

Some Notes

  1.   There is this story about the great master of Rinzai Zen, Hakuin, 17th century: 

A samurai came to Hakuin and said:

“I want to know about heaven and hell.  Do they really exist?” he asked.

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to drive away the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.

“And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.”

Indeed.  Amazing how in all the great spiritual traditions there is some variant of this:  the “Two Paths,”  “the Choice.”  In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh tells the People of Israel:  “I put before you Life and Death.  Choose.”  In the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the Gospels, it says:  There is a way that leads to Life, and a way that leads to death.  In the Upanishads we read of the call to move from the mode of unreality to Reality, from darkness to Light.   And so on.  Needless to say we are not talking about physical life or death but rather two radically different ways of being in the world, in history.  In a sense our very being is this crossroads where these two paths present themselves for our choice always and everywhere.

I write all this with the echoes of war and slaughter in the background.  In history it seems never to change.  One reason for that is that the “way of death,” “hell,” never appears to us for what it really is….   It comes to us as an apparent “good” or at least a “necessity.”  A way to stop the “bad”; a means to solve the “problem” facing us; something that will help us overcome what we fear, etc., etc.  

I am not talking just about our current situation.  In all places and all times we find our fellow human beings facing the same choice.,…and more often than not choosing “death.”   Consider what happened when a rouge group of radical fundamentalist  Islamic fanatics attacked the U.S. on 09/11.  Our reaction led to two major wars in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.  It looked more like a bloodlust for revenge rather than a seeking of justice.  Needless to say it did not solve any “problem.”  Amazing how this occurs continually throughout history.  I think of early colonial America, New England, 17th century, when the first British colonists were pushing onto  certain land where some Native Americans from a small tribe felt that was a serious act of trespass and a threat to them.  Several colonists were killed.  All the colonists banded together and massacred this tribe…no one was left.  I also think of early medieval France, where the Albigensians seemed like a threat to the Church.  The pope called upon some nobles to “solve the problem.”  The Albigensians got slaughtered, thousands of them.  Also, shortly later, St. Bernard, yes SAINT Bernard, called for the killing of the Islamic inhabitants of the Holy Land….to most of Europe they seemed like a real threat to Christianity….except to Francis of Assisi.   And lest anyone think that somehow primitive, indigenous people were less prone to such choosing, history would prove them wrong.  An example:  the Hopi tribe around 1700.  The Hopi have had a reputation as a “peaceful” group of people, and mostly that has been the case.  However, there are a few very dark moments.  Around 1700 the Hopi village of Awatovi was apparently wandering from its traditional religious beliefs, even flirting with Christianity.  The half dozen other villages were alarmed at this development.  The men got together and in one night massacred all the inhabitants of Awatovi, except for a few women and children.   The amazing thing was that these were their fellow tribesmen, their own kin, not some outside group threatening them.

So these are just some examples of THAT choice of path, life or death, heaven or hell, and here they are writ extra large and played out on the grand stage of history.  Here we are mostly “spectators,” troubled and bewildered by what we see.  However, that choice is also very much present in the nitty-gritty of our everyday life.  At times secretly and obscurely, at other times very obviously, we are always and everywhere present at that choice in all we do, say, think….  In a very real sense in all that we actually then become life or death, we become hell or heaven.  That’s what Hakuin was getting at.

  1. The vow of poverty.

I am thinking of the classic vow that Catholic monks and nuns profess (and some religious), and this is not to be confused with the economic condition that can be quite deleterious to people, both physically and mentally.  In fact even the vow, ancient as it is, can still be muddled, misrepresented, and totally distorted.  Lets ponder this one a bit.

First, a couple of funny stories: 

When I was studying theology in Berkeley back around 1982, I was once invited by a group of young Jesuit fellow students to go out for a festive meal.  It was quite a gourmet affair!  At the end I naively asked how were we paying for this, thinking we would all share in the cost.  One of the Jesuit’s held up a credit card and proclaimed:  “Our Lady of Visa!”

A few years earlier Dan Berrigan visited that Jesuit theologate for about several months.  Berrigan was a famous (in some circles infamous!) Jesuit:  poet, good friend of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, and a radical peace activist.  He believed in living in Catholic Worker simplicity.  After experiencing life at the Jesuit theologate for a while, he quipped:  “If this be poverty, bring on chastity!”  (Actually he was not far off on that one, but that’s another story!)


What the vow of poverty really means is not easy to grasp.  Our notions about it can be truly muddled in several different ways:

  1. Poverty is viewed in a sort of arithmetic mode—so if you have 10 things, then get rid of 4, you have increased  your observance of “poverty.”  This kind of approach comes from a mistaken imitation of iconic folks like Francis of Assisi and some of the Desert Fathers and also from some language in the Gospels.  The fact is that all these point to a much deeper sense of what this vow is all about, and which you can completely miss by a crude imitation.  Yes,  a kind of simplification of life is truly commendable and spiritually healthy, but it is not yet at the heart of this vow of poverty.
  1. Also commendable is the attempt to live in solidarity with the truly poor of the world.  A strong motivation for “poverty” but also not yet at the heart of it all.
  1. A common distortion of the vow of poverty takes place when the monk/religious claims “poverty” while relying expansively on the collective resources of the group….and the financial support of wealthy benefactors.  Now there is nothing wrong in monks holding out a begging bowl as it were.  It is an ancient tradition in many places.  There is an equally strong tradition where monks should be self-supporting through the labor of their hands.  In any case, the individual religious benefits from the collective wealth of the institution.  Needless to say this opens up a lot  of possibilities to distortions of all kinds.
  1. Another problem view of the vow of poverty…..what I call the “modern age approach.”  “We modern people have different needs and a different sensibility, so the vow of poverty will be expressed differently by us.”  Yes, there is a grain of truth in all this, but one problem is that poverty begins to mean whatever we want  it to mean.  At times this practice becomes a total joke and really a scandal .  

What is at the heart of the vow of poverty?  We can begin by saying that the vow initiates a kind of deconstruction of our identity through “ownership.”  “I am what  I own.”  Or, “I own, therefore I am.”  What I possess gives me a sense of my own reality…..such is the subtext of much of social life.    So the vow brings (or should bring) all this into question.  I mean, what a strange thing “ownership” really is, if you think about  it!  Look at those archetypal stories about the monk and the robber who has come to rob his cell….the monk running after the robber with some item that the robber somehow missed!  Those kind of stories hit at that central illusion of this ego self “owning” something.  And then think of that absurdity of “owning” land.  The earth we live upon is a shared reality.  Native Americans had no sense of individuals owning particular plots of land; the tribe as a whole looked upon an area of land as a hunting ground for the tribe.  This points to what Thich Nhat Hanh called “interbeing.”  The essence of our existence is interrelatedness; in a very real sense we live a shared reality, not as “owners” but as participants in that reality.  In my opinion Catholic theology and spirituality does not do a very good job of elucidating that vision.  The closest we get is the notion of “stewardship.”  We are called to be good “stewards,” etc., etc.  So the vow of poverty is a marker of sorts of our “interbeing,” but you see it has to be real.  And this is the hard part!  Because that may mean quite different things in different concrete contexts.  And, really, one can even use physical poverty to solidify one’s illusory notion of this ego self “not owning” anything.  In that case, the vow not only does not deconstruct this “owner ego,” but it in fact puts him/her on a pedestal to be admired….  The bottom line is that it takes real spiritual discernment (so, so hard to get) to see what is your path of poverty.

