Looking at Zen 2

Dom Aelred Graham brings up a common conundrum that can be found in Christianity:

I am greatly interested in Wednesday of next week being fine and sunny, so interested that I pray for it. Wednesday comes and proves to be, from my standpoint, a perfect day. I am grateful and my prayer has been answered.

The spontaneous thought is that God has been good for me, but as Graham asks, how true is it? It might have been better for my neighbour’s vegetables if it had rained, or for the town water supply.

So were these larger benefits foregone by God so as to satisfy me? One would hesitate to think so. ‘God’s plan is not centred on my ego; but neither am I a mere pawn in a divine game of chess. The difficulty is to keep both these facts simultaneously in mind’ …. (incidentally another example of the tension of opposites).

Thomas Merton has an epiphany about this quite early on after his initial conversion when he decides to enter the Franciscans. He writes how God often talks to us through Scripture – or indeed other books: ‘That is he plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton was reading: ‘if He comes to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart I shall not understand… if He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say: why dost thou so?’ The words sear and burn Merton who feels they act as ‘a forewarning of an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities’… and here’s the rub… he writes: ‘I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours.’

So when things don’t go to plan God becomes an unfair God who could not be unjust or unfair: Why should it happen to me? God becomes a projection of our desires, and often rather superficial desires. Interestingly it is only when we think of ourselves as ‘me’ – an object of thought rather than ‘I’ that this question arises. I think this is linked to self-consciousness. When I am fully absorbed in something – it could be meditation or a task – there is no self-preoccupation but rather undifferentiated self-awareness. ‘I’ (the self as subject) is not distracted by ‘me’ (the self as object). We need the ego but it is also the condition and focal point of deep distress, all we are is what we feel we are.

This is the tendency of the human condition but a tendency that Zen offers to free us from and open us to the inner self or ‘seeing into our own nature.’

There is a close connection between being truly aware of ourselves and being aware, to some degree at least, of God: the ultimate Self.