Courtyard at SCI-Benedictine: Cypress tree was at left, just out of picture.

Like so many of the good things in life, it happened pretty much by accident. But there was an underlying logic to it. Well, maybe “logic” isn’t the right word here. We’re not talking about a logical syllogism as much as, oh, maybe something like a trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest …

And it led me to call this blog a “Zen Lutheran” lectionary — or journal — a name I’d never considered before.

Let’s start in the middle, then work back to the beginning. After all, if we’re following a trail of breadcrumbs into the forest, we don’t have to be logical.

Here’s the first breadcrumb. When I opened this spiritual formation blog, I knew I wanted to call it Ordinary Time. I liked the play on words because Ordinary Time is a specific season of the church year, corresponding to Pentecost in the Lutheran lectionary, and because I consider myself a pretty ordinary guy.

But when I went to create the blog in WordPress, I found the web address (or Uniform Resource Locator, “URL” for short) “ordinarylutheran-dot-com” was already taken. So I tried again. And again. (Actually, this iteration of Ordinary Time was preceded by an earlier version, which I still use for research. Call it a beta.) And I tried again. Still no luck. And again and again, using different combinations of words. And finally, I tried “ordinary Zen Lutheran.”

And it clicked. I had a new address at

So that’s how I got here.

Now let’s look at some of the other breadcrumbs leading up to the forest.

The first goes back 50 or 60 years. My orientation to Zen has always been literary, in the lineage — if that’s the word for it — of Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, author of Dharma Bums, instead of the Zen masters. I read Kerouac in high school, and I sat at the same table in the lunchroom with the kids who paid attention in English class and went out for school plays. We called ourselves the “drama bums,” but I don’t remember having any particular understanding of the Dharma, as the body of Buddhist teaching is known. My interest in Zen, such as it was, was pretty English major-y.

That was in the 1950s. Fast-forward 30 years to the 1990s, when I was working the steps in a recovery program and reorienting my life along spiritual lines. Completely alienated at the time from the religion of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the “Christian right,” I came across a book called The Zen of Recovery by Mel Ash, a Unitarian Universalist writer who keeps a “motley crew of flea market gods and museum wanna-be’s” in his office, including a dreidel, a menorah and statues of the Buddha, Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

This flea-market spirituality, I thought, gave him a fresh perspective on things. It also gives him a valuable ecumenical perspective, I now realize. Anyway, I bought into it immediately. Inspired by Ash, I went on to read Zen masters like D.T. Suzuki and Robert Aitken, as well as Alan Watts and several Taoist poets of China’s Ming Dynasty. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ came out about the same time, and it may have started me back to considering my own tradition, although I didn’t realize it until later.

At the time, I was teaching freshman English and I used Zen koans as exercises to get my students thinking outside the box. To get me thinking outside the box, too, for that matter.

It was a good exercise. A monk asked, why did Bodhidharma come from the west? OK, I’d tell myself, let’s not get hung up on the details, let’s not overthink this. (Bodhidharma was a legendary Chinese patriarch from Persia, or maybe India, the kind of historical detail I love. But that’s not the point.) Zhaozhou answered, the cypress tree in the courtyard. (Zhaozhou, Jōshū in Japanese, was a Tang dynasty Zen master, known for his “paradoxical statements and strange deeds,” according to Wikipedia. More details! Let’s not get hung up on them.) What the hell does this stuff about the tree in the courtyard tree mean? What does it have to do with present reality? Or is the point that the cypress tree is the only reality present here and now?

In my classes I used the Zen koans, the riddles, as creativity exercises.

I’d tell the kids who Bodhidharma was, how he came to China with the insights he got from the Buddha in — what century was it? Does it matter? Why? Why not? Freewrite an in-class journal on why Bodhidharma came from the west and the cypress tree in the courtyard. We had a cypress tree actually growing on campus, and sometimes I’d bring the class outside to look at it and take notes for their journals.

Over time my job description changed. I went from teaching freshman English to journalism and mass communication, and I let the koans, Bodhidharma and the cypress tree slide as I boned up on communications theory, newswriting, public relations strategy, advertising, branding, intellectual property law, media ethics and the role of the press in society.

Now, in retirement, I’m taking a fresh look at the Zen masters. But from a different perspective, and with a gentle nudge from WordPress.

Time to stop and pick up another breadcrumb.