And if you want a glimpse of what ultimately the real “practice of poverty” teaches us, here is a quote from Merton that tells it all:

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

  1. A song:  “Suzanne”

Just like Jerry Garcia’s “Ripple,” this is a very special song….one of my big favorites.  It comes from pop culture, but it is sooooo  much more than that!  Written by Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, it has the multi layered textuality and the subtle symbolism of great poetry but with no pretense at all.  Here are the lyrics:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And then you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And then you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

On one level the poem seems to start out as an intriguing and warm portrayal of a man’s relationship with a mentally disabled woman.  But the poem very quickly jumbles all such expectations.  I wonder what the people from pop culture circles made of this song!  To begin to understand it’s multi layered symbolism, “you will have to travel blind.”  Some quick notes and hints:

Consider Suzanne not only as a real woman, but also as symbol/embodiment of Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom,  Sophia, Divine wisdom….in Jewish mysticism (Cohen is Jewish) and in late Russian theology God’s wisdom is feminine, Sophia, related to the Holy Spirit.  Do you see now that the sudden intrusion of Jesus is not so “intrusive”?  

Note the dark allusion to “your wisdom.”   Implied contrast to Suzanne’s “wisdom.”

The image of this mentally disabled girl as  icon/embodiment of Divine Wisdom is a rich paradox beyond words.   Connections to the “fool” tradition….another manifestation of Divine Wisdom….Suzanne as “fool.”

(Haunting echoes of Oedipus for whom wisdom and blindness are coterminous.)

But don’t forget the poem is also about a complex man/woman relationship.  

Recall also Merton falling in love with that nurse, which  inspired his beautiful meditation on Hagia Sophia.

And at this  link you will hear Cohen’s own rendition of this beautiful song with the lyrics showing:


Fools & Fools

A topic I have neglected for decades, but one which I was very fond of back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was in formal monastic life.  More specifically, I was intensely attracted to this phenomenon known as the “fool for Christ.”  This person is much better known in Eastern Christianity and understandable perhaps only within the cultural and religious matrix of that world than anywhere  or anytime in the West.  However, these days you could easily say that he/she is merely a “storybook presence” anywhere, if even that.  Given all that, there is something profound within that reality that challenges our common knowledge and ordinary vision of things.  So….lets reflect a bit on this fool….

The ”fool for Christ” is a specifically Christian version of a more universal type.  The “fool” as such makes his/her appearance in all places and in all times.  You usually don’t think of the Asian traditions as being any kind of bearers of this reality, but truly they are.  I won’t be examining the Asian version of the “fool” at this time, but here’s a few examples:  Zhuangzi  , one of the key figures of original Taoism, Han shan, poet and hermit of the late Tang….these are reasonably known….but there’s a couple of Zen masters  much less so.   There is Baisao in the 17th century, a Japanese Zen monk who left his monastery and the priesthood and peddled tea in the streets of Kyoto.  And then there is Daito Kokushi, an incredible Zen master who lived under a bridge in Kyoto for two decades….eventually even the Emperor became his apprentice and disciple.  And many more.  The Sufis in Islam also have a great tradition in this regard, but that  too deserves its own treatment.

What do we really mean when we say this person is a “fool” in the sense we intend?  The word is very ambiguous, and possibly naming very disparate phenomena and so having confusingly different meanings.  Trying to define our “fool” is not the way to go.  Instead we should approach this reality phenomenologically….just look at this kind of life as a lived experience and not  freeze labels on it.

Sticking to the West, lets begin in ancient Greece:  Diogenes the Cynic (a word with a different meaning in ancient Greek than in modern English…..Cynicism was a school of philosophy.)  Briefly, from Wikipedia:

“Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace. He used his simple lifestyle and behavior to criticize the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt, confused society. He had a reputation for sleeping and eating wherever he chose in a highly non-traditional fashion and took to toughening himself against nature. He declared himself a cosmopolitan and a citizen of the world rather than claiming allegiance to just one place.

… believing that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory….he became notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp during the day, claiming to be looking for a human being (often rendered in English as “looking for an honest man”). He criticized Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates, and sabotaged his lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. Diogenes was also noted for having mocked Alexader the Great, both in public and to his face when he visited Corinth in 336 BC. 

….while Diogenes was relaxing in the morning sunlight, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favor he might do for him. Diogenes replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Alexander then declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ To which Diogenes replied, ‘If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found the philosopher looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’”

Among other things this points to one very critical characteristic of the “fool” in our sense of the term: a clarity and boldness in truth-telling.  Now we need to face a certain conundrum.  Our “fool” may be mentally ill or simply pretending to be so.  In either case the truth-telling dynamic is present and is  key. Obviously not every mentally ill person has this gift; some simply suffer from this illness and find themselves  in a labyrinth  of darkness.  But our “fool” is so gifted and has a boldness and clarity within a certain range of experience.  However, it is often hard or impossible to tell which phenomenon we are witnessing!

The second example I want to bring forward is from literature:  the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear.  A truly remarkable figure!  He can easily be brushed aside as a certain type that was not uncommon in the courts of medieval Europe, a jester, a court entertainer, a comedian, a clown, etc.  But this Fool is all that and so, so much more.  Here I want to quote from a letter by Simone Weil.  This was written to her parents just a few weeks before her death at age 34.  This amazing woman, a true genius if there ever was one, a genuine mystic, had just seen Shakespeare’s play once more, and she was profoundly affected by this Fool.  Weil:

  “When I saw Lear here, I asked myself how it was possible that the unbearably tragic character of these fools had not been obvious long ago to everyone, including myself.  The tragedy is not the sentimental one it is sometimes thought to be; it is this:

There is a class of people in this world who have fallen into the lowest degree of humiliation, far below beggary, and who are deprived not only of all social consideration but also, in everybody’s opinion, of the specific human dignity, reason itself—and these are the only people who, in fact, are able to tell the truth. All the others lie.

In Lear it is striking. Even Kent and Cordelia attenuate, mitigate, soften, and veil the truth; and unless they are forced to choose between telling it and telling a downright lie, they maneuver  to evade it. What makes the tragedy extreme is the fact that because the fools possess no academic titles or episcopal dignities and because no one is aware that their sayings deserve the slightest attention—everybody being convinced a priori of the contrary, since they are fools—their expression of truth is not even listened to. Everybody, including Shakespeare’s readers and audiences … is unaware that what they say is true. And not satirically or humorously true, but simply the truth. Pure unadulterated truth—luminous, profound and essential.“

In the beginning of the play we see the valuing of justice, the social order, and the reality of kingship (which symbolizes and embodies the unity of the whole realm).  We also see the valuing of loyalty, filial devotion, and respect for old age.  But Lear is socially blind and totally lacking in self-knowledge.  Disaster begins with his choices and chaos unfolds as soon as Lear misreads the words and gestures of his three daughters, two of which have evil intentions seeking to dispossess their father and get rid of  him.  As the play unfolds Lear ends up seeing that justice, order, and kingship are just smooth terms that conceal  raw, brutal power; and as madness threatens his mind, paradoxically his self-knowledge grows, but all to no avail now.  All along the Fool has been at his side, whispering, singing, riddling the truth to him but also to no avail.  In one of the last scenes Lear is wandering alone on the heath (wilderness area of Old England…and a kind of anti-Garden of Eden), in a storm and in the darkness of night…..and only the Fool is his companion, never abandoning him.

(Here we might remember a more diluted version of this phenomenon in that fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  It is The Child, and only the child, who openly names the reality that is in front of everyone but not acknowledged for one reason or another:  “The Emperor has no clothes on….”)

And here we are getting close to our very special fool: the fool for Christ.  To get to the special Christian character of this fool, we  need to turn to the New Testament, specifically to Pauline language:

“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are honorable, but we are despised.”

“Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,….”

You cannot overstate how shocking and radical this language really is.  However, the basic Christian/Catholic in the pew (and this includes the monk in  his comfortable monastery) cannot really hear the original power of this language in our lives.  It has all been eroded away.  First, by the natural process of continual repetition that goes on and on in “proclamation” without first the words passing through the heart and disclosing a reality there for which we  have no words.  Secondly, and more importantly, the “message” has been softened and softened and softened….until there are only the words….and there is no life anymore in those words….in all our religious language in the midst of all the linguistic noise of our environment.  In the second half of the 20th century thoughtful people began to speak of the “Silence of God.”  

But lets get back to the historical, existential “fools,” both in western Christianity and in Eastern Orthodoxy.  We begin to find examples of this “foolishness” among the Desert Fathers, and the phenomenon appears through the centuries, though with remarkable variety.  Some exhibit eccentric, off-beat behavior; some feebleness of mind, either real or pretended; some take up radical poverty and homelessness; some hang out with thieves and prostitutes, etc.  If you go on the internet and consult Wikipedia on “foolishness for Christ,” you will find a host of examples.  What may be surprising is to see Francis of Assisi among the examples….he has been coopted and made to seem very “establishment” in modern times.  But if you think about it, he fits right in.  Certainly some of the other members of that primitive Franciscan movement truly belong.  However, what’s most interesting is what happens in Russia.  From medieval times to the 19th century there manifested a whole subculture of “fools for Christ,” the yurodivy.  The Russian Orthodox Church recognized this “foolishness” as a special and blessed way of life.  Even the autocratic Tsar recognized and respected “the fool.” And this figure appears in Russian art and literature.  There are at least 36 canonized “fools” in the Russian Church; among the most famous is a woman, St. Xenia of Petersburg.  

At this point it is important to remember two critical characteristics of this “foolishness for Christ.”  First, you can throw out the window all modern notions of vocation when considering this reality.  No one takes this life up at the end of a process of discernment; there is no “formation,” no novitiate, no identity problems (“what is our group’s charism?! What is our special place in the church?).  No, you are more likely hurled into this life; it is not a matter of choice.  Or one day you just wake up into this reality.  It was certainly not something you planned!  Or, most  likely, you don’t even recognize this reality as it unfolds in your life.  The “real thing” does not stand there, looking at itself in the mirror, saying, “Ok, now I am a Fool.”

Secondly, and more importantly, all the eccentricities of the Fool are merely, to borrow a Zen phrase, “a finger pointing at the moon” (the moon is a symbol of full enlightenment in Zen poetry).  The Fool is there in the service of an amazing inner reality, one which cannot be measured, cannot be controlled, cannot be encompassed, cannot even be conceived within the categories of our usual organized social and religious life.  Think again of that Pauline language.  It speaks of God’s wisdom as unspeakable foolishness of sorts.  Now there are two distinct traditions of reflection on Divine Wisdom.  There is the theological, contemplative “Hagia Sophia,” Holy Wisdom, the feminine side of the Divine Presence.   And a beautiful example of this can be found in Merton’s profound meditation with that precise title: “Hagia Sophia.”  Russian theology and literature have been deeply influenced by this tradition.  Then there is the other tradition of Divine Wisdom, the Pauline Divine Foolishness.  Lest we tame this term into a pious platitude, the historical Fool is there like a slap in  the face of our conventional, respectable religiosity.  

Now lets return to that universal, spiritual question: who am I?  Back to that mirror…you stand there and look at yourself…..you see yourself in a manner of speaking….you are somebody….there are all these credentials….some you were born into, some you acquired, some you saw as blessings, others as something else!  But remember this, you are  an expression of Divine Wisdom, and absolutely none of those credentials can indicate that.  And that Divine Wisdom is both Hagia Sophia and that Divine Foolishness which ultimately smashes that mirror you are constantly looking at.  It is then that the real spiritual life begins, and you find that you are never, never far from the “fool for Christ.”  In that “place” suffering and joy are intertwined, gain and loss have no meaning, and solitude and communion are simply the two  sides of the same Reality.


  1. Recently I saw this story on the online version of the New York Times.

How to Live a Happy Life, From a Leading Atheist

“I want people to see what a meaningful, happy life I’ve had with these beliefs,” says philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. “I don’t need mystery.”

I was certainly curious and eager to read this story which seems to be a kind of review of a new book by Daniel Dennett.  However, I needed to pay the New York Times for the privilege of reading it, and that I was not going to do.  But I  could still ponder these words just as they are.

Daniel Dennett is a well-known philosopher of science, very much admired by the bigwigs of Silicon Valley, a militant atheist, and a person whose writings I would generally avoid.  Here I am  intrigued by his  choice of words:  “meaningful,” “happy,” “need,” “mystery.”    The first two words are easy to dispose of.  Consider two iconic figures of the 20th century:  Hugh Hefner and Karl Rahner.  They were diametrical opposites in life.   The former espoused a philosophy of hedonism; the latter was a humble but brilliant Jesuit theologian.  But both could have said  they were living a “meaningful, happy life” within the context of their values and world view.  So these two words are rather vacuous until given a clear semantic context.

The next two words, “need” and “mystery,” are much more puzzling.  It does seem that his statement amounts to saying that “I don’t need the notion of God.”  Mystery = God.  Ok, understood, but I suspect that his understanding and use of the word “mystery” is of the common notion which would be applicable in science also.  Mystery here is a problem, enigma, riddle, puzzle; it’s something which baffles or perplexes. So, “mystery” simply means a certain lack of knowledge, which lack can or will be supplied sooner or later.  The reality in front of us is a mystery to us because of some current limitation to our knowledge, our understanding, our vision.  And this limitation can potentially be overcome at some future point when we apply more resources, etc.  Mystery is a provisional state; given enough time, enough resources, enough research, it will dissipate.  What seemed like a mystery in 1750 is now explained by science.  The murder of so-and-so remains a mystery until more evidence solves it.  Etc.  So I think Dennett relegates the notion of God to this level of mystery and he feels  he has “solved” that and it turns out he can live without it.

Now theology and authentic mysticism have a very different understanding of “mystery” as it applies to that  Ultimate Reality which we call God.  In the Catholic tradition we have the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and the modern Karl Rahner, all of whom have emphatically pointed to God’s absolute incomprehensibility, meaning this is not something due to OUR limitations in this life but that this is the very nature of God.  In Rahner’s language, God is the Holy Mystery which is infinite, inexpressible, absolutely incomprehensible; but which yet draws near to us personally in self-communication deep within our being, our personhood, and deep within history in the person of Jesus Christ.  This self-communication unfolds as Love, as forgiveness, as truth, as beauty, as absolute goodness.  And when we die this self-communication of God continues for all eternity as we never exhaust the divine fullness.  God’s infinite Love fills our hearts with an infinite capacity to receive the endless ecstasy of the Divine Life.  This is Catholic theology at its best as it opens the door to an authentic mysticism.

Returning to Prof. Dennett’s statement, the “mystery” that Christian thought and mysticism speak of is not something that you need…like some extraneous element “outside” you….like something that you can choose.  Yes, there is a profound choice to face, but this is not it.  This Mystery is like the air you breathe…it surrounds you…you live within it…and you encounter it in all you see, whether a tiny leaf falling from a tree, a far-off galaxy whirling with millions of stars, a tear on a sad face….  This Mystery is also the fabric of your deepest personhood; it is that into which you are invited to lose yourselves in order to be constituted as persons.  Human beings are essentially oriented to mystery.  So, no, I don’t “need” mystery also, as if I were lacking something; it is the “givenness” of my existence, of my life.

