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 than 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.
We are invited to sit in silence, and to immerse ourselves in the vast and boundless ocean of “to be,” and to know that with this, there is nothing else we could ever want,
We are invited to sit in silence, and to immerse ourselves in the vast and boundless ocean of “to be,” and to know that with this, there is nothing else we could ever want, there is nothing else we could ever need in life. We can just continue our lives keeping ourselves dipped in that ocean and immersed in the living waters that flow from there. Whatever we would need in life would come from that abundant source, in whatever situation we may encounter from here on.
We are invited first to accept that concrete reality that we are as we find ourselves. Accept your concrete individuality, and having done that, then you may also realize you are blessed just as you are.
We human beings are given the capacity to reflect on this “to be” in a way that, for example, the trees and the flowers or cats and dogs or even this wood are not. There’s this so-called self-reflexiveness that our human mode of being is given as a gift. Now, that is precisely what enables us to acknowledge that fact of “to be,” that “I am,” but it is also what places the fact under a cloud of darkness, a cloud that comes with the discriminating thoughts of our discursive intellect. When we just say, “I am,” and open our eyes around us, we intuitively see that those others are also included in “I am.” I look around and see the lilies of the fields, the trees, the flowers, the pebbles. They just are. They are also embraced in that “I am.” And in being what they are, as they are, they already reflect the glory of that pure “to be,” that pure I am that we call God, just as they are. We too are able to reflect the glory of God, just as we are.
Yet the discriminating mind tells us, “But these other things are different from me; they are not me; they are other to me.” So this human mode of reflexive self-awareness leads to this possibility of dividing or shutting off our little “I am” from the “I am” of others. But if in that capacity we are given we just focus that “I am” in our little “I,” then the glory of God gets covered up by that little “I” that focuses on itself and shuts out the vast horizon of the boundless “to be.” This is what happened to Adam and Eve, when they gave more importance to their individual “I” as they desired “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In other words, the discriminating mind prods us, “I want to know this”; “I want to be able to decide what I want for myself and what I don’t”; “I want the power that this kind of knowledge of discriminating things can bring”—that is, the power that the knowledge of good and evil brings. In so doing, I block the opening that enables me to stay in communion with the pure “I AM” that underlies all things that exist in this universe, and shut off my narrow little “I am” from everything else.
Insofar as this little “I,” secluded from the boundless “I AM,” reigns in our lives, we are blocking the infinite capacity that is the totality of ourselves as enveloped by the boundless “I AM.” We have fallen from grace.
When we recognize this, what then is our task as human beings? One way to put this is that we are now called to let the little “I am” open up again to the big “I AM.” My late teacher the Jesuit spiritual director Father Thomas Hand, S.J., had an expression that he repeated time and again to explain what Zen practice was about. “It is about moving from the ego to the we-go.” In other words, in our practice of sitting in stillness and allowing ourselves to go deep into the silence, we are enabled to see through this little “I am,” and in doing so, we open our hearts and realize that we are all embraced by that vast and boundless “I AM.” That is what we are called to really embody in this life: this is our “role,” our particular and unique place within the big scheme of things. It is to let the big Self, the we-go that Father Hand spoke about, become the ground and basis of everything that I think, say, and do as an individual human being. So as we put that little “I am” in its place—that is, in the light of the big “I AM”—we are able to acknowledge our individual gifts as well as our limitations and realize that each of us has his or her own unique gifts and limitations. So we find ourselves in good company with everyone, and we are thus enabled and empowered to accept everyone around us just as they are, as we now are able to see them in the light of the big “I AM” that also embraces my own individual existence. Everyone is simply a reflection of that same “I AM” just as they are.
The message here is this: accept yourself just as you are, with all of your struggles and issues and weaknesses. And in accepting yourself, you’re simply agreeing to the fact that you are already accepted by the entire universe, just as you are. So don’t block that movement of the universe accepting you as you are, by thinking, “But I am an imperfect, troubled, vulnerable human being full of faults.” Yes, you may be, but you are accepted just as you are, no ifs, no buts. So just allow that to sink in as you sit there in the silence, and you will experience the great freedom of just being yourself. And with that, even those aspects we think are our gaps or limitations can be gifts. So let us then bask in that acceptance.
Jesus invited the disciples: “Behold the lilies of the field, see how they bloom.” They never worry about whether they have little stains of dust, because these would just blow away anyway. Just let us learn from each and every thing that simply is there, just as it is, reflecting the glory of that infinite source of our being, that boundless, timeless, infinite “I AM.” And as we do so, we also acknowledge that even in my own little way, I can reflect that also. I am a reflection of that also. So let us accept that we are accepted, and that will open the floodgates of the Infinite to enter into our lives. The rest of our life can then be an unfolding of that infinite horizon, allowing it to be embodied and made fully manifest in every event and every encounter in this earthly life of ours.
