A Sermon delivered January 22, 2012, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana
READING: from The Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn Dae Sa Nim
Dear. . . Teacher. . .
I obtained a copy of your book, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, and I have enjoyed reading it very much indeed. Also, my one-year-old daughter, Tara, has very much enjoyed eating the cover. So, my question to you now is, “How do you teach a one-year-old. . . Tara not to eat the Buddha?”
. . .I hope you find time to write me. Sincerely, Harvey
Dear. . . Friend Harvey,
How are you and your Buddha-eating baby?
. . .You said that you read Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. That is very good. You also said that your daughter ate the cover, and you asked me how to teach a one-year-old. . . Tara not to eat the Buddha. Your daughter is better than you because she can eat Buddha, but you cannot. Your daughter is stronger than Buddha, so she eats Buddha. Already, she has graduated.
Eating Buddha means no Buddha. Long ago someone asked Zen Master Ma Jo, “What is Buddha?” He answered, “Mind is Buddha; Buddha is mind.” The next day, another person asked the same question and Ma Jo said, “No mind, no Buddha.” What is true Buddha? If you eat Buddha, then [you know the Buddha that is beyond names and words.] Name-Buddha and [word]-Buddha both disappear. So you must learn from your daughter and eat all the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. You ask, “How can I teach my daughter?” This is a big mistake. You must learn from your daughter!
. . . Your daughter understands my teaching. My teaching is only to put. . . down [your preconceptions.] Only go straight–don’t know. Maybe you are very attached to words, so your daughter ate [my book full of words.] So Tara’s answer is very good. It is better than yours.
. . . I hope you only go straight–don’t know, eat all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, attain Enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.
Yours in the Dharma, Seung Sahn
SERMON: “Thoughts on Beloved Mysteries”
One wonderful thing about small children, is that we get to watch them in the process of learning their way in the world. In this morning’s Reading, Tara, was a baby who ate the cover off her father’s book on Buddhism. Demonstrating her childlike enlightenment that way–is a good example. Small children experience the world with a delight and purity that we adults can only try to equal. That childlike freedom from preconceptions–is exactly what Buddhist enlightenment is–and it really is tough for an adult.
A child’s mind is an exciting mixture of logic and innocence and facts that don’t always fit together. Wonder and mystery lie everywhere they look. Zen Master Seung Sahn held Tara up as an example because that childlike approach can teach us to look at our own lives in a more religious way.
Shortly after younger daughter, Colleen, was was born, we got a golden retriever named Falstaff. (The name was because I like Shakespeare and he was also the same color as beer.) We weren’t experienced dog people, so we pretty much trained Falstaff with a leash in one hand and a how-to book in the other. We’d say, “Sit, Falstaff,” and push down on his rump and he got the idea. Same thing for lying down. We’d say, “Down, Falstaff,” and after awhile, down he’d lie. “Come, Falstaff” was easy. If you even look at a golden retriever, they’ll be in your face wanting attention, by command or not.
Little Colleen watched all this. When she got big enough to try it for herself, it worked for her, too. Falstaff was a lot bigger than she was, but she’d say, “Come, Falstaff,” and he was only too happy to galumph over for some pint-sized affection.
We were eating breakfast one summer morning. The dining nook window was open and a warm breeze drifted in–and Colleen spotted a ladybug beetle, crawling across the screen. She said, “Oh, look, a bug.” The bug was beyond her reach, but she knew just what to do about that. In her most commanding voice, she said, “Come, bug.” To her disappointment, the bug didn’t come. We had to explain that nobody had gotten around to training it, yet.
When I look back at that moment, Colleen was quite logical in the way she used the facts she had. If her conclusions didn’t work, it was only because she didn’t have quite enough facts. She certainly understood the ones she had.
But that’s another example a the kind of childlike wisdom Zen Master Seung Sahn expressed in this morning’s Reading. Children’s lives are full of wonder and mystery–everything is new to them. At the same time, they’re pretty analytical in their own way. So Reason and wonder fit together for them in surprising, delightful, and enlightening ways.
My mother once told a story about watching me crawl across the lawn while I was still in diapers. She noticed that I was really keeping an eye on my hands. Then, she said, I stopped and looked back at my legs. I started up again, crawled a few more feet, stopped. Then I crawled backwards a step or two, staring at my hands and my feet. Zen-like–I was completely in the moment. I was all “beginner mind.” Finally, she said, she burst out laughing because she realized–I was analyzing the way I crawled.
Sixty years later, here I am, a Unitarian Universalist minister. You could see it coming. I’ve lost a lot of that “in-the-moment” Zen mind, but to me, reason and wonder still are what a minister’s job is all about. From the time I was in diapers, I’ve apparently been working on that combination.
Small children don’t mind making mistakes or looking foolish, so they experiment with reason and wonder in memorable ways. From bugs to crawling to comic books to Christmas trees–they have a real eye for the magic of everyday existence. But where they’re comfortable with showing their wonder or making mistakes–as a grownup, I find myself much more reserved and worried about appearances.
