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Passover & Easter: Suffering in the Bible and Zen

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 04/23/2000
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In Topics: Judaism / Jewish Meditation, Religion

Norman advises that suffering cannot be eliminated. He tells us we can find freedom within suffering and not by trying to escape from it.

Happy Easter to everyone, and happy fourth day of Passover! It seems these two great and problematic celebrations of Spring happen each year at the same time, and it is, of course, not an accident. Easter is Passover as it was lived again by one person. This seems an example of a very true theory of history¡that it keeps coming back, that its patterns repeat in all our lives. To me this would be the best way to live¡to situate yourself within your life in such a way as to feel that your own life was unfolding with the pattern of all of life. I suppose this might seem megalomaniacal, but I see it as quite humble. My life isn't mine, it is just life living itself through me. I think, if you lived your life like that, then a lot of what bothers you wouldn't bother you any more, and a lot of things that don't bother you now would seem very important, very personal.

To me this is the virtue of meditation practice: that it tends to cause things to settle in your life. I mean, literally, to settle, to fall down with gravity, gently, like pulp in a glass of orange juice. Things in your life go down deeper, so that your life becomes like that, clear and settled. Then everything that happens is useful, there are no setbacks, there is just, "what now?" Then "what now?" and the wonder of how it all takes shape. Because it is Passover I was reading the Bible to remember the story, and I had the idea, as I looked carefully at the words, or at least the English translation of the words, that were anyway probably changed many, many times over the generations, that the biography of Moses sounded suspiciously like my own biography. Maybe it sounds like yours, too: saved from drowning by a woman; growing up in a foreign family; finally, taking the first steps to figure out who you really are and acting on that; and it turns out to be a big mistake and you have to flee to the desert to dwell among strangers. I was struck by the detail of how Moses first arrives in Midean. It says, "and he sat down by a well." He sat down by a well and everything unfolds from there. Our life story continues: one day, you notice that something is on fire, burning, but not burning. You find it impossible to go about your business and ignore this strange fire, so you feel compelled to turn toward it. Because you turn toward the fire, the world calls out to you and you have no choice but to answer. Then you are given your marching orders. The Bible says Moses did not go on. Instead he turns toward the burning bush, and, because God sees that he has done this, God calls out to him, "Moses!" and Moses says, "Here I am." This happens in many Zen stories, too. The teacher calls out and the disciple says, "here I am." With that response to the world, the disciple is enlightened.

There are several stories like that in the tradition. You are called and you answer automatically. Something in you responds, but at the same time you hate it. You refuse your orders. You say, "no, I can't do it. I'm not worthy. I'm too busy. I don't have the capacity. I'm too old, too lazy, too fat, too thin, too timid, and, besides, I think you have the wrong person." But there's no choice and no excuse. So, you go forth with great reluctance, and things turn out badly. Yes, there are moments of great insight, and narrow escapes, and heroic turns, but, basically, you wander around in circles back in the desert for forty years, fighting with your family and friends, until you finally come close to the goal, but you die before you get there. This sounds like my life. Maybe yours too. Maybe this is everyone's life. I am sure I must have told you before about the Buddhist Christian dialog meeting I attended several years ago at Gethsemane Abbey, Thomas Merton's monastery. In every room there was a realistic depiction of the crucifixion, with a realistic Christ hanging on the cross in agony. Some of the crucifixes were very moving pieces of art, and I wondered how all the brothers, who must have a tremendous love and personal relationship to Jesus, could stand eating, sleeping, going to the toilet, reading, and praying in rooms with these figures present everywhere. It seemed so sad to me. So I stood up in the conference and just asked everyone, "what are you thinking when you see these sad images." Many Christian monks spoke passionately to this point. Most of them said that they did see suffering in the crucifixes, but they also saw love, and they saw redemption, they saw freedom, and they saw joy. The cross wasn't just sad; it was much more than that, also. This, I suppose, is the theme of Easter.

I confess that I have very little knowledge and feeling for what Easter is, but, as a boy, I was always fascinated with the idea of Jesus' death. It seems very counter intuitive that the all-powerful majestic God would be defeated in such a terrible way. When native peoples were told about Christianity they were at first baffled by this idea. How could an all-powerful god be humiliated exactly as a human being is humiliated? It made no sense. But later, I think, when they themselves were suffering terribly, they came to see how much sense it made that in the midst of suffering there could be freedom, ultimate freedom, so I think a lot of native peoples, and, later, African Americans, too, became very sincere Christians in their own special ways.

