I have always been struck by the similarities of Jesus’ teachings to the koans of the Zen Masters, who were so popular in my youth. “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” (Hakuin Ekaku) But this one is immediately applicable to today’s readings: “If you meet the Buddha, Kill Him.” (Linji).
Jesus was a Zen Master of his time.
In the first reading, we have the makings of a typical koan:
Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said,
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,
and I will follow you.”
Elijah answered, “Go back!
Have I done anything to you?”
As we know, Old Testament scripture pre-figured the life and teachings of Jesus, so here we see the Master saying, “Once you start along my path, there is no going back.” It took a simple question to put Elisha on the right path.
In the Koan, the Master Linji is saying that we are always searching for a tangible presence. But Zen teaches that there is no duality: there is no “here” nor “there”; or, there is no “I am searching for enlightenment” nor “I have found enlightenment.” There is no way to describe enlightenment to ourselves or to others. When we reach it, we will know it…and then have no need to discuss it.
Doesn’t Jesus imply the same as Luke records:
“When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.””
So in today’s Gospel we encounter several other koans. In the first, someone tells Jesus he will follow him wherever he goes. And Jesus answers he has nowhere to go.
Then he says to another, “Follow me.” But the man says he has sacred obligations, that is, to bury his father. Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.”
And the third man asks leave to say goodbye to his family, at which point Jesus says, in metaphor, if you look behind, you will lose your way. Keep your eyes ahead to the Kingdom. In other words, you can only plow a straight furrow if you keep your eyes on your work.
To us today, with all that we have absorbed and been taught about our catholic faith, these scripture readings are somewhat intelligible. Some of us have to work at them, others get the meaning immediately. But imagine the followers of Jesus as they hear these off-the-wall comments from their Rabbi. What must they have thought? We know that some went away confused, and we know that some understood and followed.
But we also know that with the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and Jesus’ followers were given the answers to these mysterious koans. Would that we could have the answers like that!
But wait! What does the Apostle Paul say in today’s reading to the Galatians?
“I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Isn’t he saying what the Zen Master said? You can search all you want in this physical realm for God, you can long for heaven in some far off corner of the sky, you can follow all the rules you want, but The Kingdom of God is right here, right now, within, without…in fact, you are the Kingdom of God.
But finally, there is a corollary to these readings. And that is, “Take up your cross and follow me.” In other words, not only are you expected to forget the past, keep your eyes on the prize, and steer straight for the Promised Land. But you are also expected to do some work along the way. As James tells us: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Then what about that business of “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? It seems to me the difference here between what Jesus teaches us and how Zen is practiced is that Zen is focused on the individual’s path to enlightenment. Jesus is telling us we have to bring others along on this path.
How appropriate, then, for Dominicans! If the Kingdom is right here, right now, then we are tasked with showing this truth to everyone we meet, right here, right now. There is no holiday, no time off. As Christians we must live our faith, not simply express it. And when you come to think of it, how hard is that? What kind of burden is it to live in the “now” of our faith and knowledge of God’s magnificent goodness as taught to us by the Son and as impelled by the Holy Spirit?
Lord, as we contemplate the meaning of the lessons of scripture, help us to remember that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that all we have to do is stretch out our hands and grasp it.