  1. Two very different visions of the “good life.”

Also something that I saw in the news recently: examples of some strikingly different choices in what one might call the “good life.”  The first is a seemingly harmless version of hedonism, what I would call “escapist hedonism,” a kind of beach bum life.  This was espoused in the  songs of Jimmy Buffett, musician, song writer, and super rich.  He recently died so he was in the news, and his songs peppered You Tube.  His top hit and a key to his “message” is “Margaritaville.”  A very catchy tune which you can hear and see the lyrics here:


Actually Buffett was very hard working at pushing and selling this beach bum vision of life and made millions.  It’s a daydream kind of life which really amounts to nothing, but amazingly hordes of fans bought into this daydream.

The next choice is also another variant of hedonism, what I would call “engaged hedonism”:  the Burning Man Phenomenon.   Every year just before Labor Day some 80,000 or so people gather on the playa of the Black Rock Desert 90 miles north of Reno, and set up a temporary encampment of sorts for a week of “activities.”  It is quite a phenomenon to say the least with people coming from all over the world.  This year it was a bit of a mess due to unexpected rain!  

It is actually difficult to say what this is all about, but they do emphasize words like “participation,” “engagement,” “spontaneity,” “creativity,” etc.  The fact that sex and drugs are part of the picture is simply assumed, no need to talk about it.  People from various walks of life come (the ones I’ve met were very nice), but mostly they are well-off and many are very rich…I’ve heard of talk of some bringing a chef….some tents had chandeliers and portable showers…..  Actually it costs several thousand dollars just to be there, so you better have money.  

There’s a pretense that this is some kind of alternative society.  People leave the “constraints” of their regular life and are given the space to “cut loose” for a week.  That makes you wonder what their regular experience of life is like, what’s it all about!  The whole week’s experience culminates on the final night when an effigy of a human being, a totem of sorts, is burned in a huge display of fire and fireworks.  Again, not sure what  this means; certainly this fire is not the fire of the Burning Bush, nor is it the fire in which heretics were burned, nor  is it a warm quiet camp fire.  It seems to represent human creativity, spontaneity, or something like that.  But it is all, more or less, ego self-expression; and all the distortions of the ego get projected out into the beauty and night of the desert….which by    the way the participants do not notice….such is the self-absorption.  It’s such an historical irony that in the past the desert was where the first monks went out….to transcend the ego and encounter God.

Here’s a brief You Tube video where you get to see a bit inside and meet some of the people:


And the next version of the “good life” ….”and now for something completely different”—to borrow from Monty Python!

Recently I saw a story on CNN about a family that hiked the three great trails of North America.  Mother and father are both doctors, and they have 5 children….and  all went!  First they  did the Appalachian Trail; the experience was so positive that nobody wanted to stop!  So next they did the Continental Trail in the Rockies; and  this year they did the incredible Pacific Crest Trail.  What a story!  They “homeschooled” their kids even out on the trail.  Looking at the photos of the family out in the wilderness, you can see the healthy faces of the kids; I mean healthy in a deep human way.  This experience will shape their  minds and hearts for life.  It opens up an awareness that no amount of money can buy.  And mom and dad sure do seem to have a good sense of what a “good life” entails.

Here is a link to that story:


And for a different take on Burning Man, try this from The Onion:


  1. A few easy steps!

I am not a fan of spiritual methods, Christian or Buddhist or whatever.  But this  set of instructions speaks to me!  It is an excerpt from a poem by my favorite modern poet, W. S. Merwin…..the poem is called “Exercise.”

First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

Reminds of a couple of old zen/tao masters….one said to forget the self…the other said he wanted to meet the sage who had forgotten words!

When everything is continuous again…..!

Poets, Philosophers, & Other Scoundrels

Ok, the title is facetious, but I do have a serious point to make.  

Nothing here will even remotely resemble some deep/systematic/comprehensive treatment.  I’m kind of playing with a few ideas  and kind of “pondering out loud.”

Lets begin in the spirit of Medieval thinkers, by defining some key terms:

By “poets” I really do mean all artists…but certain craftsmen of language are my primary focus.

By “philosophers” I mean all who try to explore and explain existence in a thoroughly rational way….so this would include scientists, who were called “natural philosophers” a few centuries ago.

By “scoundrels,” well, this one is difficult….borrowing a term from the previous reflection….these are folk who somehow get “paradise” wrong!  This needs some explanation.  First, a controversial claim:  all art and all philosophy takes place “outside the gates of paradise.”  Some of it, however, gives us a hint, a “scent” as it were, of “paradise.”  But most of it lives in the land of chatter and noise, of greed and ambition, of lust and violence, of self-inflation and self-promotion, of pseudo-knowledge and cleverness, etc., etc…..you know, this is what some call the “real world.”  True, a lot of this art and philosophy does do a good job of dissecting this mess, showing its many  layers and the many shades of unreality; but none of this is the same as having some kind of awareness of “paradise.”  

Then there are folk, “poets” and “philosophers,” who are very close to “paradise,” but somehow there is something askew in their vision, or you begin to feel there is something missing here, or even to put it in a seemingly contradictory way,  something is there blocking their path to “paradise.”  I am reminded of that scene from the Gospel, the rich  man comes to Jesus and expresses a desire to “follow him.”  Jesus tells him to drop that load of wealth he’s weighed down by….but, alas, he can’t do it.   And then there is the paradox that for all his wealth he is “lacking one thing”…the need to put it all down….  

In any case, these “poets” and “philosophers” are folk we can truly admire, respect, learn from, etc., but ultimately we will find ourselves disagreeing with them profoundly.  One of these, for me, has been Czeslaw Milosz.

(Milosz was good friends with Merton, and some of their correspondence was published.  It was  interesting to read that.)

Milosz was a giant of modern poetry, a Nobel Prize winner, a scholar and professor of Slavic literature at Berkeley, and a true intellectual.  I became acquainted with him when I studied theology, philosophy and classics at both a seminary and the university in Berkeley.  Needless to say it was none of the above that brought us together….it was the fact that I was Lithuanian and Milosz had this weakness for all things Lithuanian!  Although Polish, he was born in Lithuania and spent his childhood there, and he had a kind of romantic vision of old Lithuania.  He was a man of high culture, so who was I to argue with him!  So, when I told him I had lost my native language, Lithuanian, and he scowled in disapproval, I took my lumps and did not bother to offer a defense or explanation why I had absolutely no regrets of turning my back on that whole milieu.  

But all that is trivial.  I was deeply impressed by his poetry.  You can read a sample of it online at this site:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/czeslaw-milosz

I found it always engaging; at times beautifully insightful; but sometimes puzzling, even troubling.  Take a look at the poem  “Theodicy.”  This is a very important word in Milosz’s intellectual universe, so I will borrow an explanation of it from Wikipedia:

“In the the philosophy of religion, a theodicy, meaning ‘vindication of God’ in Greek, is an argument that attempts to resolve the problem of evil that arises when omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience are all simultaneously ascribed to God.  Unlike a defense, which merely tries to demonstrate that the coexistence of God and evil is logically possible, a theodicy additionally provides a framework wherein God’s existence is considered plausible. The German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though numerous attempts to resolve the problem of evil had previously been proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:

  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus. 

The problem of evil has also been analyzed by theologians and philosophers throughout the history of Islam.

A defense has been proposed by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, which is focused on showing the logical possibility of God’s existence. Plantinga’s version of the free-will defense argued that the coexistence of God and evil is not logically impossible, and that free will further explains the existence of evil without contradicting the existence of God. 

