2 March 2009
It is a snow day here in Philadelphia. A course blanket of white covers the delinquent streets and the cars lurk like white hunchback monsters on both sides, waiting in line. I am off from tutoring today. It is the perfect day to get your letter. Especially since I have so much new stuff to write.
I still remember that bible I gave you. It is a great bible. Fr. Fred gave it to me, and I wanted you to have it. It was written for new converts in the Philippines, actually, I think. I think it is good you had your mom sent it to you (and I am sorry to hear you got robbed man. Offer it up, and pray for forgiveness for the douchebag, who was obviously very desperate, desperate enough to steal). Realize, though, the bible has baggage, a history, and has also been used countless time as a weapon to denigrate people and justify arrogance and pride…everything that God hates. The bible is like a table saw or a drill press: you have to know how to use it, that is, how to read it, or you may cut your hand off (see Matthew 5:30).
Yes, I agree about the Old Testament. I actually would not recommend starting there. There are thousands of years and scores of things that set the context for things like the prayers of vengeance and smashing babies heads against rocks and all that crazy shit, that you just cannot understand unless you know the context. Even though the OT comes first chronologically, anybody interested in the words of Jesus should start there: with the NT. I also would not suggest Acts. I would suggest you start with the Gospel of Luke and read that through. Read it slowly and meditatively. Pray before you read it, and when I say pray, I mean this: God is your Father, maybe your Father who you never knew very well, who seemed distant and cold, but who holds you as the most important person in the world, A., who matters to Him. He knows you. He knows how many hairs you have on your balls and all that.
He is also like an Invisible Make Believe Man. You have to make yourself like a child to talk to God so He will listen, and you will have to meditate on what that means to you, and how you will approach it, but I will tell you that if you want to talk with God, just start the conversation like a little kid does (Daddy look what I did today; look at the picture I drew; I am lonely; etc.), and keep it going. Talk to God as if He were real, a la Pascal’s Wager. Pretend you believe. Consider it an experiment in something ridiculous, but don’t worry about what anyone says. Keep it to yourself. Always be honest, since He knows everything already. Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T’ang dynasty, wrote: “Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.” Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, wrote: “Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.” God is a guest who lives in your heart. You can kick Him out if you don’t want him there. But He is like a stray cat….crack the door open a bit and He will come running back towards you (read the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke).
Let’s talk about repentance. Repentance is the invitation you send out to invite God to come over. It is the story of Nan-in serving tea to the university professor to the point of overflowing: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” How can I show you Christ until you first throw out your brothers, your parents, your childhood, guilt, every shitty thing said and done by ignorant Christians, the Crusades, the Inquisition? You have to throw out the Pope, the Church, everything you think you know about anything at all. Then we can talk about Christ, who is (as far as the New Testament is concerned), the only thing that matters. You not make yourself perfect before meeting God. He does not care about your Sunday Best. Your own efforts for perfection will always fall short. Accepting that is like accepting emptiness…it is the bottomless foundation you must first build before God can come to the house.
I hesitate to say repentance is “feeling sorry for your sins.” Forget your khattamn feelings for a minute. Start with what you know. Are you a perfect person? Um, no. Is that okay? Yes. To God that is okay. Can you become perfect under your own power? Well, that is for you to decide. I know that is what Buddhism teaches. I was never able to buy that, for myself that is. We have much more inner strength than we give ourselves credit for. But my weakness is always before me. In the same way Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he does not mean be sinless completely in this life, but align your will and orient yourself towards perfection. When I write, “my heart is pure,” my heart is anything but pure. From the heart comes all impurity. But my heart’s desire is pure. Karl Rahner, the German theologian, talks about our orientation to God. Where are your eyes, A.? Where are you oriented? If you were a missile getting ready to be shot, which direction would you be heading? Orientation is what matters, because “where your heart is, there your treasure also will be.” Do not fabricate anything…God sees through your bullshit clear as day. The heart speaks its own language; let it speak. Repentance flows from honesty. It must be organic, and real, to count for anything. Have you ever let down someone you’ve loved, hurt someone. Meditate on that feeling. And know that with God, “there is forgiveness. Therefore, He is feared.”
There is a parable in the Gospel about weeds and wheat, and how good will always grow with bad, and you can’t uproot one without uprooting the other. This is in the world and also in our hearts. Repentance is about asking God to pull up the weeds but knowing, when we are honest with ourselves, that they will probably grow back. The only way to get rid of them completely is to burn the whole khattamn field.
So ask yourself: is your desire to be loved as you are sincere? Is your desire to a live a moral, self-controlled life, however that might manifest, sincere? “What is it that you seek? What is it you want me to do for you?” You asked me about hearing the words of Jesus. I will say they are not words at all, but promptings, like some kind of binary code, a combination of 0’s and 1’s that somehow gets translated into my human understanding of language, and comes to me in my own voice. I remember when my brother and I were hiking in the Green Mountains in Vermont one winter, he asked me about prayer: “how do you know when you are talking to God and when you are just talking to yourself?” I didn’t have an answer. That is faith…the ridiculous lack of reason and rational explanations. Perhaps I am talking to myself, and some schizophrenic imaginary voice is answering back, not God at all.
But have you ever felt loved? You know it when you feel it. And I have felt loved by God when I did not feel loved or accepted by anyone else. The closest human feeling I have for this is the love my parents have for me. No matter what I am or who I’ve done (wait a minute), they love and accept me. I always have a place in their home. That’s how you have to start thinking about God. Empty your cup. Read the Prodigal Son. Take all that John Kabbat-Zinn and D.T. Suzuki stuff and translate it baby. Speak your own language, and listen with your own ears! Christianity is not a nationality…it is universal! It speaks “A.,” that strange blonde bearded language of faith seeking understanding. Zen mind, beginner’s mind, right? Well, think Christ Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Think about falling in love for the first time. Open your heart. So awkward! But once you throw the dregs of the cold tea out of your cup and get a fresh steaming cup, you will know. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” Empty your cup, brother.