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13 May 2015

The Way of God: "Not Two" (Exaudi / Easter 7)

Psalm 1

Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee.

With a shush and a hush, the blade sang following his lead, never missing a note. Ting and his blade moved as though dancing to “The Mulberry Grove,” or as if conducting the “Ching-shou” with a full orchestra.

Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”

Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye.

Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form — yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone."

“A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day."

“Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until — kerplop! — meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I’m fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away.”

Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”

Like the Tao story above, the Psalmist speaks of "the way" -- the way of the wicked and the way of the righteous.

The Way of the Wicked (V. 1)
1 Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, /
and does not stand in the way of the sinners, / and does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

The Torah of the Lord (V. 2)
2 Rather, whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord, / who meditates on his instruction day and night.

The Benefits of the Torah (V. 3)
3 This one is like a tree transplanted by streams of water,
which produces its fruit in its season, / Whose leaves do not wither; / but who prospers in everything.

The Way of the Wicked (V. 4-6)
4 Not so the wicked! / Rather, they are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not arise in the judgment, / nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, / but the way of the wicked will perish. (NICOT)

This psalm is not like other psalms, as it contains neither lament nor praise -- most psalms have both. Our scholars tell us that Psalm 1 is a "wisdom psalm" placed where it is as a kind of introduction for the whole Psalter.

It's as though the Psalmist is saying, "As you keep on reading all the way to Psalm 150, never forget the simple truth you'll learn here."

The Psalmist begins to introduce that simple truth by listing three sorts of people to stay away from:

V. 1
אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר
[’aš·rê- hā·’îš  ’ă·šer]
Happy is the one who ...

לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים
[lō hā·lak  ba·‘ă·ṣat rə·šā·‘îm]
does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד
[ū·bə·de·rek ḥaṭ·ṭā·’îm lō ‘ā·mād]
and does not stand in the way of the sinners,

וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשַׁב
[ū·bə·mō·wō ·šab  lê·ṣîm lō ya·šab]
and does not sit in the seat of scoffers.

The second stanza shows the essence of the truth to be learned: it is not enough to stay away from the wicked, sinners and scoffers, but what counts is to follow God's instruction (Torah) and to meditate on it continuously.

As the Psalmist presents us with the Way of the Wicked and the Way of the Righteous, we realize that an "either/or" is set up here. Writes Rolf Jacobson: "The Hebrew Psalter opens with an instructional psalm that maps the future as a choice between one of two different paths."

When V. 2 talks of the "instruction of the Lord", that's another manner of saying The Way of God. While The Way of God is known as Torah among us, in Buddhism it is called Dharma; in Daoism it is the Dao, or Tao.

In the center of Psalm 1 (V. 3) we are introduced to the first metaphor of the Psalter: a majestic tree transplanted to a place near a mighty stream.

Matthias Jorissen's metric Psalter sticks fairly close to our text, but adds a hiker delighting in the beauty of the tree:

Ein Baum, am Bach gepflanzt, strebt hoch empor,
bringt Blüth und Frucht zur rechten Zeit hervor,
steht untentlaubt mit hoher Pracht geschmücket,
das sich an ihm der Wanderer erquicket;
so grünet der Gerechte jeder Zeit,
er lebt und wächst 
und all sein Thun gedeiht.

As "the one" in our psalm meditates on the Way of God day and night, striving to comprehend it and to live it, she becomes that very tree that greens and blossoms and grows.

But "not so the wicked!", thunders the Psalmist in V. 4: "they are like chaff that the wind drives away".

Whether we call it Torah, Dharma or Tao, the teaching about The Way is strikingly the same in all three: "the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction" (Rolf Jacobson).

Who are the "wicked"? They are people who insist that they find their own way. They separate themselves from the Way of God, and since that's the only thing that lasts (or is permanent) they are lost on their own roads.

Do you think you are your thoughts? You know they don't last. Do you think you are your body? Well no, it doesn't last simply because it constantly changes. Are you your memories, then? They are nothing but thoughts, and memories are notoriously unreliable.

Are you your good name, your cars, your houses, your bank account? Are you the stuff that is prized in this world? All these things are temporary, exist for only a short time and thus are impermanent.

Those who draw their identity from any of these temporary things are called the "wicked" by the Psalmist. Sooner or later they will find their identity blown away like chaff in the wind.

On the other hand, the "happy" (or "blessed" or "righteous") one, does not identify with anything material, not with thoughts, not with emotions. Rather than finding her own separate way, she becomes one with The Way of God ... and flourishes beautifully.

Becoming one with the Way of God is becoming one with everything. Once we realize that all of creation is one, we become aware that any sense of "other" or separation, or, for that matter, of finding a personal road to salvation, is an illusion powered by the human ego. This realization is what Zen Buddhism calls "not two".

You cannot arrive at "not two" by mobilizing your noggins, for your mind is trained to think in dualisms. Only by mobilizing the whole of your person -- in meditation -- can you delve into the ground of who you are.

The concept of "not two" is nicely illustrated by these words from an ancient Master:

I am the wind on the sea
I am the ocean wave
I am the sound of rustling leaves
I am the dog romping through the grass
I am the hawk on the cliff
I am the dewdrop in sunlight
I am the fairest of flowers
I am the powerful bear
I am the softest whisper
I am the manta ray in the deepest waters
I am the frozen lake in winter
I am the fire providing warmth
I am the summer rain
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
For I am one with the universe.

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