Dharma Combat with Augustine

On the meaning of the teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo, addressing God in the first paragraph of his Confessions:

You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

The restless river and the vast ocean
are different just in how they’re held.

Still, rapids are rapids
And rocks, sharp.

“Honkadori” is a Japanese Zen form of poetry, which means “heart of the poem”. In the 11th and 12th century, after the Buddhist Japanese canon of poems and sutras had been assembled in the Kokinshu, this style of poem arose as a kind of commentary to the revered texts, a way of engaging with the original while redirecting its energy to lift up its deeper meaning — with a lightness of touch and a poignancy often found in haiku and other Japanese forms. A line or scene from the original is referenced, and from that bit the author of the honkadori will choose the mood, or the idea, or the setting, or the season, or even a phrase or a word, and use that as the basis for the new poem, and a way of getting at its meaning, removing a bit of the dross that comes with reverence.

When I first encountered this form from Roshi Enkyo O’Hara on retreat with the Village Zendo, I was excited about playing with holy text and religious teaching, coming as I do from a context of Western religion and Western relationship to text. We understand scripture and its ancient interpreters as literally true, complete, and inflexible. ‘Tradition’ is a noun, the canon is etched in stone, and its word is law. It’s meaning is clear. There is no interpreting — it says what it says. This way of thinking applies equally to the adherents to and detractors from scripture: to fundamentalists who take the King James Bible (a translation created a millennium and a half after the source material disseminated in many versions across the Mediterranean world) as the unfiltered Word of God, and to the atheist skeptic who accepts this assumption implicitly when cataloging all of the ridiculous, impossible, contradictory, and offensive things that happen in the Bible. For both of these readers, the text is dense, full, and final.

But it needn’t be that way. The Bible is written evidence of many communities in conversation with themselves, over a span of hundreds of years. Its manifold self-references and self-contradictions are evidence of that, as are the obvious historical-political perspectives that it implicitly supports. These communities are often not just in conversation with themselves, they are arguing with themselves. Thus the Christian Gospels can’t quite get together on many essential about Jesus’ life and death and life — all four can’t even agree on the day of Jesus’ death, let alone what he did and where he did it and why he did it. Luke begins his text by stating that he desires to put forward an ‘orderly account’ of the Gospel story. I wonder how Mark felt about that?

I also wonder why we feel so limited in telling this same story for ourselves. What is the magical time past which the Western Christian community was no longer in communication with itself about what it was about?

This is of course not limited to Christians, or the Abrahamic traditions, or even the West. A casual reading of the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra reveals intragroup conflict over the interpretation of right practice. The recorder of what was heard on Holy Eagle Peak is quite clear, again and again, that the ‘lesser vehicle’ of Buddhism (read: old school or Theravadan Buddhism) is simply a sub-form of the ‘greater vehicle’ of Buddhism (which is literally what ‘Mahayana’ means — of which Japanese Zen is a descendant). This political axe-grinding and gauntlet-throwing is so heavy-handed that at times the Lotus Sutra is hard to take seriously. But it’s no different when you read Jesus arguing over and over again with the Pharisees, because we’re not so accustomed to ask, ‘who else would a 1st-century second-temple reformer argue with, but other 1st-century second-temple reformers?’. Nor is it much more elegant than the inexplicable repetition of the Creation story in the first chapters of Genesis. (Once this was pointed out to me, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before, so glaring is the disconnect).

But all of these observations are not warnings against taking holy text seriously. They are invitations to engage them meaningfully. Tradition is not primarily a noun, but a verb — in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, it is the the word “paradosis” which literally means ‘delivering something’ or ‘handing down’. We are not receivers of tradition, we are always traditioning (Morse, Not Every Spirit, 47). This is an attitude toward scripture and teaching that is more fruitful and relevant than, ‘it says what it says’. And no matter our tradition, it allows us to connect.

What honkadori brings to this is that light touch. It maintains the spirit of play, and allows us to bring sacred teaching of any tradition into our context while gently redirecting its flow. Rather than trying to fight fire with fire, you write a poem about the fire instead. There is a danger in all theology of over-intellectualizing, replacing the experience you are describing with your description of it. Japanese Zen poetry is a fitting antidote to this trend. It doesn’t distance itself from what it describes. Dew on the grass is not a symbol for impermanence, it is actually impermanent.

So I wrote the honkadori above. I wanted to start with Augustine in particular, because he did so much to determine how Western European Christians would read Scripture forever after — not metaphorically or (God forbid) allegorically, as was prominent among Eastern Christian theologians, but “simply and morally”. Augustine did not found or endorse our modern literalist movement, but he laid the foundation for it with his hermeneutic (his way of reading). He himself is often read with a kind of iron commitment to the written word that ignores that his writing is a process and not itself the final judgment on the matter. Realizing this, we can speak with him as a one who is traditioning to us as we are traditioning. We can even have fun with him. And if we’re Buddhist, we get to open his extraordinary insight to our posture when we are meditating, to the desires and aversions that cloud our originally clear mind, and in my case, to the restless rivers and deep oceans in which we swim.

I hope to write more of these, to Augustine and to other writers in the Christian tradition, to honor their wisdom and play with their interpretations, as an act of faithful doubt and interreligious dialogue as well.

And to write love poems to the heart of the matter.


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