A Stick is a Stick The Metaphysics of Zen Christianity
In Zen Buddhism, a stick is a stick. A Zen Christian says the same. Whereas some Christians might want to see a stick as a sacrament, or as the self-expression of God, or as a manifestation of God, or, at the very least, as a sign of God, a Zen Christian will say: A stick is a stick. Along with Zen Buddhists, this Christian affirms the world in its suchness. Sticks and dogs and grass and people are instances of suchness; and, so the Zen Christian adds, God is an instance of suchness. All are unique. All are themselves. A[[ are present to and in one another. All depend on one another. But all are also unique. A stick is a stick.
There is no need to add the word "holy" to all of this. No need to say God is holy but the world is not. Or to counter this by saying all is holy. Everything is its own unique self. That's enough.
Zen finds its spiritual home in everyday life. The spirit of Zen is an ongoing invitation for us to perceive the stick without imposing any additional meaning or interpretation onto it; to see the stick exactly as it is, without filters of preconception or judgment; to see the stick in its suchness. Zen does not say "the rocks and trees are projections of the self." It says instead "the rocks and trees help create the self." There is no self without the rocks and trees, hills and rivers, people and sticks.
This does not mean that we cannot use the stick for practical purposes. It can be turned into a keisaku: a flat wooden stick used in Zen to help meditators avoid drowsiness by striking them on the back. Or as a walking stick, like a cane. Or, as in ancient times, a throwing stick, like a spear.
But in all of these instances, it remains a stick, and there is something ultimate in its stickness. If we see the stick as holy, an angel of light, a sacrament, we miss the stick. We are imposing holiness upon it. Better to say nothing holy. Of course, this can also mean that everything is holy. But Christians too quickly add the latter clause, and "holiness" becomes a sticky glue imposed upon the world. There is value in the world, yes. But this value transcends the sticky glue. The value of each thing in the world is its non-holiness.
Inasmuch as process theologians are influenced by Whitehead, they will agree. It is important to recognize, to honor, and to marvel at things, without turning them into God. Let the world be the world, in its freedom and spontaneity. Let the stick be a stick, and, for that matter, let dogs be dogs, grass be grass, and people be people. No need to add words like sacred and holy to it all.
I will put the point in formal, metaphysical terms that would be anathema to Zen. Zen Christians will see the stick as a spontaneous, relational expression of the ultimate reality, which Whitehead calls Creativity.
Creativity as such is the ultimate reality in Whitehead. In itself, it is neither good nor evil, and it is not God. John Cobb puts it this way:
"Whitehead identifies creativity as 'the ultimate.' It is that of which every actual entity is an instance. It plays the role in Whitehead that 'being itself' plays in the Thomistic tradition. In that tradition to be is to be an instance of being. In Whitehead, to be actual is to be an instance of creativity. In Thomism, being itself is beyond all attributes or characteristics. In Whitehead, likewise, creativity has no character of its own, in the sense that it is open equally to any and all eternal objects and is in itself characterized by none."
"Sometimes the reader of Whitehead is likely to project into 'creativity' more than he intends. Whitehead does cause us to marvel that whatever happens, the process of bringing new occasions out of old ones continues. Creation is fundamental and ongoing. There is always something new. But what is new may not be better than what is old. Occasions that occur in the process of the decay and dying of larger organisms, such as human beings, are also instances of creativity, no more and no less than those that bring new life into being. Creativity is completely neutral from a moral perspective. Mutual slaughter consists in instances of creativity just as does the composition of a symphony. Also, one cannot speak of more and less creativity. Like ultimates in other traditions, creativity is beyond good and evil or any quantification."
Back, then, to the stick. Imagine someone beating another person with the stick. The act of beating, too, is Creativity. Or imagine someone handing the stick to another so that she can use it as a cane. Or a dog finding a stick and carrying it home. That, too, is Creativity.
Creativity is not an agent among agents or a creator. It does not have preferences. It is not necessarily "deeper" than the things of this world, as if they collapse into it or are "mere" expressions of it.
If we think of Creativity on the analogy of an ocean and the things of this world, including actions, as waves, then Creativity is actual by virtue of the waves, says Whitehead. Put in Zen terms, it sounds a bit like the Emptiness that is Form, even as the Form is also Emptiness. Emptiness is the stick in its concreteness.