As an adult, it’s necessary for me to try to re-learn how to get back into relationship with life’s mysteries. How to exercise that “beginner mind,” as Zen masters call it, that I was so good at when I was small. And every time I turn around, I find that I’ve forgotten all over again. Mysteries can be intimidating.
Mystery is an important piece of the human condition. But because we don’t like to look foolish or uninformed, mystery gets more complex as we get older. The word itself: “mystery;” has many different meanings and a lot of history behind it. If you look at the dictionary, you find several different definitions.
A mystery can just be a standard secret that needs to be discovered: as in a mystery novel. A mystery can be a practical question that doesn’t have an easy answer. In one of my favorite movies, Shakespeare in Love, theatre owner Philip Henslowe runs into all kinds of problems trying to produce Shakespeare’s new play, Romeo and Juliet. His financial backers keep asking, how does a play ever come together? And he keeps answering, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Which it is–but the audience has total faith it will happen.
To me–practical question or not–there’s something religious about that. But there are also definitions that are officially religious. For example, a mystery can be a divine revelation we don’t yet understand. That’s how the word, “mystery,” is used in the New Testament. Another historic meaning is a sacred pagan ritual–which is important to European religion, because that usage term later got applied to sacred Christian rituals, as well.
It’s a term of reverence when someone’s talking about, say, the mystery of the Eucharist, the ancient Catholic Christian belief that communion bread and wine actually become the blood and body of Jesus. Or when it refers to revelations of the prophets or the sacraments or the way the faith was presented in medieval mystery plays–those were very positive uses.
But going back to those pagan rituals, as Christianity developed, people were taught to hate pagan mysteries. Back when Greek and Roman religion centered around a pantheon of pagan gods, great and small, each god or goddess had their own cult with their own sacred rituals: the god’s mysteries. There were rituals for initiating new members to the cult and also for worshipping their god. The gods Demeter, Persephone, and Dionysus all had different mysteries, for example, used by Greeks and Romans, alike. Other mysteries honored the Roman fertility goddess, Cybele, the Great Mother, along with her sacrificed lover, Attis. Others honored the Egyptian goddess, Isis. And of course, the Persian cattle god, Mithras, who was born on December 25, later died, but was resurrected.
To quote a standard reference, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, “Mysteries ritually reenacted the drama and suffering of the deity [they] honored. . ., which ensured a connection with the deity and a significant change of status for the initiate. The Eleusinian mysteries [of Persephone, for example,] promised blessedness and a guarantee of immortality, while the mysteries of Isis promised rebirth and freedom from fate.”
So that ritual re-enactment of drama and suffering and rebirth of pagan deities, was adapted to the Christian deity. And so was the word, mystery. In fact, the word, “minister,” comes from a word for a priest who was authorized to perform the sacred rituals–the mysteries–of the religion. The words, “mystery” and “minister,” have the same root. In modern Unitarian Universalism, of course, our sacred ritual is making coffee on Sunday morning. Making decent coffee is certainly a mystery to me. But for lesser rituals–like, say, weddings and memorial services–ministers still come in handy.
In the New Testament, a mystery was a Divine revelation, not yet understood. The Apocalypse of John, better known as the book of Revelation, is a revealed mystery. A mystery could also be a sacred and powerful ritual which connected people to God–such as communion or baptism or extreme unction. So between the highest Christian practice and despised, suppressed pagan rituals, a mystery could be something pure and angelic–or evil and demonic. The word became a truly loaded term.
In conversation and art, all those senses of a word like mystery, run together in our minds. Going back to Shakespeare in Love, when Philip Henslowe says, “It’s a mystery” how the play is ever going to come together–that may not be a religious usage in a technical sense. But in practice, it is a reverent, religious way for an actor to describe the artistic process. That’s the way religion and poetry both work. Meanings run together and speak to one another in our minds.
In his book, The Idea of the Holy, theologian Rudolph Otto talks about how we experience realities that are totally beyond what we know, which he calls, “Wholly Other.” He uses one of my favorite terms for this experience: the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum: the tremendous, fascinating–even frightening–mystery. It can be something as beautiful as stars in the night sky–or as scary as a tornado sweeping across the plains. The mysterious experience, he says, inspires dread, awe, a sense of majesty and fascination, an irresistible attraction which demands unconditional allegiance. Furthermore, “It is the positive human response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion.”
I think there’s a lot to that. And as I’ve said before, it’s worth mentioning that some of the people most in touch with Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinosum–are not priests. They’re scientists. If we read Einstein, there’s a strong sense of mystery and childlike fascination in the questions he asked. Einstein himself explained how simple, sublime questions form the basis for his most complex theories.
