Zen and the Hobbit-Hole of Christianity
Lately, my life has been pretty awful, and yet pretty awesome at the same time. And, although most of the awfulness in this case is because of my own stupid choices, I think most of our lives are like this most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that my life is just a mixed “blob” of these two ways of living - in other words, I truly mean that it’s both awful and awesome at the same time.
Many years ago, and in much better - not to mention cleaner - prose than I could ever hope (in the first case) or want (in the second case) to ever write, the pretty-much awesome writer of great Catholic apologetics, GK Chesterton, wrote that Christianity loves red, and it loves white, but it has a healthy hatred of the pink. You see, good, healthy religion - and I think this can apply to Zen as well as Christianity, although Christianity at its finest is the best example - is never a blending together of opposites. Nor is it a rejection of one pole in favor of the other. (This is in spite of the fact that most religions in our world today do choose one or the other - in one case religions becoming a liberal “everything is nice, all paths lead to God, let’s just love everyone at all times” crap or, in the other case, it becomes a form of fundamenatlism that sees all other religions and ways of being - here I’m thinking about good atheism/agnosticism or humanism - as enemies to be avoided at best, or crushed down at worst ). You see, great religion is never an “either/or” affair, but, rather, it’s always a “both/and” vision that sees the sacramental wholeness of this world and the world beyond. But I’ll get around to some more of that “sacramental wholeness” stuff in a later post. For this first entry in what I hope turns out to be a series on Zen and God, I just want to discuss the “both/and” of Zen and Christianity, and get around to some of the crap about how sucky my life can be - and somehow be totally awesome at the same time.
From God to Zen and Back Again
This first part is sort of like when Bilbo first emerged from that hole in the ground, took a very long journey, only to once again return to the comfort of his hole. But once back in the hole, he could never really leave that other world behind, and he never did. (On the subject of Bilbo, I much prefer the vision I had of him when I first read The Hobbit as a child or watched the original animated Lord of the Rings as opposed to Peter Jackson’s vision. Sure, the Lord of the Rings films are pretty good - especially the first one - and I even like his way-too-long, way-too-violent Hobbit films. And, yeah, the animated movie kind of sucked, but it nailed the hobbits as they were in the book. But anyway…)
I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church in the south. This is nothing new. If you’re my age, and you grew up in Texas, Arkansas, or Alabama - as I did - then there’s at least a 75% chance that you grew up in a Southern Baptist church. As a child, there was a lot of stuff I liked about going to church. Jesus seemed pretty damn cool to me, and he was an-easy-to-talk-to God when I lay awake in my room at night, staring out of my window at the stars, and just trying to figure life out. But then there was some of the stuff that I was taught in church that I grew out of as I got older. I was never much of a hellfire-and-damnation fan of any sort, and I just thought something was a little bit off with the whole “getting saved” approach to Christianity. Years later, I heard a Benedictine saying that always rang true for me. The Benedictine monks, when they approach each other, will often say, “Pray for my salvation, and I will pray for yours.” Of course, if you grew up Southern Baptist, or are Southern Baptist, then this saying will seem a bit odd to you. Aren’t the monks already “saved”? The answer - and this shouldn’t surprise you based on how this post began - is that they are “are/aren’t”. For, you see, salvation is an ever deepening journey into the depths of your soul. It doesn’t just “begin” and it can’t just “end.”
When I became an “adult” - although I was by no means an adult when I turned 18 - I stopped going to church. College was the end of all that. And, no, Conservative Christians, it wasn’t because of all my liberal, hippy teachers who seemed to prefer socialism bordering on Communism instead of any of the more conservative values I was raised upon. No, I didn’t need any of that stuff to stop attending church. All it took was beer, women, and drugs. A lot of beer, quite a few women, and the occasional drug when I felt the desire.
But there was always, how should I exactly put this, an urge for something more, something transcendent to this world that I still longed for, even if I didn’t think it could be found in most of the Southern United States forms of Christianity in which I grew up belonging.
And Jesus never really left me, either. He was always there, somewhere in the background of all the noise I had drowned Him in, just waiting for me to discover Him once more.