So what about God? If there is wisdom in this way of looking at things, then what process theologians (influenced by Whitehead) suggest is that God is a primordial expression of Creativity, just as you and I and the stick are likewise expressions. God is, as it were, the inclusive wave: that is, the wave in which all other waves unfold. We can pray to God, trust in God, love God, and find hope in God. And we can do so even as, at the same time, we are attuned to the suchness of things in the world: the stickness of the stick
What makes God "primordial" is that God gives order and preference to the world of pure potentialities (the realm of eternal objects) so that, despite the indifference of Creativity, there is, in fact, a cosmic lure toward order and novelty in the universe and that God dwells within each other instance as a lure toward full aliveness. This means that within each person, God is an inwardly felt lure toward wisdom and compassion. Toward "enlightenment," a Buddhist might say.
In process theology God also has a "consequent nature," that is, a nature that arises as a result of, and in response to, the world's own creativity. God is that instance of concrescence in which the universe itself is gathered into its ultimate, ongoing unity, and God is a cosmic compassion that feels the feelings of each and all in a tender way, like a cosmic Bodhisattva or Amida Buddha. Amida, thus understood, is all-loving and all-faithful, but not all-powerful. Amida is God. Or, as Jesus would say, Amida is Abba.
Abba is love. As divine love Abba is not all-powerful because we each have our own self-creative agency, although we don't have "selves" independent from the agency. We are no-selves. And yet, as no-selves, we are also dependent on all other instances of Creativity; indeed, we dwell within one another, as mutually immanent, even as we transcend one another, as mutually unique. Think of Indra's Net. This means that mountains are mountains, water is water, sticks are sticks, people are people, and God is God, each in their suchness, each mutually immanent and mutually transcendent.
Here the word "transcend" does not just mean over and against-ness, but rather interdependent and unique suchness. Zen Christians in the process tradition speak of the unique suchness of God, the unique suchness of the stick, the unique suchness of the leaf, the unique suchness of each moment.
What, then, does non-dual mean? It means that all things (or events) are both present in and distinct from one another, as mutually independent, without substantial selves cutting them off from one another. And it means that all are expressions of an Emptiness that is Form.
Emptiness, thus understood, has nothing to do with panentheism. Panentheism is about the way that all things are inside of God even as more than God, and God is inside all things even as more than them, and how they are mutually immanent and transcendent of one another. Emptiness is, to sound a bit like the Kyoto School, the "groundless ground" of both God and the universe. Not an agent, not a creator, not a substance, not a thing among things, but everywhere expressed in the suchness of what is.
We can rightly speak of divine suchness, but we must quickly add, stick suchness. In the house of suchness, there are many rooms. God is within each room as a lure toward the fullness of life and beyond all rooms as the living whole of all rooms. But God is not Creativity and Creativity is not God.
The meaning of the word "holy," like all words, depends on its use. When the word is used to separate things, seeing some things as holy and some as not, it becomes problematic. It is as if some things should be clung to, but others not because the latter are lesser in value.
Sometimes, of course, it is important to cling in just this way. It is important to cling to the life of a person being abused, to protect her, to speak of the sacred worth of each person, each living being. We can speak of the "holiness" of life. But we best be careful that we don't create a hierarchy in our minds that sees more holiness in a sanctuary than in a kitchen, in the sacred than in the secular. Then we fall into a kind of dualism that is pernicious and the cause of so much pain in the world. When this temptation arises, affirming that nothing is holy becomes a sacred saying in its own right. It becomes a means of letting God be God and the stick be the stick. In some contexts it is important to say that God is not holy and the stick is not holy, and add that, in their non-holiness, they are both beautiful.
Does a dog have the Buddha-nature? Of course. Does a human being have the Buddha-nature? Of course again. Does God have the Buddha-nature? Of course, still again. The Buddha-nature is the sheer spontaneous isness of what is, as it is coming into existence. It is the Creativity of things and it includes passing out of existence as well as coming into existence. Within this Creativity there is a lure toward wisdom and compassion, toward full aliveness. The lure is also a deep tenderness that shares in the sufferings and joys of each and all, like a grandmother, like a savior, like a lover, like a Bodhisattva. This lure and its tenderness is God. For the Zen Christian the lure and its tenderness was revealed uniquely but not exclusively in Jesus. He was, in his way, the lure incarnate. But in some way the lure is also present in the dog and the stick. Zen Christians in the process tradition, following John Cobb, speak of the lure in its cosmic dimension as the universal Christ, the Logos. It is that side of God which has always been and will always be, itself ever adjusted to each circumstance, as a fellow sufferer who understands. The Zen Christian seeks to live in a way that is attuned to this living Christ, mindful of the Buddha-nature in all things. Nothing holy about it. Or, to say the same thing, everywhere holy.