Milosz was a religious person, a practicing Catholic who at the same time was very uncomfortable with his Church.  In Berkeley we often found ourselves at  the same church for Mass, and each time I would see him seated in the very back row for the very early Mass (7am).  Each time the priest would utter some banality or evoke this “happy feel” Catholicism of post-Vatican II, I would wince, knowing he was back there in the shadows scowling!  He scorned the Church’s attempt to embrace modernity, the modern world; but you could not pin an easy label on his attitude and position.  He was even more critical of Catholic history, even more outraged at what it did to people….from its many sell-outs and allegiances with tyrants and dictators to the torture and massacre of countless human beings….like the massacre of thousands, women and children, Cathars and sympathetic Catholics alike, burning alive 200 of their spiritual leaders about the year 1200 in southern France….all to “preserve” the purity of the Catholic doctrine and their status as the “Big Dog” religion.  Milosz knew his stuff; if you were a “conservative” Catholic, you would not fare well arguing with him.  (Hate to think what he would have said about the “sexual predator clergy.”)  One of the things I deeply regret is not sharing with him how much I felt the same about the Church and its history.  I think he had me pegged as a “modern pretend monk” (and who’s to say he was wrong….after all WHAT was I doing in Berkeley?!), but he let that slide because I was Lithuanian!

One of the other deep regrets I have is that I did not have  the courage to challenge him on this “theodicy” issue, where I radically disagreed with him.  You can see that issue appearing in his poetry and in his essays….he wrestled with it all his life.  In this poem, “Theodicy,” he throws down the gauntlet with the opening lines:

“No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.

Desire will not save the morality of God.

If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,

And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,

Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,”

That age-old dilemma…how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow evil…even to coexist with it….?  Milosz was among those few who would not “let God off the hook.”  He had scorn for all those philosophers of religion and theologians who came up with all these various rational arguments that left one wondering if they had any sense of real evil, real suffering.  Sure, you could get some traction out of the “free will” argument….you know, God gives human beings freedom of choice…some choose extremely badly (Adam & Eve)….consequences…the presence of evil….  Milosz doesn’t think much of this argument, and neither do I.  But his focus is on the suffering, the evil inflicted on the innocent, not those who “have it coming.”  Here Milosz can be seen to be standing on a precipice, an abyss of sorts, where reality is structured on two equal principles: the Good (God), and Evil.  The former is purely spiritual; the latter is marked by matter.  Needless to say that makes the whole beautiful natural world very ambiguous, but it does provide an explanation of sorts.  I am not sure that he fully embraced such a view, but certainly two of his favorite people, Albert Camus and Simone Weil, more or less moved more in that direction…at least it seems that way if you read what he wrote about them.

Note these quotes from his essays:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is (although we defend ourselves against that knowledge), no one would be able to stand it.”

“Alas, our fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and God. It is the same with our protest against pain and death.”

I certainly am more than in disagreement with all this; I am kind of speechless about how to address such a problem.  Back in Berkeley, coward that I was and eager to be liked by him, of course I never challenged his views, nor offered any counter arguments.  And that’s just as well because “arguments” is not what is called for here.  You have to understand this about Milosz, the old man’s incredible life experience.  Two world wars, living through the murderous savagery of Hitler and Stalin, millions killed, millions more without homes (like my family), you are not going to easily accept the “happy talk” of either priests or thinkers, not if you have the sensibility, the learning,  and the intelligence that he had.

There is actually no rational way of dealing with this problem…you are not gong to think your way to a solution…reason, as valuable as it is, is not going to be a resource here.  Look at the Zen koan…you do not “untie” that knot by rational analysis.  But you also cannot run away from it….at least not without detriment to your whole way of seeing reality.  So it is with this theodicy dilemma.  At his best Milosz had a sense of this, and at the end of his life his poetry displayed a deeper, more serene vision….could we say a “scent” of paradise?  Through most of his mature, creative years, however,  Milosz was deeply attracted to that ultimate dualism; and it’s truly ironic that this position is a kind of escape hatch for rationality, for intelligence, as it confronts the mystery of evil.  Here you do   not transcend rationality but merely disguise it with a new look.  In any case, how it sometimes warped his understanding and even his intuition is displayed by his treatment of Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, especially as the novel resonated with the theodicy issue and its seeming resolution.  Recall how Dostoevsky puts words into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov that become the most powerful, most sustained, most irrefutable attack on our notion of God that you will find anywhere.  Dostoevsky holds nothing back; he jolts you with a “sledge hammer” and wants to see what you have to say.  I think that a part of Milosz deeply  identifies with Ivan Karamazov.  Let’s listen to just one of Ivan’s discourses to his brother Alyosha:

“Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. I am a bug, and I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them. With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level—but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it?—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”  “That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Well, Dostoevsky crafts Alyosha and Father Zosima (primarily) as the only possible reply to Ivan’s impassioned challenge.  It is not a rational argument but their very personhood, their state of mind and heart, this is the only answer that Dostoevsky can summon to this side of the dilemma….and the silence of Christ in Ivan’s mysterious dream.   For Milosz, this was a miserable failure.  He calls Alyosha and Father Zosima “sentimentalists.”  For Milosz, Dostoevsky was brilliant on the side of Ivan, but a total failure on the side that was meant as a kind of response.  At the end of the novel we see Alyosha and a group of boys celebrating their koinonia, their communion, even in the face of death.  In a real nasty takedown, Milosz called this “salvation by a troupe of boy scouts.”

 I don’t know what  I could have said to him to change his mind….really nothing….this brilliant, good man had his own journey to make.  But there is a final quote which surprisingly illumines  this whole thing in a marvelous way that not even Dostoevsky can touch.  It is amazingly from Karl Bath’s Church Dogmatics.  (Merton alludes to all this in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.)  Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century.  Barth was a stern, no-frills Protestant who had little sympathy for all the “frills” of Catholicism.  When I was studying theology, I had friends who loved Barth; but in my then narrow-mindedness I avoided Barth as much as possible.  

Barth actually had a lot of critiques of Catholicism, but there was one Catholic who was a kind of constant companion of  his during the  years when he was in his prime:  Mozart!  He would listen to a Mozart piece every morning before beginning work on his theological endeavors.  And we will conclude with Barth reflecting on Mozart in volume 3 of his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics:

‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign?

Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists.

1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any program. He was remarkably free from the mania for self- expression…..

He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfillment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”


No-Questions and No-Answers

Merton wrote a book of essays called Disputed Questions, and the great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, had a book called Ultimate Questions.  So…here’s a few of my own kind of questions.   Just some interesting and intriguing and troubling thoughts….

  1. There is no “I” in I.

What could this possibly mean? 

Sounds very Buddhist, doesn’t it?  Maybe a bit Hindu, as in Advaita, Sankara, etc…..  But what about Christianity?  Definitely not if we stick to conventional Christianity.  Yes, Paul did say, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  But it’s usually taken  in some kind of metaphorical way, or as some external acts of imitation….be like Jesus, act like Christ…..  However, in some mystics, like Eckhart….this goes much, much deeper.  And for someone like Abhishiktananda, with  his “advaitic insights,” well, we are way beyond the usual Sunday sermon/piety.  But in Thomas Merton you see a trajectory, a growth in awareness concerning this…which we will look at shortly.

Lets borrow a term from Marxist theory: false consciousness.  False consciousness is  a way of thinking that prevents people from being aware of the true nature of their social or economic situation; their true relationship to the whole material scheme of their existence.  They are not able to recognize that they are being exploited and how they are exploited.  They may even contribute to their own exploitation.

