Tesshin opened this week’s talk by exploring the recent movie “The Two Popes.” Basically this movie presents a “Catholic Koan” – specifically how important are forms and rituals for a spiritual tradition. In the movie we are presented with two Catholic teachers, Francis and Benedict. Francis represents a strain of thought which states that a religion must “bend” to today’s reality in order to remain relevant. Benedict stresses the power of consistency. Wherever you go in the world – one can enter a Catholic church and be guaranteed to find God. Tesshin asked – which is right?
Tesshin next described an interesting scene from the movie. In the exchange, Francis asks Benedict the following question: “Is it ok the smoke while praying?” Benedict answers immediately: “Of course not – smoking would be a distraction and would prevent one from getting close to God.” Ok, fair enough – we would all agree with this. Francis then asks: “Is it ok to pray while smoking?” Benedict pauses and answers that it is always good to pray – so YES! Hmmm, what is the difference? To the casual observer we have a smoker who is praying in both situations. This is the Koan!!
Tesshin next remarked that we also have this same Koan in Zen. Tesshin asked us if it is skillful to think about something mundane like a tax return while meditating. He then asked us if it is good to bring mindfulness and single pointed focus (which is the technique we use in meditation, after all) to the preparation of our taxes. Again, from the casual perspective, we have someone concentrating and perhaps looking at some tax forms. Again, what is the difference?
The difference is intention! If our intention is plumbing the depths of spirituality and holiness, then taxes and cigarettes are a distraction. However, the opposite is NOT true. Spirituality can be brought to any activity. If you are smoking then one should at least focus on the taste and pleasure. If you are doing taxes, focus on that – do not wander. Tesshin was clear here, spirituality (Catholic or Buddhist) is focused on training us to bring the intention of “Samadhi” or the state of intense focus and attention to all activities.
So this is how we begin to unpack the quandary between the two popes. Do we find God in a place or in the spiritual journey? Do we find God in the rituals or in compassion? The truth is silent – it is empty. Both popes are right and both popes are wrong. Why is this? It is because actions are empty. What counts is the INTENTION. Forms such as prayer, chanting, cathedrals are very effective in invoking spirituality, but they are not the end – they are but skillful means. It is the same thing in Zen. The bowing, incense, and formality are skillful to put our mind in the right place, but they are simply physical motions if we do not have the intention of Samadhi.
Tesshin remarked that it is important that we remember the importance of intention. Today, there is an open and active debate in all religious traditions about the need for forms and formality vs outreach and compassion. The exploration of intention reminds us that each of these things is means to an end, and he was clear that religious leaders should be careful before they cast aside traditions which have worked for many years. On the other hand, we should not blindly adhere to traditions which may not work in the modern age. As usual with a Koan, there is never a simple answer.
Tesshin wrapped up by emphasizing that the holy intention must be taken out of the church or Zendo and made manifest in our everyday life. If we compartmentalize Samadhi, then we have lost the entire point and benefit of the practice.