Einstein and Jesus on True Family

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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.”

Follow Jesus!

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I shot this photo at a café in Amersfoort, NL, in 2014.

When the café owner saw me lingering over this arrangement of statues on his counter, he gave me a knowing smile. They were not positioned that way by accident.

IN this World, not OF this World

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Jesus Himself said, “The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14-16).

A student recently asked about the hard experience she had when encountering friends again after being in nearly three months of coronavirus-lockdown. She had originally complained about the isolation of the lockdown period, especially even the lack of physical contact — hugging, embracing, kissing, being touched. And now, after meeting friends again, she came back feeling the terrible pain of their self-inflicted sufferings. It made her almost regret ever having a problem with the lockdown-isolation in the first place.

Practicing Zen means simply “meditating,” and meditating is observing, seeing, attaining our True Nature, which is Moment. And attaining moment happens nowhere else than right where we really are. It sounds too simple, maybe even New Agey. But this is the whole point.

Our practice happens in this world — in the midst of work and family and relationship, in the midst of busyness and the cares of life in the modern world. But as practitioners from the Buddha to Jesus see, those who strive to make such insight stable in their lives — while practicing in the here-and-now of our mundane lives — do not need to follow or be determined by the empty conventions, the mediocre value systems, and the endlessly unsatisfactory social needs of the human web to which we are linked by relation, by work or family or affiliation, by tribe or politics or thought or fashion. We ARE in this world, living out our practice; but we are not bound to remain “of” this world. It need not define us, prescribe us, or limit us in any way.

Here is the video where I give a shot at explaining this to a member of our community who reached out:

Here is the short teaser for that teaching-video. It was just something which Ioannis and I cranked out one afternoon, without any sort of plan:

Find Your Gethsemane!

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What was the last thing that Jesus did, as a free man, immediately before his arrest by the Roman authorities acting on behalf of the high priests? What was his very last chosen action, before he gave up his civic freedom into the hands of his torturers and killers?

He did not scheme some “last stand”. He did not attempt to work out an escape, to buy more time. He did not hold hands with his tribe and seek comfort in numbers and a sing-song sing-song fake religiosity. He didn’t take those options. In the final minutes of his liberty, he went into a grove of trees to pray, to reflect on life and coming death — alone. He left friends, protectors, and disciples outside the grove, and entered into his solitude.

Alone.

This is an excellent teaching from Jesus. It points us, too, to consciously seek out our silence and solitude. In the midst of the trials and tortures of everyday existence, it remains to us to choose the means by which we will not only maintain our sanity, but also hopefully be strong enough to help and serve other people, even while we are beset by the challenges and suffering of everyday life in stressful cities, jobs, or relationships. But you don’t get that just from reading a book. You must choose your periods of solitude. Only through periods of meditative calm away from distractions — even if just for short periods — can we remain stable and calm, grounded in our unmoving, completely fearless don’t-know mind.

(Excerpt from a talk in Haugesund, Norway, May 2019)