Borrowing this term, we can use it to designate an even deeper and more fundamental problem: our lack of awareness of who we really are.  We get this wrong very badly.  I, me, myself, mine…..that sense of “I-ness,” that strange orientation of everything toward  that sense.  This is a mistake with enormous consequences.  So we end up fretting about this “self” quite a bit.  It feels very fragile, so we want to protect it, defend it.  Thieves can come and rob it….  But what if we ask that universally profound question: who am I?  

Merton becomes quite sensitive to the problem in the middle period of his monastic life.  You get a hint of it in quotes like this:

“In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anyone else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.”

Drawing on a deep interpretation of his own tradition, he formulates the issue in terms of “false self” vs. “true self.”  Note:

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.”

“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

“We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.”

“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”

“But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasure and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.”

(All Merton quotes are from New Seeds of Contemplation)


A number of people have been very influenced by Merton’s insights here, like Richard Rohr, for example:

“The false self is all the things we pretend to be and think we are. It is the pride, arrogance, title, costume, role, and degree we take to be ourselves. It’s almost entirely created by our minds, our cultures, and our families. It is what’s passing and what’s going to die, and it is not who we are. For many people this is all they have—but all of it is going to die when we die.  

But Merton’s awareness grows and deepens even more as his encounter with zen and Buddhism unfolds.

Recall, early on,  Merton’s dialogue with D. T. Suzuki about Cassian’s notion of “purity of heart.”  At first Merton wanted to consider it as something like the zen “sunyata,” emptiness.  Suzuki emphatically corrected him!  With Cassian’s “purity of  heart” there is this “heart,” this self, which you can look at and work at “purifying.”  But with sunyata there is no self there as object for you to work on.  Who you are is not an object that you can grasp and “purify”…that you can look at, admire as being “pure,” that you can “polish,”  etc.  In zen terms, who you are is no-self.   Foolish westerners have claimed that zen denies the personhood of the human being.  Quite the contrary, the fullness of personhood only emerges when the boundaries of that narrow, little self vanish.  Toward the end of his life Merton begins to use that term “no-self” more instead of “true self” (or some variant, such as no-hearer in a beautiful essay about solitude).  In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the last book he published, he provocatively writes:  “”As long as there is an ‘I’ that is the definite subject of a contemplative experience, an ‘I’ that is aware of itself and its contemplation, an ‘I’ that can possess a certain ‘degree of spirituality,’ then we have not yet passed over the Red Sea, we have not yet ‘gone out of Egypt.’ We remain in the realm of multiplicity, activity, incompleteness, striving and desire.”

By that time his zen awareness colors everything he touches.  My favorite is this lovely piece on the hermit life:

“The hermit life is cool. It is a life of low definition in which there is little to decide, in which there are few transactions or none, in which there are no packages delivered. In which I do not bundle up packages and deliver them to myself. It is not intense. There is no give and take of questions and answers, problems and solutions. Problems begin down the hill. Over there under the water tower are the solutions. Here there are woods, foxes. Here there is no need for dark glasses. “Here” does not even warm itself with references to “there.” It is just a “here” for which there is no “there.” The hermit life is that cool.

The monastic life as a whole is a hot medium. Hot with words like “must,” “ought” and “should.” Communities are devoted to high definition projects: “making it all clear!” The clearer it gets the clearer it has to be made. It branches out. You have to keep clearing the branches. The more branches you cut back the more branches grow. For one you cut you get three more. On the end of each branch there is a big bushy question mark. People are running all around with packages of meaning. Each is very anxious to know whether all the others have received the latest messages. Has someone else received a message that he has not received? Will they be willing to pass it on to him? Will he understand it when it is passed on? Will he have to argue about it? Will he be expected to clear his throat and stand up and say “Well the way I look at it St. Benedict said . . . ?” Saint Benedict saw that the best thing to do with the monastic life was to cool it but today everybody is heating it up. Maybe to cool it you have to be a hermit. “

“This is not a hermitage—it is a house. (“Who was that hermitage I seen you with last night? . . .”) What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe. Who said Zen? Wash out your mouth if you said Zen. If you see a meditation going by, shoot it. Who said “Love?” Love is in the movies. The spiritual life is something people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it. Is it supposed to be clear? I am not inviting anybody to try it.”

  1. There is no “I” in Paradise.

In Dostoevsky’s great novel, Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima, a key character, tells of his older brother, Markel,  who died young but had a powerful influence on Zosima. He had been scornful of spiritual realities and generally a rude, brusque person.  But as he was being overwhelmed by illness, one Holy Week he experienced a profound change which no one could explain.   A key quote from the novel, Zosima speaking:

 “I remember he used to cough all night and sleep badly, but in the morning he dressed and tried to sit up in an arm-chair. That’s how I remember him sitting, sweet and gentle, smiling, his face bright and joyous, in spite of his illness. A marvelous change passed over him, his spirit seemed transformed. The old nurse would come in and say, ‘Let me light the lamp before the holy image, my dear.’ And once he would not have allowed it and would have blown it out.

‘Light it, light it, dear, I was a wretch to have prevented you doing it. You are praying when you light the lamp, and I am praying when I rejoice seeing you. So we are praying to the same God.’

Those words seemed strange to us, and mother would go to her room and weep, but when she went in to him she wiped her eyes and looked cheerful. ‘Mother, don’t weep, darling,’ he would say, ‘I’ve long to live yet, long to rejoice with you, and life is glad and joyful.’

‘Ah, dear boy, how can you talk of joy when you lie feverish at night, coughing as though you would tear yourself to pieces.’

‘Don’t cry, mother,’ he would answer, ‘life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but refuse to see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.’”

Paradise???  What could this possibly mean?  Is it mere sentimentality, delusions of a sick young man.  Needless to say the literati who have written so much analyzing this novel from various angles are not the ones to consult about this!  Also, forget the pop culture appropriations of that word, “Paradise,”  so comical in their obvious hedonism.  Best way to get a sense of this is to look at its opposite: hell!  No, again not the pop images of devils with horns and pitchforks and flames.  Consider the following  images:

  1. The ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus.  The guy condemned to roll this boulder up this hill, and as he is about to get to the top….the boulder gets too heavy and it rolls down….and this for all eternity…..  This is a marvelous picture of life lived  grounded  in that ego self.  The gist of this is also witnessed in that old Rolling Stones ditty, (I can’t get no) “Satisfaction”…but I try and try….  

This is a life loaded with burdens, obvious and not so obvious, and it offers satisfactions like mirages in the desert.  Being in a wrong relationship to oneself and to all around one is a very heavy burden; but the real sadness is that this is simply experienced as “life,” life as a kind of “heaviness,” a burden that weighs on  us more and more.  And there is a built in futility to all you do.  If pushed to an extreme, this leads to such a distortion of humanity, such a dysfunctionality, that it can make one forget what human life is about.

The Gospel invites us to lay down that burden of “self” and pick up the burden of Christ’s life in us, a burden that is no-burden….because there is no-self.

Here we are at the Gates of Paradise….or I should say the “Gateless-gate of Paradise”!

  1. There are much more subtle pictures of hell in literature, more refined ones, if you will.  One place you can find it is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby.  From the closing paragraph of the novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——”

Again, that sense that one’s fulfillment is just out of reach!  In that old classic move On the Waterfront the lead character, former boxer Terry Malloy, laments to his brother, “I couldva been somebody, I couldva been a contender.”  We are are all caught up in wanting to be that “somebody.”  Some pursue it in wealth, some in sex, some in power, some in heroics, some in learning, some in religion, etc.; but this is essentially an “unattainable illusory self” even as we seem to hold it in our hand.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth is another figure who desperately wanted to be “somebody.”  At the end of his road, at the end of his insane pursuit of power, he concludes this about the meaning of life:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

What a marvelous picture of hell!  Because hell is a state of mind, a state of awareness, a state of relationality, a state of being.  

