Sokei-an was one of the earliest Zen Buddhists in America. He and six other students of Sokatsu Shaku came with their teacher to San Francisco from Japan in 1906. He was part of a few failed attempts to plant Zen Buddhism in that area, before he moved to New York City and became a writer of some renown.
He eventually moved back to Japan to complete his Zen training, and - having been sanctioned as a teacher in 1928 - returned to New York. In 1931 he founded what became the First Zen Institute in America. He was the first to teach Americans to the study of koans - mysterious and non-rational teaching stories.
Because of the fear and xenophobia in America after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was put under constant FBI surveillance and, in 1942, was incarcerated in an interment camp. His experiences at that camp wrecked his body and destroyed his health. He died in 1945, from a disease contacted at that camp.
It is said that his last words were:
I have always taken nature's orders, and I take them now.
Sokei-an, like all Zen masters, had an unusual teaching style which led to many strange phrases. Of those, two stand out. After failing twice to explain Zen to an American, he reportedly said:
Zen is: "I am from Missouri."
Another time, while delivering a formal lecture in New York on the Sutra of Perfect Awakening, he said:
In Buddhism purposelessness is fundamental. No purpose anywhere in life itself. When you drop fart you do not say, "At nine o'clock I drop fart." It just happen.
My favorite story from his life is, like much of the preceding material, recorded in Sean Murphy's delightful book One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories. Murphy's telling of it reads:
Before Sokei-an came to America, when he was just beginning the study of Zen, his teacher arranged a meeting for him with Soyen Shaku. The master, having heard he was a wood carver, asked, "How long have you been studying art?"
"Six years," replied Sokei-an.
"Carve me a Buddha," said Soyen Shaku.
Sokei-an returned a couple of weeks later with a wooden statue of the Buddha.
"What's this?" exclaimed Shaku, and threw it out the window into a pond.
It seemed unkind, Sokei-an would later explain, but it was not: "He'd meant for me to carve the Buddha in myself."
While there are many differences between Christianity and Buddhism, we Christians can learn a great deal from our Buddhist brothers, and vice versa. Christianity teaches that externally imposed divine grace is needed for internal transformation, while Buddhism teaches that great effort and discipline in one's meditative life is the mechanism for change. But both teach the necessity for that wholesale transformation which comes from dying to the claims of self.
Internal transformation, be it from some moment of satori or the process of sanctification, is central to our religious life. Sokei-an was to carve a Buddha in himself, and thus realize his own Buddha nature. I am to bring Christ into myself, and therefore by God's grace become a new creation. But both Sokei-an and I are to change. We are to transform. And this change is not just a change in our outward behavior, but in our innermost disposition.
Let us heed the call to be transformed, so that we no longer conform to the pattern of a selfish and senselessly violent world.
The dominant theological conversation about holy communion is one between transubstantiation and consubstantiation, concerning whether or not the physical elements, the bread and the cup, are literally and physically transformed into a new substance: the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
But if our religious concern is internal transformation, in some kind of analogy with carving the Buddha within, that brings a very different focus to the Eucharist. The question becomes not one concerning the transformation of the elements, but one concerning the transformation of the consumer of those elements.
You need not hold that the bread and the cup literally and physically morph into the body and blood of Jesus Christ to hold that holy communion is a means of grace. That is to say that when we participate in the Eucharist, we encounter the grace of God. How? By, in some special way, taking in the essence of Christ, and being internally transformed by that essence.
Communion, then, becomes a sacral act of meditating on the nature of Christ which, by grace and through the Eucharist, is now within you. Your job is to allow your sinful self to pass out of you to make room for the nature of Christ which, through the bread and the cup, comes within you.
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