My teacher Yamada Koun gives an account of his own experience of opening to this infinite and boundless “I am.” In 1953, he wrote to his own teacher, Soen Nakagawa, about how he was riding a train and reading a passage by Dogen that said, “The mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.” And that passage just jumped out at him and he realized, “That’s it!” What is referred to as “mind” here, hsin in Chinese, or kokoro in Japanese, is the True Self, our Original Face, the “true nature” that we are, as understood in the Zen tradition. To see this “true nature” is to come to true awakening. The question “What is the mind?” is the same as the question “What or who am I?” Yamada Koun Roshi experienced the fact that was behind the expression from Dogen and was awakened.
He came to the realization that this “mind,” this “self,” this “I” that we refer to in our discursive language, is truly, truly nothing but the mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, in short, each and every thing that exists in the whole universe. To put it in terms of what we were looking at earlier, our “True Self” is everything that is a partaker of this “to be,” and there is no single thing that exists in this universe that is separate from this “to be” that has now come to be manifest in me. Perhaps I am saying too much here—I do not wish to block your own path to opening your eyes—but all of this is offered as a pointer to that source of living water.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Again, what is there to “see”? If we think that God is some magnificent thing that we can see out there, some magnificent being or Being that we can now recognize and bow down to in adoration, then there is a conceptual disjoint here. Whatever we can objectify is no longer the living God, but an idol that we have constructed in our own little mind. As long as we think that we have it, then we already miss it. God is beyond anything that we can ever imagine. Again, our medieval theologians are united in this, that God is that beyond which we can ever conceive, greater than that which can ever be conceived. So we think, “Ah, that’s it!”— and we need to be reminded, no, it is beyond that.
But in all of these efforts and endeavors, we are invited to just come back to the purity of heart that we originally have been, this original blessing we are endowed with right from the start. You are good. You are beloved. You are, just as you are. And you partake in this boundless “I am,” as you are. So as we really hear that in the depths of our hearts and melt into it, and therein find the “ground of our be-ing” (to borrow from Paul Tillich’s phrase), then what emerges is a view, no longer from the small “I am,” but from that infinite ground of all that proclaims “I AM.” We see our little “I am” in its place in the light of this big picture, and we are able to accept that little “I am” as the gift that we have received from the universe, that we can now also give back to the rest of the universe, in loving service to all.
Finally, what is there “to see” when it is said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”? Frankly, there is nothing that we can adequately say, or ever think of or imagine, by way of answering this directly. Yet the gospel passage says, “ for they shall see God.” How can we understand this? Let us take some hints from Zen tradition. In Zen, the experience of awakening is expressed as “seeing one’s true nature,” “seeing one’s True Self.” Awakening is seeing what or who you truly are. Not just as an aspect or part of it, but just as you are. Now, in the Japanese language, when someone explains something to you and you “see” what the person is conveying, you say, “Naru hodo,” translated in English as “Oh, I see.” “Naru hodo” literally means “It becomes exactly.” What was not seen before is now seen clearly for what it is, and so “it becomes exactly” just as it is. This is a daily expression, naru hodo, that people use lightly in casual conversations. “That’s it, exactly.” So that’s what we are invited to experience, that moment of “That’s it, exactly.”
The Orthodox tradition has upheld and preserved an important aspect of the Christian message, which somehow got lost in a lot of the theological tradition of Western Christianity. This is the theme of theosis, translated as “deification,” or “divinization,” as the ultimate destiny of the human being. God became human so that humans may become God. That infinite, boundless mystery that we refer to as God, which is beyond everything in this created universe yet is also that which is the ground of this created universe, has now willingly assumed this bodily being of ours, this flesh, this earth. And in doing so, through this event that is called the Incarnation, literally, “becoming flesh,” we are able to open our eyes to our true and ultimate density, that is, to come back to our home at the heart of that infinite mystery, in that boundless and infinite and pure “to be.”
Let us take this message in all simplicity and allow it to sink in as we sit in stillness. Western Christianity has become preoccupied with human fallenness, on the doctrine of “original sin,” and that has served to sidetrack this important message of our ultimate destiny as emphasized in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Let us just take this invitation to come back and hear the words again. Be still, and know . . . I AM.
And in the very resonance of that, through each and every participant of that “I AM” in the universe, we see how our ultimate destiny is to sing the glories of that “I AM,” vast and boundless, and never-ending. Indeed, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Excerpted from Be Still and Know: Zen and the Bible, by Ruben L. F. Habito, to be published by Orbis Books in April 2017. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. orbisbooks.com.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your five free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.