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Be Still & Know: A Zen Reading of a Biblical Saying, by Ruben Habito, Part 1 of 3

May 27, 2017

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8

We are looking at the Beatitudes as our pointer to the source of the living waters, where we may drink and never thirst again, as Jesus in John 4:13-14 told the Samaritan woman at the well.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

What is it to be “pure of heart”? The centuries-old tradition of Zen practice, centered on sitting still and dwelling attentively in the here and now, gives us a constant reminder that what we are talking about is not something “out there,” some object, some ideal, some goal to be accomplished through our efforts, but rather it is right here before us, in our midst. A Zen talk is offered as a way of pointing to the innermost core of being of each and every one who is there to listen. So we are invited to listen (or to read) with full attentiveness, not letting our mind be swept away by ideas and images, but letting it come back to the here and now.

“Pure of heart”—that’s you. “Nah,” you may be tempted to say. “How can it be little old me? I am just an ordinary human being, with my own issues to work on, with all my struggles and ups and downs in life, with all the narrowness and selfishness that keep coming up in different ways and messing up my life and that of others. How can that be referring to me?” If you are able to identify with that “objection,” please listen again.

Christian theologians beginning in the Middle Ages sought to articulate this immense and awesome mystery referred to as “God,” using different words and concepts that they knew could never be up to the task. One widely accepted formulation affirms that “God is that which nothing greater can be conceived.” This is meant to remind us that if our mind comes up with an idea or concept and identifies it with “God,” then it is no longer God, since that idea or concept would have pegged God as something definable. In short, the very term is meant to point us to something beyond what our minds can grasp.

Another expression relevant for us here is the reference to God as “pure be-ing.” I use a hyphen to indicate that the word “be-ing” is to be distinguished from “being” as used in ordinary language, a word which refers to things that exist, those objects we can point to all around us accessible to our sense perception. A grammatically awkward way of putting it is that God is “pure to be.” We can agree that what is referred to as “God” is not, and cannot be, a “being” in that sense, even if we say “the highest being” or even “Supreme Being,” because that would reduce God to a being among other beings, albeit thought of as the “highest” one or the “supreme” one.

So we are dealing with something elusive here, which can easily lead us to fall into a conceptual trap. Note how Paul Tillich used the term “ground of being” in referring to God, with an acknowledgment that God is on a totally different plane from the beings that we are familiar with in our experience. There is much more that we can say in this regard, but for now let us return to the specific theme of our contemplative practice: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

What is to be seen by the pure of heart? That pure “to be” is something that we can never grasp with our mind. And yet, lo and behold, the very fact that you, I, this pebble, that mountain, the clouds, the sky, we all “be,” in the distinctive and unique way that each of us “be’s” (I am deliberately going beyond grammatical rules here) is grounded in our participation in that pure “to be.”

Taking another angle, I, as a subjective conscious being, can acknowledge and say, “I am,” in the unique and particular way that “I am.” The fact is that each of us, you (the reader), me (the one writing this), and everyone else can say “I am” each in one’s own individual and unique way. This is the very manifestation of our participation as we each are, “just as I am,” in that infinite “to be.” Let us taste that as we sit in stillness, in the depths of the silence.

If you would like to dwell on that point throughout the day—throughout your life, as a matter of fact—then you may realize that that itself is enough to nourish us for whatever we may need for the rest of our lives. Just bask in the fact of “I am,” letting yourself be launched into the depth and breadth and height of all that this entails, before it turns into “I am a man” or “I am 70 years old,” or “I am this” or “I am that,” that is, before the boundless, limitless, and timeless I am is solidified into something objectifiable and identifiable as a particular thing or person.

To listen in the stillness for the reverberations of “I am” and all that this entails is a direct way of experiencing our participation, our immersion, in that pure “to be,” that infinite and boundless horizon that we call God in the Christian tradition, yet that we also address as You, Holy One, Father, Mother, Lover, that One Who embraces us in love that we may experience in the midst of that silence, and the One Whom we embrace in our heart as we respond to love in embracing back the world to offer ourselves in its service. The pure “to be”—that is what we are all immersed in, that is what we all share in, and that is what we all are in our fullness. To be “pure of heart” is to realize our participation in this pure “to be.” So let us come back to that pure “to be” that we are, and we will realize that all we can “do” is to simply continue basking in this “to be” our entire lives, letting all our thoughts, words, and actions, all that we “do,” simply flow from the abundance of this “to be.”

We recall that when Moses on Mount Sinai encountered the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and received a message that he was to lead his people to freedom, he asked, “Who is it who is commanding me to do all of these things for my people?” The answer he received in Hebrew was Ehyeh asher ehyeh, which biblical translators have rendered as “I am who am,” or “I will be as I will be.” Or more simply, “I am.” This encounter was a very powerful experience that defined Moses’ entire life from that point on, as he realized that he was no longer just this given individual human being with his own little ambitions and purposes in life, with his particular background and upbringing, with all the particular memories he carried up to that point, including the guilt that he may have felt for having killed an Egyptian, and all the things that he was carrying with him as part of the bundle of his historical existence. All of that just melted away in the face of this pure I am. And from that point on, he was simply a vessel, an instrument that conveyed the message of this I am to whomever he met, and all his actions were simply particular ways of allowing this I am to unfold in the various events and encounters of his life.

That is the same calling each person is called to undertake in his or her personal life, including all the particulars, the given qualities and gifts, as well as the limitations. As we allow this I am to become the pervading power that undergirds our entire life and our entire being, we understand ourselves, in all the particularities of our lives, as gifts of that pure “to be.” Then the concrete mode of being from here on becomes the particularization of that “to be” in our day-to-day life.

Click for Part 2 of Be Still and Know.


Published as Be Still and Know in Tricycle, Spring 2017 . Excerpted from Be Still and Know: Zen and the Bible, by Ruben L. F. Habito, to be published by Orbis Books in April 2017.

Images: Featured) Sunset by AdinaVoicu 1) Rose by zsoravecz, 2) Rose-flower by websi, all images CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

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