Beginner's Mind... of Christ

Friday, May 15, 2015

An Episcopal Priest in Buddha's Court

I arrived at Zen Garland like Jonah, freshly vomited from the belly of the whale. A beautiful series of catastrophes had dismantled my life back in Northern California, where for eleven years I had served as Rector (Senior Pastor) of a busy Episcopal Church in the heart of Wine Country. Now, free of responsibilities, short on money, and longing to find refuge in the Buddha/Mind of Christ, I landed here on May 3.

I am a Christian, and a student of Zen at the very beginning of what I expect to be a life-long journey into koan study, sitting, and instruction. I was first exposed to Zen 35 years ago, while at Union Theological Seminary in New York. A Japanese Zen master - probably a famous one, as he was accompanied by an entourage that included an American translator - offered an introductory course on zazen.

I had been practicing Transcendental Meditation for eight years, off and on, and I was curious, having read a bit of Thomas Merton. Something about the teaching sparked me - I'm not sure what, exactly - but soon I found myself sitting 2-4 hours a day. When I wasn't sitting, I was running (6 miles a day along the Hudson River) and attending classes filled with confident future pastors, all of whom seemed eager to assume their identities as professional answer-givers. Meanwhile, my questions were only deepening, and deepening some more, until one day I felt all of my careful theological constructions collapse like the proverbial house of cards.

Everything that I had previously thought was true about God and the cosmos suddenly seemed ridiculously vain and hollow. I had been studying Christian theology seriously, and at a high level, for five years by that point, but all of a sudden I felt like a stranger in a strange land, unable to comprehend what all of these very earnest Christians were talking about.

I left seminary, and Zen too (that encounter with emptiness just scared me too much). I moved to Boston and tried to figure out how to make a living as a 25 year-old seminary drop-out with a seemingly worthless degree in Religious Studies. I became deeply depressed, nearly homeless, and profoundly lost in a universe which, for the first time in my life, seemed absolutely uncaring and devoid of meaning.

The story of how that all turned around for me is a long one, and for another time. Suffice it to say that my suffering brought me into a deep encounter with the cross, and through that, with the risen Christ. The encounter instantly healed me of my depression and gave me a profound insight into the truth of the Christian message. Soon, I was back in seminary, and eventually ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Flash forward to the summer of 2014. I had been a priest for 24 years; I was recently divorced, in the middle of a mid-life crisis, and deeply unhappy. It was around two in the morning. I was in bed next to my beloved when a wave of self-loathing and futility came over me. "I just want to die," I said. "This ego, this personality, these thoughts, this whole little self - I just want it to go!"

My girlfriend, who is an incredibly powerful spiritual being, said, "So: go!"

With those words, I felt myself letting go, deeply, completely, unconditionally. I released as completely as I could. Everything was placed on the altar. I found myself saying, "Take it. Take it. Take it." I felt myself falling, as if I were dropping down into a well, my thoughts and ideas falling away from me, and then there was a Presence. She was hovering above me and to my right, female, seated as if on a cloud or something. Her colors were orange and green, and there was an energy coming from her, a wave of what I can only describe as Mercy. Waves of love came washing over me, on a level I had never experienced before, and I began to weep like a child out of gratitude, sheer gratitude.  

The next morning, flipping through a book on Buddhism in my girlfriend's apartment, I saw her, just as she had appeared to me. She was seated on a lotus flower, and had several arms. "That's her!" I exclaimed. "That's who visited me last night! Who is she?"

My girlfriend smiled. "Oh, that's Avalokitesvera," she said. "She's a Bodhisattva - one of the manifestations of the Buddha."

I stared at the image for some time, taking in her beauty. "Avalo...whosiewhats?" I had her repeat the strange name a number of times, trying to get a handle on it.  

"Some people call her Guanyin," she said, helpfully. I decided that would be my name for her, at least for awhile.

"Why does she have so many arms?" I asked.  

"Well, her name means, 'The one who hears the cries of those who suffer.' She has all those extra arms so she can reach all the people who are crying out. She's like the Buddhist Virgin Mary - the embodiment of Mercy."

I was, as they say, gobsmacked.

Before this, if you had asked me if saints or angels or specific deities really existed, I would have said, with great confidence, that these are projections of our subconscious mythological brain, and that they are sometimes efficacious in channeling divine energy, like a window lets in the light. But I would have also said that they are in actuality mere mirages, dreamlike phantoms, which don't actually exist as discrete spiritual beings. But after that experience, I'm not so sure. She seemed pretty darn real to me! All I know for sure is that she showed up when I needed her, and when she did, everything changed.

In a moment, I came to see why the famous First Commandment is First: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind. For me, that's all there was to it. I had to finally get to the point of handing everything over - and when I did, everything changed.

Since then, I have wanted nothing more than to dive into that emptiness - to give away everything that I habitually cling to; to let my self with a small "s" die and die and die again, so that this Source can live more fully in me. Christians call it the Mind of Christ.

Beginning that day, I started reading every book I could find on Buddhism and its relation to Christianity. My previous encounter with Zen took on a new meaning for me. My best friend, who belonged to a Zen sangha in town, invited me to join him, and so I picked up where I left off 35 years earlier.  

Before long I began to find other Christians who also had a love of Zen - mostly notably, Roshi Ruben Habito, the former Catholic priest who wrote the classic book, Living Zen, Loving God. Ruben introduced me to Roshi Gregory Mayers, a Catholic priest who leads a small Christian Zen community in the Bay Area, and he became my Roshi. Soon after that, I googled on "Christian Zen" and came across Zen Garland - a Zen community with a Zen-Christian congregation within it. Roshi Genki and Roshi Ankai connected with me over Skype, and after I babbled at them for an hour and a half, Genki suggested I come out to Zen Garland for a month. Having absolutely nothing better to do, I happily accepted, and so: I am here.

I have been deeply touched by the warm welcome I've received, and by the beautifully open hearts and deep wisdom that is alive here. It has been an incredibly good experience for me thus far, and I have no doubt this is exactly where I need to be at this time in my life.

Tonight we begin a weekend Zen retreat. I am looking forward to whatever comes up; and I have deep trust that whatever happens, whether difficult or easy, joyful or sorrowful, will be worthy of that trust.

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