This reflection is based on two short readings:
Reading #1: Excerpts from “Bloodstream Sermon”, attributed to Bodhidharma
(Adapted from The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine)
This reading is part of a sermon from a famous Buddhist master. The Buddhists he is speaking to are looking to Buddha to save them. They believe if they read their sacred texts and practice meditation and make offerings to the Buddha, Buddha will help them reach nirvana in the next life.
This mind is the Buddha. Beyond this mind you’ll never find another Buddha. To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible…You might think you can find a Buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place doesn’t exist.
Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It’s not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can’t grab it. Beyond this mind you’ll never see a Buddha. The Buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a Buddha beyond this mind?
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature. If you don’t see your nature, invoking buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. …If you don’t see your nature and run around all day looking somewhere else, you’ll never find a Buddha. The truth is, there’s nothing to find. But to reach such an understanding you need a teacher and you need to struggle to make yourself understand. Life and death are important. Don’t suffer them in vain.
Reading #2: The Calling of Matthew
(From the Book of Matthew, chapter 9, verses 9-13, from the Christian Bible, New International Version (NIV) translation)
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’[a] For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
These readings and this reflection sync up with a poem a friend of mine shared with me a week or so ago. In “Peace is this moment without judgement,” Dorothy Hunt asks us, “Do you think peace will come some other place than here, some other time than now, some other heart than yours??”
I have been reading the words of an important Buddhist master named Bodhidharma. He made me realize the important role that we play in our own salvation. He makes this great point, that if we don’t awaken our minds, nothing else matters. The Buddha himself could be right in front of us, but it wouldn’t matter. If our minds are not awake, then they will be an obstacle to our encountering the Buddha. Without our own awakening, we can’t have access to the Buddha’s awakening, even if he is right there in front of us.
The same goes for Jesus. Upon reading Bodhidharma, I thought of this scene, the calling of Matthew. Jesus is present right there, in flesh and blood. And he calls Matthew, and Matthew comes. But the Pharisees, who are standing right there, right in front of the same Jesus, they do not understand. Their minds get in the way of seeing Jesus. Matthew was a sinner, but his sin didn’t get in the way because his mind was ripe for Jesus. In Christianity we don’t often talk about a change of mind. We talk about a change of heart, a metanoia, a repentance. But I think it is the same thing. Jesus could be right in front of us, but if we aren’t open to seeing him or hearing him, it doesn’t matter whether he is here or he is a million miles away.
I remember a painting from my catholic elementary school. It showed Jesus on one side of a door, knocking to come in. On the other side of the door was the person reaching for the door handle. On Jesus’ side of the door, there was no handle.
Unless we soften our hearts, awaken our minds, we will forever be on the other side of that door. You may have heard that old paradox, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The idea being that if God is all-powerful, then of course he can make such a stone. But if he is all-powerful, then shouldn’t he also be able to lift it? This paradox is often used to critique the idea of omnipotence. But the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev answered this paradox so matter of factly: “Can God create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it? Of course he can, and he has: the human heart.”
This anecdote reinforces the idea that we play a crucial role in our own salvation. We must soften our hearts and awaken our minds. We must let God in. God can’t do that for us. But the good news in all of this is that God will never stop trying to be let in. In every moment of our lives, God is standing on the other side of that door. EVERY MOMENT. We only have to let God in.
I will share with you a prayer I have been using for a year or two now. It is this: “Dear God, is there anything you want to show me today, and is there anything you want me to do?” Ask God that, and I promise you that you will see God. It may not always be what you expected, but it works. It’s works. All you have to do is ask. It is like opening that door. In the words of Bodhidharma, it is awakening, becoming a Buddha, so that you can see a Buddha. If you ask God to show you what God wants to show you, then you are, in a way, becoming like God. You are letting your own self get out of the way so that you can see what God is seeing. You are not hiding anymore.
I will just give two recent examples, and hope that your own examples come to mind. The first one happened in December. A song popped into my head from somewhere in my past. “Warm and Beautiful,” by Paul McCartney. It wasn’t a hit or anything like that; it was one of the last songs on one of his Wings albums from the 70’s. Anyway, that song popped into my head and I searched for it and listened to it again for maybe the first time in ten years. Later that evening, I was on the phone with my brother in Massachusetts.
I said, “Hey, you know what song I thought of today? Warm and Beautiful. I had forgotten how good it was.”
My brother replied, “Are you kidding me?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I just sat down at the piano this morning and played and sang that song for my wife. She had never heard it before.”
“Whoa. That’s crazy.”
The second example happened around the same time. A relative of mine who is recovering from substance abuse was at an AA meeting where they were doing an activity. They were given paper and they had to draw concentric circles and fill in the names of people who were in their different circles. In the center they were asked to write the name of a person who they could count on unconditionally, no matter what, any time of the day or night. Only one name came to mind for my relative. It was a woman he had been best friends with in college, but who he had lost touch with over the years. They had spoken on and off, but hadn’t really talked in a long time. After the meeting that night, when my he got home, his phone rang. You know who it was, right? That woman, his long-lost friend, calling him out seemingly out of the blue that very night that he inscribed her name in his innermost circle.
I cannot tell you what the mechanism of these connections is. I can only attest to their reality. I am interested to hear if you have similar stories.
As we have been following social distancing guidelines in an effort to keep ourselves and others safe, what has been shown to me is the ways in which we are all connected. Not just physically, not just through Zoom, not just through our relationships that have shaped us in the past and in generations past. Not just by our futures, which we are tethered to together. I am talking about the ways in which we are connected right now, and always, in the eternal now, no matter what seeming distance we keep between ourselves.