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God & Zen

4 Sep

God and Zen


Jason Giannetti


יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ


[God] found [the people Israel] in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; [God] encircled [them], cared for [them], kept [them] as the pupil of [God’s] eye.


– Deuteronomy, 32:10



What does it mean: God kept the people of Israel “as the pupil of His eye”?  It would seem, on first look, that this suggests closeness, even intimacy.  It also implies watchfulness and protection; that God watched over them carefully.  But when we think about this anthropomorphic analogy carefully we find that there is something peculiar about it.  The eye sees, but the one thing the eye does not see is its own pupil.  So, what could this mean?  Did God not see the Israelites, or did God protect them as carefully as one does one’s most valuable sense organ?

I am indebted to Alan Watts, the great populist of Asian religions, for pointing out that when one approaches the Bible (both New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures) with the hermeneutic utilized in reading Hindu and Buddhist sutras, one finds to one’s surprise and delight that the God of the Israelites and Jesus both seem to be expressing some very “Eastern” notions to a “Western” audience and that the message gets lost in translation.  More specifically, Watts suggests, the God of the Israelites presents a number of Zen koans to the sangha.  Starting with the perplexing story of the Garden of Eden, we find that the serpent and not God tells the truth – thus suggesting a behind-the-scenes conspiracy of the two in order to allow the human drama to unfold.  (See Watts, Beyond Theology)

We are told about how God commands “You shall love the Lord your God.”  But such a command to intentionally and consciously elicit a feeling that, in order to be love, must freely, spontaneously, unintentionally, unconsciously even, and certainly unforced, arise in one, seems to put one in an untenable position: If one follows the command because it’s a command, then one isn’t really loving God, but if one loves God independently of the command, then one isn’t really following the command.  (Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, p. 62)

Further, with reference to the New Testament, Watts insightfully comments about the seemingly unique life and death of Jesus.  In the “Western” mind-set of Second-Temple Judea, Jesus’ claim to be God was heretical and got him killed.  “But,” says Watts, “if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.’”  (Watts, “The Drama of It All,” in The Essential Alan Watts)

I believe that the quote from Deuteronomy is another koan that reveals something crucial about God.  The pupil is so close to one that it is not noticed.  It is that by which the eye sees, but not that which is seen by the eye.  Or, as Alan Watts puts it in an essay about the ego, “When your eyes are functioning well you don’t see your eyes.  If your eyes are imperfect you see spots in front of them.  That means there are some lesions in the retina or wherever, and because your eyes aren’t working properly, you feel them. . . .  [T]he sensation of I is like spots in front of your eyes – it means something’s wrong with your functioning.”  (Watts, “Ego,” in The Essential Alan Watts)

Here Watts is suggesting that the thing we call the “I,” or the ego, is an illusion created by some sort of being out of joint.  When all is working properly, the illusion disappears, or it never appears in the first place.  In the quote from Deuteronomy, it would seem that when all was well, the Israelites and God were not aware of any duality between them.  It is only when some disturbance appears that with it arises both a sense of humanity’s separation from God and God’s imperial and imposing presence.  In other words, when out of step, when disturbed or diseased, two mutually exclusive egos are created: God’s and human’s.  This duality brings with it a whole host of other difficulties: duty, responsibility, sin, guilt, punishment, longing for redemption.

The entire Torah (Pentateuch) could be broken down into three basic sections: creation, revelation, path to redemption.  The last section takes the form of a journey from slavery into freedom, or, said slightly differently, from attachment to liberation.  If we approach this narrative arc with an “Eastern” hermeneutic, we could say that what is asked for here is not slavish obedience to commands, but rather the sudden insight, gained through meditation on God’s divine koans, which results in seeing that God exists, if God exists anywhere, in the pupil of the eye.