Somewhere along the line since the 90s, I started going to church again, mostly for family reasons. It was a Lutheran church, and I got interested in Luther. Turned out he was quite a writer, and my interests have always tended toward the literary. He was also a master of public relations, one of the first people to effectively use mass communications media — specifically the newly-invented printing press — to launch a movement.

Turns out, at least in my judgment, Luther also had some Zen-like attitudes.

Let’s go back to Zhaozhou’s story of Bodhidharma and the cypress tree in the courtyard. I think the point is the here-and-now-ness of the cypress tree. “Words do not express the fact,” as the 12th-century Zen master Wumen put it in his verse on the cypress tree koan. “Attached to words, one loses the reality, / Stagnating in phrases, one is deluded.” But there’s the tree. Deal with it. The Zen masters said things like, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Luther, recorded in the Table Talk at his home in Wittenberg, offered wisdom like, “A farmer must sow his barley and oats about Easter; if he defer it to Michaelmas, it were too late. When apples are ripe they must be plucked from the tree, or they are spoiled.”

Luther, in his very different way shaped by a very different culture, was also drawn to the reality of here and now. Like Zuaozhou and the Zen masters, he was sometimes known for strange deeds, down-to-earth sayings and paradoxical statements.

If you don’t like music, Luther once said, you “should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” I’m a little bit reminded of the stories of Zen masters hitting their students with a stick when they failed to grasp the point of a koan. Luther was fond of paradox, too. “A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Simul justus et peccator. “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

I’m not trying to suggest here that Luther was a Zen Buddhist at heart. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that Zen and Luther’s synthesis of law and gospel are complementary — but wholly separate — systems of belief. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote deeply of both Buddhist and Christian contemplative traditions, has what I think is a very here-and-now, tree-in-the-courtyard analogy.

“The truth of the matter is that you can hardly set Christianity and Zen side by side and compare them,” Merton writes in Zen and the Birds of Appetite. “This would almost be like trying to compare mathematics and tennis.”

So, without getting lost in the thickets of 16th-century Christian theology, I think we can note that Luther had an appreciation for the here-and-now. It also underlay his attitude to scriptural exegesis.

“The Holy Spirit is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth,” Luther wrote in an often-quoted passage, “and therefore His words cannot have more than one, and that the very simplest sense, which we call the literal, ordinary, natural sense.” (quoted in Carl E. Braaten, Robert W. Jenson, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1; Google Books). Math and tennis? Yes, probably.

But attuned to present reality, to the here-and-now? Yes, I think, equally.

The VIetnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked, in an interview carried on the Public Broadcasting System, what Buddhism has to offer Christianity and other world religions.

“I think if Buddhism can help, it is the concrete methods of practice,” he answered. “We have the same kind of teaching, but in Buddhism there are more concrete tools [to] help you to realize what you want to realize, namely more understanding, more compassion, and absence of discrimination.”

One of those tools is a morning meditation called the Lovingkindness Meditation or simply, as Nhat Hanh calls it, the Love Meditation. “We begin practicing this love meditation focusing on ourselves (‘I’),” he says. “Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.” To begin the meditation, repeat:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, fear, and anxiety.

There’s more, including this — “May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself” — and this — “May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.” Again, I may be comparing math and tennis, but is the basic psychology here all that much different from the morning prayer in Luther’s Small Catechism? Luther tells us to start the day like this:

I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Two very different world views here. Math and tennis. But a similar attitude of starting out the day new and fresh, free from sin in the Christian tradition and free from the pitfalls of attachment and indifference in the Buddhist. The next step, I believe, draws the two even closer together. Nhat Hanh says after “we are able to love and take care of ourselves,” we can help others. So we repeat the meditation for them, “May [they] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.” He continues:

Next, we can practice towards others (substituting “he,” “she” or “they”), first with someone we love, next with someone we like, then with someone neutral to us, and finally towards someone who has made us suffer. [Parentheses in the original.]

Tennis and math. Here and now. Bodhidharma, Jesus, Zhaozhou and Luther. The cypress tree in the courtyard. Love the Lord thy God, and the second commandment is like unto it. Understanding and compassion for all sentient beings without discrimination. A trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest.

3 thoughts on “Luther and the cypress tree in the courtyard: How picking a new URL led me to seek refuge in a Zen koan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s