In the work of truly groundbreaking scientists, there’s no end to the brilliant and sublime questions. Real love for the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum is essential to scientific progress. Author and science writer Hugo Gernsback, for example, wrote that a hundred million years from now–if we’re still here at all–science will still have produced far more questions than answers. Mystery will not be eliminated. It will only get bigger and better. Hopefully, it will get easier to accept it, explore it, and love it.
Some Asian traditions see mystery as a necessary part of everyday life. When I was studying Zen in the Republic of Korea, one Zen master was fond of saying that we Americans need to be careful about what he called “understanding disease.” Sometimes we’re so worried about finding answers to non-essential questions–we don’t pay attention and fully engage the mystery that’s going on right in front of us. To me, one of those non-essential questions–is whether God exists or not. After all, whether God does or doesn’t–it doesn’t change the way we need to act in the world.
Of course, the price of really paying attention to all life’s wonders, great or small, is that such openness leaves you open to life’s horrors, as well. One of my favorite spiritual writers, Annie Dillard, spends a lot of time looking at life’s unanswered questions. Some of them are pretty scary. For her, God is everywhere and all experience is religious, whether it’s beautiful or heartbreaking. Mystery is everywhere we look, but we won’t always like what we see.
She writes about babies with birth defects and the images are heartbreaking. She captures that fine line in early childhood, between the time of innocence when all is wonder, and that age, only a little older, when experience begins to teach hard lessons. To her, all life is both mysterious and tragic. In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes that life is, to use her words, “one big chomp.” Living things kill, suffer, and die all around us. Every step we take, walking barefoot along a beach, kills tens of thousands of tiny, one-celled animals. Nature is lush with its bounty but it’s also ruthless in the way it squanders that bounty. Why? It’s a mystery. Where do we draw the line between the suffering that matters and the suffering that doesn’t? That’s a mystery, too. But the whole religion of Zen Buddhism is built around what we should do about that huge mystery of the world’s suffering.
Mysteries really are where you find them. And there are a lot of them. Every day is filled with questions we don’t even think to ask. Will my car get me to work today, and then back home? I don’t even think to be appreciative the countless times it does. I go off to work a thousand times, not even considering the real miracle and mystery of what I’m doing: the electrons exploding the fuel mixture in each cylinder, that energy flowing by steps to each wheel–the gases being released into the environment. On the thousandth time, something goes wrong. Then I’m disappointed and angry. But why didn’t I didn’t give thanks all those other times?
Who are we? Why are we here? What do we do about it? Why is the world the way it is? Our lives are full of big mysteries. But a Zen teacher would ask us, why should we worry only about them? Our lives are also full of little mysteries–and miracles–that are all too easy to miss.
Annie Dillard tells a story about the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who was very powerful, very rich, and very vain. In dealing with the great mystery of how long he would live, he assumed he was wealthy and powerful enough to eliminate that mystery completely. He decided he would live forever.
He made sacrifices to mountains and to rivers, to make sure he would have endless life. He heard a rumor that a Taoist master had found the secret to immortality by eating a certain flower. So he sent emissaries far and wide to find the man. When they came back without finding him, the Emperor had them executed. He ordered a colony of Taoist monks to prepare a potion which would give him endless life. They refused, so he had them executed, as well.
He heard about an island inhabited by a tribe of immortal people, so he sent an explorer to find the place. The explorer was no dummy. He knew that if he came back without finding it, he’d be killed, as well. So he told Emperor Qin, yes, he had found the island of immortal people. If the Emperor would bribe them by sending many well-trained craftsmen and supplies and young women, they would share the secret. According to the legend, the Emperor agreed to the deal. He gave the explorer enough and provisions, the explorer sailed away and the men and women colonized Japan. (So the legend goes. The Japanese disagree.)
A man in one province made a bad joke about how Emperor Qin was going to die someday despite all his efforts. So the Emperor had that man killed, along with everyone else in that region. Fearing assassination, he dug tunnels between his palace buildings, so he didn’t have to go out in the open. He spent more and more time behind walls, scuttling through tunnels under ground, surrounded by guards for his safety.
But Emperor Qin died anyway, at the age of forty-nine. The best he was able to do, was to have all his attendants and wives killed and buried along with him. He also had thousands of life-sized statues of soldiers made out of terra cotta and buried with him, as well. They were rediscovered in the last century and have now become world famous. But no one outside China even remembers Emperor Qin, himself.
Annie Dillard, among others, writes that the terra cotta soldiers are truly spectacular: a great thing to see if you’re touring China. But other than that, she writes that Emperor Qin was a poor sport, and a bit of a fool, as well. She suggests that he would have been much wiser to live fully in life’s brief mystery, rather than try to overcome it. And I’m inclined to agree with her.
It is all too true that some of life’s mysteries are scary and others are tragic. But a lot of mysteries are sweet and wonderful. They don’t have to be questions waiting to be answered or challenges waiting to be defeated. Many of life’s mysteries, large and small, are gifts waiting to be unwrapped. May we take a few moments now and then, to do that very thing. Amen. May it be so.