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The Impossibility of Zen

August 28, 2022

Right now, this month, America is having its annual whirlwind. Thousands of cars clog college town streets everywhere as out-of-it students aimlessly wander in matriculation. Younger students have begun migrating between school and home every day. This comes on the heels of millions of vacations, where newly sprung sequestrationists were exulting in life without Plague Terror.

About 2,500 years ago a prince, Siddhartha Gautama lived the joys of doing things too. Through encounters with others and extreme focus the prince became the “awakened one” – Buddha. His salvation through meditation manifested Zen – oneness with everything without doing anything.

Five hundred years later the idea that our frenzies on earth are not who we ultimately are was in full assertion by another voice, Jesus Christ. One co-conspirator, Matthew, recounted Jesus – who became Christ – to say:

“Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? 26 Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto [f]the measure of his life? 28 And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…”

“Chill” is the message. Right. In this season of defining ourselves by change of venue, we should just realize that all this hubbub just isn’t that important. The Higher Power of Zen should obviate the sturm und drang of the endless obsessions here on earth. But it is not just our Good Angels telling us to smell the lilies.  Singer Olivia Newton John was said to be a wonderful human, newly remembered by her passing. But her singing of the words written by John Farrar evoked pure disdain in me when I was in full testosterone overdrive twenty-five years ago:

“Have you never been mellow?
Have you never tried
To find a comfort from inside you?

Have you never been happy
Just to hear your song?
Have you never let someone else be strong?”

Christ and Buddha would sing along with Olivia. But wait. She was performing, not for her own fulfillment and connection to the Infinite, but for approval – yours and mine. Jesus and Siddhartha completely re-wrought their lives to project their insight, in hopes of revealing the infinite beauty of the world that has been given to us, that we have no control over, and often ignore.

Jesus, Siddhartha, and Olivia were not “mellow.” I am not “mellow.” But somehow, I should be.

Humans are not mellow but somehow we should know that we should be. The lilies are. Buddha was. Christ wanted me to just cut it out and know God’s love. Sure. But I, we, were not made to be “mellow.”

My long dead Aunt Summey was said to have said “Would you rather be a pig satisfied, or a human unsatisfied?” That question answers itself. But we legalize marijuana. We are in ascending rages over everything that is only seen on the screens of our devices. We are, most definitely, not “mellow.” Despite the guilt we feel in its absence, Zen just is not in the cards for humans.

It is the human condition to know that we are in flux. I think it is because, unlike the lilies, we know that we, each of us, will die. In my 67th year, beloved contemporaries are dying all around me. They lived healthy, full lives, but die scores of years before they had any reason to expect their death. What do I do with that? Jesus was not good with being “forsaken.” If death was seen by the human Jesus as a great and good thing there was no forsaking, there was only fulfilling.

Christ and Buddha both knew there was more to life than college admission, salary, vacation or the grade we receive on today’s History quiz – but Jesus and Siddartha probably counted those in attendance at the gatherings they created. We can only know what we have been given – this moment, in this place, what we value. Beyond the immediacy of fulfilling our hopes, Jesus asks us to have faith unto acceptance of God’s infinite love. Until I have lost all control it is a bridge too far for me to live that faith.

But the bridge too far always comes before us. Unlike the lilies, we know that we will leave this shore and this life ends. The exquisitely unknowable gifts of God: life, love, joy, our implausibly inexplicable existence are not there because our hubbub made them – those gifts are there despite all our silliness.  

The end of every life is known to be out there – but only to us. Our pets just know this moment. Those lilies just live. But I know that if my kid goes to this Elite Fencing Camp she might get into Harvard – and what a Move-In Day that will be!


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