Einstein and Jesus on True Family

In his timeless essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Foreshadowing where this insight would lead, in the development of one of the most significant essays ever written in the English language, Emerson writes several paragraphs later, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This essay was a revolutionary turning point for me: reading it deeply for the first time in Paris while teaching English and German there in 1988-89, it marked the last bit of Western philosophy I would absorb intellectually before turning with gusto to the practice of Zen — and leaving all the books behind, and gradually the Mahler and the Beethoven as well. Every single line of “Self-Reliance” felt like something my soul had always screamed for, admonitions I had always needed to hear but could not, trapped in dogmatic superstitions for so many years. Emerson’s soul really broke open the cage for me, intellectually but spiritually. “Self-Reliance” (and For while I had already read one Zen book by the time I encountered Emerson’s words, it seemed I needed some affirmation from an intellectual great to confirm that I would be heading in the right direction, were I to go deeper into Zen.

So, how much more these words by Albert Einstein strike open the heart like a similar thunder-bolt of recognition:

Self-reliance, for doing this spiritual work, has been merely the living out of a recognition of being this “lone traveler” who has never belonged to country, home, friends, or even immediate family. “In the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”

Except for a seven- or eight-month period when I was about of Providence Zen Center in 1997-98, I have lived outside the United States pretty continuously since 1994. During that time, I have lost all contact with my Yale College classmates and Harvard Divinity School network, and with one of the two significant friendships I had since childhood. (And one of those relationships had zero contact or communication for over 20 years, during the period of my most intensive training and teaching in Asia.) I do not have ongoing relationships with really any of my eight brothers and sisters (or their children), especially in the years since my Mother died. Needless to say, such things as “cousins” and such relations have grown so distant as if almost to inhabit another, pre-verbal phase of some before-life. There is no judgement in this: it is just how things have grown in the years since I decided to “leave home” and enter the monastic path.

I do not feel “American”, except in a cultural sense, in the same way that I do not feel as a “Catholic,” except for some of the cultural and psychological stamps I received from being raised in that worldview. I do not feel allied to any one nation or tribe (except, to be honest, the “tribe” of people who would wake up to their True Nature through meditation).

Einstein’s words, above, capture so perfectly the way I view this life.

Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 12: 47-50:

47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Albert Einstein and “The Compass of Zen”

The Compass of Zen is based on pure observation, not belief or philosophy or speculation or even some moldy referents. In that sense, in its most simplistic, meditation is a scientific insight — not religion. The “Theory of Relativity” is explained perfectly by Zen, in a way no religion would ever attempt. Short, straight, absolutely to the point — at the speed of light:

Albert Einstein: To simplify the concept of relativity, I always use the following example: if you sit with a girl on a garden bench and the moon is shining, then for you the hour will be a minute. However, if you sit on a hot stove, the minute will be an hour.


Zen Master Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen (1997): 

“Your thinking makes past, present, and future, so you have time. You make time. And the time that you make is your time, not my time or anybody else’s time. Let us say someone is waiting for his wife. They are supposed to meet at 5:00 pm, but it’s already 6:30 and she hasn’t arrived yet. If she is late, he will be at least a little angry with her. This is the view of “my” mind, “my” time. It may be that she is late because she is working on something in the office, and she is getting something done. “Her” time may be passing quickly, and she’s not going to get angry. But while I am waiting in the car, “my” time is passing slowly, and “my” time is being wasted. “My” time is suffering-time, passing slowly. But “hers” may not be the same; she may be working hard, meeting a deadline, and that same period of time is actually passing too quickly for her to get it done.

This is “my” mind. We make our time either good or bad, happy or sad. We make time with our thinking minds. We make time either long or short. We make it good or bad. Here is another example: At 8:00 o’clock pm, you go to a disco, and you are dancing with all your favorite friends. It’s a wonderful party. Everybody is having a very good time. Then at one point you look at your watch: “Oh, it’s already 11:30! Almost time to go home! That’s too bad!” Three or four hours pass like maybe one hour. But then on another occasion you go to the airport to pick up your girlfriend. You have not seen her for one month, and you are very, very excited. But this plane is one hour late. The minutes pass so slowly. It seems like a very, very long time. “Why is this plane not coming? I want to see her soon. But the airplane is not coming!” This one hour waiting for your girlfriend is a very, very long time, and it feels like one month or one year! Ah, suffering! [Loud laughter] But at the disco, dancing with your friends, the same exact measurement of time feels like it passes in five minutes. “Only one hour. That’s too bad!” Ha ha ha ha! So your mind makes one hour either long or short. It all comes from your thinking: How do you keep your mind, right now? What kind of mind do you have?

Our thinking also makes space because originally space, too, simply does not exist. America is here, and Korea is over there. America has north, south, east, and west; Korea also has north, south, east and west. But America’s north, south, east, and west are different from Korea’s north, south, east, and west. “I am here. I have north, south, east, and west. When I disappear, where is my north, south, east, and west?” Does a dead man have north and south? There is nothing, yah? Ha ha ha ha! Also two men stand facing each other. One man lifts his right arm and points it straight at the wall to his side. “That’s the right wall.” But to the man facing him, that is the left wall! Which one is correct? If there are one hundred people in a big room, each facing a uniquely different direction, and each one does this, maybe you will have a problem. [Laughter] This is where all war and conflict come from. The reason for this is because everybody makes their “left” and “right,” and everybody believes that their “left” is the correct one. So as we see, we make our time and space, and we make our cause and effect, and all these then control our lives.”