Witness Yourself Transformed

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The Sermon on the Mount stands as one of the most significant ethical works in the world’s literary canon. It is an articulation of love compassed in humanity’s shared identity and grounded in the one life. Rejecting worldly and ostentatious expressions of prayer and generosity, the Sermon challenges us to live its message to the fullest. It puts before us an arduous and difficult journey that culminates in and continuously realizes a love that knows no limits It asks us to love others as we do ourselves, with an ardor that exists in the deep connections between self and other, fused together in mutuality.

The message of love goes beyond our ideas of self, other, time and space and exists as an intimation of the eternal. For in going beyond ourselves, we come to realize in the importance and necessity of our actions. In loving all that we encounter, the entire landscape of reality is reconfigured.

One of the most exemplary passages from the Sermon is its discussion on the shadow. The shadow lives in the gaps of our self-image, setting into motion in our own lives what we despise in others.

The Shadow is not what we know about ourselves and don’t like (or like but keep hidden) but rather what we don’t know about ourselves and, if accused of it, would adamantly and sincerely deny.
– Bill Plotkin

Immersed in the detritus of humanity we focus heavily on the faults of others. We do not notice that we all share in the dark heart of Eden; the ichor that runs from our universal wounding. We disgorge these judgments like the effluvia of social life. Once we begin a thorough observation of our own behavior, we see how we hypocritically participate in that which we deny. This self-blindness is part of the human condition. Through our practice we begin to bring the light of awareness down into the most neglected spaces of the soul.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In suspending our constant judgment of others we begin to notice how our judgments turn reciprocally upon us. Our constant criticism pulls us further down into isolation. When we err, and engage in the behavior we project onto others, the wheels of our judgment turn on us once more. Our limited perspective and lack of information guarantees further mistakes. The Sermon, in bringing our attention to this fact, is asking us to look inside ourselves as best we can.

Delving inside our own minds, we understand and transform so that we can more authentically be of help to others. Once we lock eyebrows with the unknown places within, we will be able to reach out and help amend the world’s suffering. Until then, our actions will frequently do more harm than good.

As an extension of this, the Sermon expounds loving one’s enemy, not only as a reflection of oneself, but as God does, nourishing and generating the diverse phenomena of the world without exception. In fact, the following passage asks nothing less from Jesus’ followers than perfection:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If we are constantly at war with ourselves and others, we will never know peace, both within and without.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses . . .

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

The Sermon rejects alms that merely perpetuate our selfishness and socially fabricated identities. These actions perpetuate the ego and exist as blatant forms of advertisement. Instead of generosity coming from a place beyond separation and free of the lust of result, the giving becomes a corrupt method of self-advancement.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The Sermon offers an emphatic critique of those who outwardly profess to be spiritual, but in reality are skillful manipulators and maneuverers for social advantage. One will be able to recognize these people from the effects of their actions:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

This grows into an ethics that is righteousness for its own sake and done for the integrity of the whole.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

A person who has gone beyond themselves in this way has given over totally to the redemptive power of love. The way to this all-embracing love is as fraught with danger as a mountain pass. At every turn, we risk subverting ourselves, the ego turning this love as an instrument for its own aggrandizement, plunging back into the depths.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Rather than keeping us in prisons of our own creation, this deep form of knowledge places us into the all consuming presence of the Heavenly Father. The Sermon then coaxes us even further with this realization. Instead of fortifying ourselves with this understanding, and using it as the basis for an even more rigid and static self, we are asked to continually put this into practice. There is no love without sacrifice, and we offer ourselves up and give fully to creation. We become a conduit of generosity and harmony.

The Sermon also asks us to not to cohere our lives around the temporal and transitory, but on the eternal, the ultimate reality which supports the entire universe.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We then actualize a love of all being. Rather than superficial professions of faith, making this concrete becomes the measure of one’s love of God.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Once we have set store on the eternal, we infuse the bedrock of our lives with love and compassion. The crowds listening at the end are astonished, as Jesus speaks from the heart and lived experience. The Sermon’s words resound from within the dynamic pulse of life.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

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A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.