To me, being an inveterate doubter and skeptic, the most poignant part of the Easter story was found in the line in one of the gospels that has Jesus saying in his last moments, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" To me this was the final pain: to lose, not only your life, but, in the end, also your faith. The thought that Jesus, in the end, died faithless and forsaken by God was, to me, something very beautiful and touching. Later on, I realized that Jesus didn't just say those words. If he said them at all, he was quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, which, as a Rabbi, he would have known by heart. Recently I made my own version of this psalm. I will read it, but it is a little long, I warn you:

Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why so far from my delivery
So empty in the anguish of my words?
I call to you in the daytime but you don't answer
And all night long I plead restlessly, uselessly.
I know your holiness, find it in the memorized praises
Uttered by those who've questioned and struggled with you
Through all the generations
These, my forebears, trusted in you
And through their trusting you touched them
Held and delivered them
Trusting they cried out to you and you met them face-to-face
Their confidence was strong and they were not confounded.
But I am not as they.
Utterly alone, I am cast out of the circle.
A worm, a living reproach, scorned and despised, even less than despised,
Unheard, unseen, unacknowledged, denied;
And all who encounter me revile me with cynic laughter
Shaking their heads, parting their nattering lips, mocking,
"Let him throw himself at God for his deliverance," they say,
"Since that is who he trusts, let the Lord save him."
And they are right:
How not trust you, and what else to trust?
You I entered on leaving the womb
You I drank at my mother's breast
I was cast upon you at birth
And even before birth I swam in you, my heart's darkness
Be not far from me now
When suffering is very near
And there is no help
And I am beset all round by threatening powers
The bulls of Bashan gaping their dismal braying mouths
Their ravenous roaring lion mouths
I am poured out like water
My bones' joints are snapped like twigs
My heart melts like wax
Flooding my bowels with searing viscid emotion
My strength is dried up like a potsherd
My tongue cleaves woolly to the roof of my mouth
And I feel my body dissolving into death's dusts
For I am hounded by my isolation
Am cast off and encircled by the assembly of the violent
Who like vicious dogs nip at my hands and feet
I count the bones of my naked body
As the mongrels shift and stare and circle
They divide my clothes among themselves, casting lots for them
So now, in this very place, I call out you
There is no one left
Do not be far from me
Be the center
Of the center
Of the circle
Be the strength of that center
The power of the absence that is the center
Deliver my life from the killing sharpnesses
Deliver my soul from the feverish dogs
Save me from the lion mouths
Answer me with the voice of the ram's horn
And I will seek and form and repeat your name among my kinsmen
In the midst of everyone I will compose praises with my lips
And those who enter your awesomeness through my words will also praise
All the seed of Jacob will glorify you
And live in awe of you
All those who question and struggle
Will dawn with your light
For they will know
You have not scorned the poor and despised
Nor recoiled disgusted from their faces
>From them your spark has never been hidden
And when they cried out in their misery
You heard and answered and ennobled them
And it is the astonishment of this that I will praise in the Great Assembly
Making deep vows in the presence of those who know your heart
Know that in you the meek eat and are satisfied
And all who seek and struggle find the tongue to praise
Saying to you:
May your heart live forever
May all the ends of the earth remember and return to you
And all the families of all the nations bow before you
For all that is your domain
Your flame kindles all that lives and breathes
And you are the motive force of all activity
The yearning of the grasses, the lovers' ardor
And they that rise up, live, and eat the fat of the earth will bow before you
Before you will bow all those who lie down, find peace, and enter the dust
For none can keep alive by his own power¡you alone light the soul
Distant ages to come shall serve you, shall be related to you in future times
Those people not yet born
Will sing of your uprightness, your evenness, your brightness to a people not
yet born that is still yet to come.
That this is how you are.

There are many interesting and moving things about this psalm, I think, but what I would like to point out is how powerfully it shows the path of suffering. Buddha spoke of suffering; his whole teaching comes down to suffering, the end of suffering, and path to the end of suffering. But, if you think about Buddha's teaching very carefully, as Nagarjuna and other sages did, you can understand that Buddha was not saying that suffering is to be eliminated, removed like you would remove a growth by surgery. He was saying that suffering, when it is appreciated and really understood, and fully, radically, accepted as it really is¡as empty of any real nature of suffering¡as the shape of life itself, then suffering is transformed. There is freedom, not from suffering, but within it.