And so is Paradise.  Paradise is your own being, your own personhood, not something “out there” to reach or achieve.  To enter Paradise all you need do is “return home” so to speak.  If you are alienated from your “true self,” you are in effect this illusory individual “I” separated from all, an isolated consciousness, filled with deep anxiety about its separateness, seeking connections in all manner of modes, which never really satisfy it.  This is one sign of being an “outcast” from Paradise.  But to be in Paradise is to be in the Wholeness and interrelatedness of all being.  It is our Original Nature as the Buddhists would put it . Francis of Assisi  knew Paradise.  Think of the significance of the stigmata in his body (historical or symbolic, no matter).  Think of that in relation to Paradise.

  1. There is no “I” in Namaste.

Consider this poem by W. S. Merwin, my absolutely favorite modern poet:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

Hands folded, bowing slightly, quietly saying “Namaste,” a greeting thousands of years old….this is such a more beautiful and profound way of greeting than  a handshake….but what does  it mean?   Of course a simple translation opens a vast door…. “The Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you.”  There is no “I” in Namaste, not if it is real.  But it’s not like there is only “God,” or only “I,” or “God” + “I”…..  Who you are is a mystery lost  in the Mystery of God, so do not think you know who is bowing or to whom….

But there is more.  In a fragile little wild flower in  the wilderness, it is  the Whole Cosmos bowing to you.  In the smiling eyes of a little child.  In the   quizzical gaze of a lonely coyote.  In the loveliness of another person, young or old.  In the kindness of a stranger.  In the tears of loss.  In the vast beauty of the night sky.  In the self-sacrifice of a parent….   Bow your head slightly and whisper “Namaste.”

Monastic Musings, Part II, the Zen Thing

In the previous posting, after hearing about the closure of the Trappist monastery in Colorado,  I briefly reflected on problems  and issues confronting Christian monasticism.  Now I have before me an article, sent by a friend, which is a blistering critique of the state of Zen Buddhism, especially in the U.S.; and it is a critique that comes from within that community.  Obviously there are some real differences in the problems that each community faces, but I have also found it fascinating where there is some significant common ground.  

The title of this essay is, “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi,” by Stuart Lachs.  It is somewhat dated (2002), and all the references to the mess at the San Francisco Zen Center are a well-known thing.  But the article brings up all kinds of issues that have hardly changed.  The article begins like this:

“Most people think of Zen as being iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian, simple, direct, and unattached. Its raison d’etre is to produce people who possess a fundamental insight into life, people who are not fooled by appearances or ideas. The fact is that almost everything about Zen’s presentation, practice, and rituals is aimed at producing people who give up their good sense with the promise of a greater gain in the future. While this is obviously a general statement that demands further qualification, it serves to introduce some of the basic problems to be dealt with here. Please keep it in mind. This is not a new idea nor is it unique to Chan/Zen.”


(Incidentally, if you want to read the whole article, this is the link to it:


And the website, “thezensite,” is a most valuable resource of zen writings, including the critical ones.)

Some scattered comments:

  1. Zen vs. institutional Zen Buddhism.  The author does make this distinction, but I am not so sure that he drives home the full implications of that move.  If you do  not clearly see and understand the difference between the two, you will miss the reality by the “width of the universe!”  And this is so true of the scholars who in the last several decades  have worked so diligently to “demystify and demythologize” “Zen.”  They have brought out many interesting and important facts about the historical development  of zen buddhism and buddhism in general.  The picture isn’t pretty; you get a sense of it in Lachs’ article.  But this is true of every religious institution, including Christian monasticism. (And not to mention the enormous problem within Catholic institutions of sexual dysfunctionality and abuse that has been uncovered and that really has not been dealt with in any adequate way.)  What the scholars have done is provide an antidote to living in a kind of religious fairyland that is ultimately toxic to one’s spiritual health.  

However…..there is a tendency in these writings to conflate the institution of zen buddhism, as it unfolds in history, with the reality of zen.  Even if not intended (but I think it often is intended), zen is reduced to that collection of practices, beliefs, institutions, etc.  that is found under that umbrella called zen buddhism.  This is a serious mistake, and it can easily lead one far astray from the reality of zen.

Incidentally, proliferating pop notions using the word “zen” in modern western society are another distorting agent that is a real problem.  I did a search in my local library for books with the word “zen” in their title.  Here’s a few of them:

Zen Guitar

Zen Golf

Zen Happiness

Zen Poems

Zen Interiors

Zen Miracles

Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen and Mindful Parenting

and the list goes on and on……  In other words, the term “zen” is being used willy-nilly.

Now of course the scholarly literature and the critical tracts are not that bad!  But they are prone to go wrong in several ways:

  1. The word “zen” is simply used as a shorthand expression of zen buddhism.  A controversial point…because it is assumed that always when we speak of “zen” we are talking about “zen buddhism.”  What if that is not the case?  We will shortly explore that.
  2. Then the term “zen buddhism” is, as I mentioned above, reduced to the beliefs, practices, teachings, values, etc. of a certain institution.  Zen Buddhism (and by implication “zen”_ is then this cultural, historical entity—an undeniable fact.  But is THAT all there is….?
  3. Applying scholarly, scientific, critical, historical methods, scholars dissect this entity, and they uncover all kinds of interesting facts and, alas, all the “stuff swept under the rug.”  Really, no one should be surprised by all this…all religious institutions are plagued by similar problems.  But to borrow an image, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the scholars but simply to emphasize a certain point, they are like   vultures who are picking at a carcass…the living reality is not grasped by these methods.

Now I will give an extensive quote from Thomas Merton. You might wonder why bring in a Christian monk to comment on Zen, etc.  Well, this will not be a popular claim, but in my opinion Merton had a deeper sense of the reality of Zen than most American Zen Buddhists.  Also, already in the 1960s he had an intellectual grasp of some of problems as Zen Buddhism “translated” into American culture.  The following quote is from Zen and the Birds of Appetite:

“This raises a curious question: I wonder if Zen could somehow be fitted into the patterns of a structuralist anthropology?  And if so, can it be “understood”?  And at once one can see that the question can probably be answered by “yes” and by “no.”

In so far as Zen is part of a social and religious complex, and in so far as it seems to be related to other elements of a cultural system—“yes.”  In so far as Zen is Zen Buddhism, “yes.”  But in that case what fits into the system is Buddhism rather than Zen.  The more Zen is considered as Buddhist the more it can be grasped as an expression of man’s cultural and religious impulse.  In that case Zen can be seen as having a special kind of structure with basic demands that are structural demands and therefore open to scientific  investigation—and the more it can be seen to have a definite character to be grasped and ‘understood.’

When Zen is studied in this way, it is seen in the context of Chinese and Japanese history [and culture]….  And then a lot of things about Zen come to seem important, even essential.  The Zendo, the zazen sitting, the study of the koan….the bows….the visits to the Roshi….  Zen, seen in this light, can then be set up against other religious structures—for instance that of Catholicism, with its sacraments, its liturgy,etc….  One can examine both of them and conclude that they have a few things in common.  They share certain cultural and religious features….  Nevertheless, studied as structures, as systems, and as religions, Zen and Catholicism don’t mix any better than oil and water….  All this is true as long as Zen is considered specifically as Zen Buddhism, as a school or sect of Buddhism, as forming part of the religious system which we call ‘the Buddhist Religion.’