Fast forward several years from College, stuck in a miserable marriage that I didn’t see any escape from, and I needed something to help keep me afloat, and, lo-and-behold, I thought religion might be just the sort of thing I needed. But I didn’t want a belief system, I wanted a way of being and living that could help me gain some basic sanity, and find some sort of peace in a life that was never peaceful.
I turned to Zen.
Zen seemed cool, and this was before the word had become so saturated in our society that “Zen” just became a word for anything that was “peaceful” or “stress-free” or helped you to “live in the moment”. No, I’m talking about a Zen that was none of that crap.
I was sort of lucky in, that, I had practiced a very traditional form of Karate ever since I was a child. And we sat zazen (seated Zen meditation) for at least a few moments at the end of every class. And my teacher, a Chinese man who was a master of a Japanese martial art and who spoke with a deep southern drawl (only in the South) would shout things at as such as, “You must learn to think without thinking, to fight without fighting.” So I kind of knew what the heck I was getting myself into.
But I didn’t know that Zen was so damn Buddhist. I thought the Buddha was pretty cool even as a child, especially the seriously bad-ass Shaolin Buddhist monks who kicked all sorts of tail in the 1970s Hong Kong films I endeared myself to as a kid, and still love with plenty of nostalgic joy as an adult. But the fact that Zen was so Buddhist took me more than a little to get accustomed to, which was, once again, due to my upbringing. My parents would have seriously “flipped-out” if they ever saw some of the statues of the Buddha I eventually started placing around my house or as part of an altar in front of my zazen cushions. But after reading more than a few books, listening to some talks, and even attending a local zen community, it dawned on me one day that I was very comfortable referring to myself as a Buddhist. I was Buddhist.
But, for whatever reason you might want to believe it was, I kept coming back to Jesus. I started reading books about the “quest for the historical Jesus” from authors such as Marcus Borg and Dominic Croissan. And even though the Jesus pictured there wasn’t exactly the one I grew up with, and even though neither of those authors really thought that Jesus was Divine, he was still appealing.
And then I discovered the Saints and mystics of the Church, primarily the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ones, but some of those quaker mystics interested me too. Why in the world did I never hear about any of this or any of these people in the church of my youth?
Maybe, just maybe, I thought, there might actually be something to this whole Christianity thing after all.
And after a few more years, I was comfortably back in my Hobbit hole, even if it was a different hole than the one I left. My hole had grown larger, and deeper, and wider. But Jesus was still at the center of it, only now He was way cooler and way more awesome than the one I was fed 30 years before, in a Sunday School class where one of my teachers told me that “Good little boys just don’t ask those sort of questions.”
But I could never leave Zen and Buddhism behind, no matter how hard I may have tried. You can’t rid yourself of something that was part of your life for over a decade. And so I have learned to live what is often called a “double-belonging”. I have seen the truths - deep, abiding truths - of two different (often very different) religions, and I hold both of them in tension. I will never accept an “either/or” where I would have to pick one or the other, and I will never accept a “blending” of the two, where both of them end up losing their unique insights in some mush of my own making. No, I will always be “both/and.”
In the Muck and the Mire of the Awful and the Awesome of the Divine
Back to how my life is both awful and awesome at the same time.
I will get around to more details in later essays. But, suffice it to say, I’ve learned that life - and I don’t just mean my life, I mean all of life everywhere - can rest comfortably in opposites. There’s no reason that life only has to be one way.
Look at the natural world. It can be fantastic and beautiful, but it can also be awful and dreadful, and, yes, it is all of these things all at once.
Look at the world that mankind has created. It’s the same way. You will find beauty everywhere if you only look. But you also find darkness, and plenty of it.
The key, I think - and this is where a steady practice of zazen can really help - is for you to let life simply rest as it is. The glass, for the zennist, is neither half-full, nor is it half-empty. It just is where it is.
Our minds, for all their potential greatness, are constantly dwelling on the past or thinking about the future. We really suck in the modern world - a world full of distractions that don’t allow the mind to rest comfortably in its natural state - at learning how to simply rest in the beauty of the present moment, and to let our minds, and our lives, simply be.