To me, the astonishing thing about this psalm is that it says that the whole universe responds to suffering. God responds to the suffering of Jesus, and also to the suffering of everyone, just as, in the Exodus story, God responds to the suffering of the Jewish people. This seems to be one of the characteristics of God, one of the principles or reflexes of God, that God responds, comes forward, where there is suffering. The speaker of this psalm is someone who is in the depths of suffering, someone who is isolated and alone, faithless, and desperate. But, somehow, through that very condition, the speaker finds some turning, some serenity, and then he, or she, comes to see that others are suffering too, and that these other suffering beings are holy in the midst of their suffering.

This is the origin of the concept of justice, I think, the sense that those who suffer are the same as us, and deserve, deeply, to be treated the same way we are treated, to receive whatever advantages and help anyone else would receive. The idea of justice is not obvious or self-evident. There are still today people who will say, "Well, the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor; they haven't worked hard like we have." Or, criminals are criminals because they have decided to do wrong, they are rotten evil people, so why should they have any protection or special rights in the law. Even now, many people think like this, and, in the past, thinking like this was just something obvious. If harm befell you, it was because you deserved it, because you were marked for it, and it was just too bad. The idea of justice means, to the contrary, that people who suffer deserve dignified treatment and sympathy because they are us, and we are them. Their hearts and our hearts are built in exactly the same way, and are entwined with one another and with the heart of the world.

The other day I was in the Hartford Street Zen center and there was a beautiful picture on the wall of Issan, who was the founder and the first abbot there. Issan was a gay man who was gay at a time when it was very dishonorable, very difficult, to be gay, before there was any such thing as "coming out," or any idea of gay rights. He was kicked out of his family for being gay, and later out of the Navy. He became an addict and well-known female impersonator before he became a Zen priest in the 70's. He died of AIDS almost ten years ago now.

Issan was a wonderful person. He had a wonderful natural sense of compassion. He was one of the first people to pick up drunks and addicts off the streets and simply bring them home with him and care for them. In those days, there were beginning to be many people destitute because of AIDS, and there was much fear and paranoia about the disease because so much was unknown about it. But Issan would take AIDS patients in and care for them, without worrying about himself. His life was pretty chaotic, but he was always peaceful and free because he had nothing to protect. All his life he had lived through so much trouble and indignity that there was nothing at all left for him to hold on to, nothing left to be afraid of. He was a very funny and a very fearless person.

The truth is I think we are all like Issan was, and, are like the people he would pick up off the streets were. All of us, in the middle of our lives, in the dark spot in the center of our hearts, are unworthy, foolish, sick, destitute, alone. Just like the speaker of the psalm, we are outcasts, faithless, and desperate. Our freedom isn't in avoiding or correcting this problem. It is in our acceptance of it, and in seeing, in the midst of our condition, that we are the same as anyone, that everyone, no matter how powerful or successful, or how degraded and debased, is exactly the same as we are. This is love, I think: seeing the identity between ourselves and all who suffer, which means everyone and everything without exception. Recently I have been doing zazen by myself at home in the early mornings. To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd actually do this. I did it faithfully for many years, but that was a long time ago. I thought that now, after sitting with others for twenty-five years, I'd probably be too lazy to sit just by myself. But the truth is I am eager to wake up before dawn and sit zazen all by myself because, when I am sitting there, I do not feel as if I am sitting all by myself. I really feel held by all of the universe. I feel held in Buddha's hand, held in God's hand, held in the hands of the vast universe. Did you know that there are 500 billions stars in our galaxy, and most of them are larger than the sun? And that there are about 50 billion galaxies like ours in what we call the "known universe"? When I am sitting zazen by myself, I feel like I am held warmly right in the middle of all of that.

Buddha speaks of suffering and the Bible speaks of suffering, and today I have spoken of suffering, but what is suffering? I do not think any of us really knows what suffering is or how far suffering reaches. Suffering appears to us as something sad, something tragic. It is sad and tragic, but I wonder how suffering appears to the distant stars? I am sure there is suffering in distant places across vast stretches of space and time, but I do not know how that suffering appears. Maybe, as in the psalm, it is our job to sing about suffering, to build monuments to it, to celebrate it. Maybe this is what poetry is; maybe this is what history is.

Once, deep in the mountains at a Zen temple, there was a sudden rustling sound. The Zen master Jingqing asked a monk, "What is that sound outside?" The monk said, "It's the sound of a snake eating a toad." Jingqing said, "Once you acknowledge suffering there is no end to suffering."