When we look a little closer however, we find very serious and responsible practitioners of Zen first denying that it is ‘a religion,’ then denying that it is a sect or school, and finally denying that it is confined to Buddhism and its ‘structure.’  For instance, one of the great Japanese Zen Masters, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, said categorically, ‘Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and call it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.’  To define Zen in terms of a religious system or structure is in fact to destroy it – or rather to miss it completely, for what cannot be ‘constructed’ cannot be destroyed either.  Zen is not something which is grasped by being set within distinct limits or given a characteristic outline or easily recognizable features so that, when we see these distinct and particular forms, we say, ‘There it is.’ Zen is not understood by being set apart in  its own category, separated from everything else….  …Zen is outside all particular structures and distinct forms, and…it is neither opposed to them nor not-opposed to them.  It neither denies them nor affirms them, loves  them nor hates them, rejects them nor desires them.  Zen is consciousness unstructured by particular form or particular system, a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness.  It is  therefore in a sense ‘void.’  But it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious, just as light can shine through glass that is blue, or green, or red, or yellow.  If Zen has any preference it is for glass that is plain, has no color, and is ‘just glass.’

In other words to regard Zen merely and exclusively as Zen Buddhism is to falsify it and to betray the fact that one has no understanding of it whatever.  Yet this does not mean that there cannot be ‘Zen Buddhists,’ but these surely will realize (precisely because they are Zen-men) the difference between their Buddhism and their Zen—even while admitting that for them their Zen is in fact the purest expression of Buddhism.  But, of course, the reason for that is that Buddhism itself (more than any ‘religious system’) points beyond any theological or philosophical ‘ism.’  It demands not to be a system (while at the same time, like other religions, presenting a peculiar temptation to systematizers).  The real drive of Buddhism is toward an enlightenment which is precisely a  breakthrough into what is beyond system, beyond cultural and social structures, and beyond religious rite and belief….”

So….a powerful but extremely controversial statement by Merton.  A goodly number of scholars and experienced Zen adherents, Western and Asian,  would disagree with Merton.  But if Merton is right, and I truly believe he really is so, then that gives you a better insight into how a religious tradition, no matter how ancient, no matter how “beautiful” can really go awry.  The fact is that every religious institution, practice, form, structure is prone to corruption; and not only “prone” but actually likely to deform and distort what it’s meant to communicate.  That’s why there are these historical “reform” movements….and renewal figures like Dogen and Hakuin in Japanese Zen Buddhism are examples.  And the cycle starts all over!

  1. The Roshi Thing

Among corrupt structures in Zen Buddhism, this one is big!  For one thing, this is  how the tradition supposedly travels through  history: the Dharma transmission from the master (roshi) to the disciple.  If this goes bad then you have a debilitating problem of major proportions.  I am not going to go into all the details that Lachs presents; suffice it to say he does a commendable job, but it is depressing to read.  But what interests me is the universal nature of this problem.  I saw something like this happening in my own Catholic ambience in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  There was this proliferation of “spiritual teachers,” spiritual directors, even borrowing a term from Eastern Christianity, “spiritual fathers” (and “mothers”).  And, oh yes, how many wanted to be seen as some kind of spiritual guru. Colleges and seminaries even began offering degrees in this.  A lot of people were taking on a role that they were  not spiritually equipped to play.  (So in Japanese Zen Buddhism when father  passes  a spiritual office/role to son, that’s obviously a problem.)  Incidentally, Plato said that the  person who desires to lead others is by that very fact the least qualified to be a “leader.”  I think that holds, with some modification,  for so called spiritual teachers.  Think about all those people, both in Buddhism and in Christianity, who now make a living doing this. It’s a big industry.   Makes one wonder.  Then there’s the sexual abuse problem….also present in Buddhism and an enormous problem in Christian religious circles.  A bizarre and extreme instance of that was exemplified by one of the Jesuit spiritual directors of Mother Teresa, Fr. Donald McGuire….he was discovered to be a profligate sexual abuser of children!  

The actual fact is that the reality of being a “spiritual teacher” in its full essence, a spiritual father, is a truly rare gift, not to be self-designated and maybe surprisingly so, a mysterious burden.  And this reminds me of the tradition of the hidden  zaddik in Hasidic mysticism.  The “specialness” of the hidden zaddik is completely concealed by God, even from the zaddik’s own eyes and mind.  He does not realize his own special gift, but in the community in which he finds himself he is the occasion of blessings and illuminations in the hearts of many.  One of the  hidden zaddiks was a village butcher; it was said of him that with every cut of meat one could feel the Holy Presence. (An interesting story  in this tradition can be found here: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2271173/jewish/The-Butcher-in-Heaven.htm)   Another instance is exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima (modeled on a real Russian spiritual father), who is considered a “pretender” by most of his community…and when he dies his body corrupts exceptionally  fast, contrary to popular criteria for signs of holiness….so his spiritual fatherhood is completely hidden to  most eyes.  

In any case, no matter the rarity of this reality, there is the simple fact of someone having a bit more experience, a bit more knowledge, which can be helpful to a fellow-traveler.  Lachs has some good, common sense wisdom here:

This article is not saying that there is no place for a Zen teacher. As in any field, there is a need for experienced and knowledgeable teachers. However, crediting a teacher, by definition of their role or title, with exalted qualities he does not really possess, is begging for trouble. A Zen teacher can certainly assist his students in their practice, can encourage the students to be diligent, guide their meditation practice in both public and private meetings, offer aid in difficult times, talk about Zen texts to enrich the student’s sense of the tradition and explicate Buddhist and Zen ideas. Importantly, teachers can inspire followers by setting a living example through interactions with their students and others and, with the conduct of their own life, demonstrate that Zen practice can make one a wiser and more compassionate human being. In addition, as there are other practitioners around the teacher, it is helpful to be part of a community of fellow practitioners.

  1. Where have they all gone?

 The diminishment of Catholic monasticism and Zen Buddhist monasticism is quite obvious.  They are part of other, larger patterns of diminishment,  but I am not going to go into  that here.  Suffice it to say that both groups have “shot themselves in the foot,” “sawed the branch off that they were perched on,” etc….whatever other cliches one can think of.  Whatever blame you can put on the social conditions for this diminishment, ultimately both groups are largely responsible for their own shrinkage.  To show you how bad  things are in Japan, consider these two articles:



  1. Concluding remarks.

Let me begin with the foundational story of what is called Zen or Chan.  This is one version of it: The Flower Sermon:

One day the Buddha gathered all his key disciples as if to instruct them.  But instead of speaking to them, he held up a lotus flower before them.  All looked puzzled except Kashyapa; he only smiled.  The Buddha then spoke:

I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. This wisdom does not depend on letters, it is transmitted outside all formal teachings. I now entrust it to Kashyapa.”  

Let me now say that it matters not one  iota whether this story is a description of a historical moment or a myth rendered in these words.  The important thing is Kashyapa’s smile.  Yes, we see the smile in these words…so words can be useful, helpful….but the smile is a sign of a realization beyond all words.  No corruption can touch this smile; no scholarly analysis can make it go away.  The smile is always there.  And if you want to know what Zen is all about, you will need to look at that smile.

And here is Merton at Polonnaruwa (from The Asian Journal)…to help you:

“ The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha . .. . I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything-without refutation-without establishing some other argument.  I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape figure, rock and tree …. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded …

The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya  . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains  but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage,  Asian or European or American.”