holy week 2023: easter sunday

[AUDIO AND TEXT]

Note: this is the concluding Holy Week retreat talk given by The Rev. Alice Cabotaje Roshi.

Reading:
Awad Afifi, a 19th century Tunisian Sufi teacher, drew his wisdom from the desert.

Once upon a time in a far and distant place, on a high mountain, a gentle rain began to fall. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down the granite slopes. But gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets ran over the rocks and down the gnarled and twisted trees that grew there. Soon it was pouring as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream.

The stream flowed on down the mountainside, through valleys, past forests, down cascading falls. Until at last it found itself far from its source in the distant mountain, at the edge of a great and vast desert.  Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sands.

Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering from the desert itself saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, as it kept dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered once again. “You’ll have to let the wind carry you.”

“But how?” cried out the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

Well, the stream wasn’t able to accept that. After all, it had never been absorbed before. It didn’t want to lose its individuality, abandon its own identity. And besides, if once it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue to flow into the sand, and that one day it might even produce a swamp there on the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

“Why can’t I remain the same stream that I am?” cried out the water.

And the desert answered, ever so wisely, “You never can remain what you are. Either you become a swamp or you give yourself to the winds.”

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to certain echoes deep within itself, remembering parts of itself having been held in the arms of the wind before. And then slowly, the stream raised its vapors into the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward and over the desert in great white clouds.

As it passed beyond the mountains on the desert’s far side, there it began to fall as a gentle rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down the granite slopes. But gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets ran over the rocks and down the gnarled and twisted trees that grew there. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed once again into the beginning of a stream.

(Source: Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.)

Good morning! Happy Easter!

In many Christian communities around the world, they are rejoicing that Christ is Risen! Hallelujah!

In most cases, Christ’s resurrection is regarded as the triumph of life over death. I would say that it is more the power of death to give forth to birth and new life.

As Jesus said in John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

In John 3:3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Before one can be born again, one has to die; one has to go through death.

As Paul said in Galatians 2:19-20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

And yet despite the promise of rebirth, of a new life, of seeing the Kingdom of God, we resist death, we fear death, we are terrified of death.

In our reading the stream heard a voice whispering from the desert itself saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, as it kept dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered once again. “You’ll have to let the wind carry you.”

“But how?” cried out the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

Well, the stream wasn’t able to accept that. After all, it had never been absorbed before. It didn’t want to lose its individuality, abandon its own identity. And besides, if once it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

That is the ego speaking. That is the ego that doesn’t want to die because like the stream, it doesn’t want to lose its individuality; it doesn’t want to abandon its own identity. And like the stream thought if it gave up itself, if it surrendered, could it ever be sure to become to who it is.

And yet, who is it that dies? Who, who, who?

Who is it that is sitting here? Who is it that is hearing all these words? Who? Who? Who?

Nathaniel Shaler, an American paleontologist and geologist, said that heroism is first and foremost  a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be. 

When we struggle to relinquish ourselves, we can at least take one step at a time towards that. As the contemplative Henri Nouwen said: “Each little step toward the center seemed like an impossible demand, a demand requiring me to let go one more time from wanting to be in control, to give up one more time the desire to predict life, to die one more time to the fear of not knowing where it will all lead, and to surrender one more time to a love that knows no limits.”

And when we go through each death, I encourage you to pause and stay where you are… not to rush because that place between death and being reborn… because that place between the old and new…between the end of something and the beginning something is a most rich and creative place…it is a place where we gain and build strength for a new beginning.

That place we can liken to a chrysalis, the middle stage of a butterfly’s metamorphosis, between the larvae (caterpillar) and the adult stage (butterfly). The chrysalis starts out soft and skin-like, but gradually hardens to form a protective shell that caterpillars form as an outer layer of protection while it turns into a butterfly.

During this time, hold yourself in gentleness and in kindness…in lovingkindess because there is no other being deserving of more love than yourself. When doing so, pay keen attention and listen to your joys, to your fear of failing, to your physical discomforts, passions and attachments, disappointments and hurts, hopes and desires, grief, a vague sense of depression, incongruencies, biases, preferences, and narratives.

Surprisingly and paradoxically, caring for yourself in this way leads to appreciating the fractures of our lives and of other people’s lives, which  include failures, faults, losses, and pain.

Ironically, these gaps are through which the Divine is able to seep and pour.  We come to our fullness and celebrate it and those of others, not in spite of the cracks but in opening our hearts to all of them. Drawing on these, we are able to create a setting of welcome to ourselves and to others with non-judgmental companioning and compassionate listening.

As my Zen teacher Ruben Habito Roshi repeatedly says that this core truth of what we are “is an exceedingly positive view of our existence, affirming that these finite, ignorant, selfish, and confused beings that we are, are in fact beings endowed with infinite capacity, whose true nature consists in wisdom and compassion.”

He says that this happens when we see with our inner eyes that we are indeed embraced in a Loving Presence that affirms us, accepts us just as we are, just as everyone else, everything else, is accepted as they are.

Through our practice, let us reclaim our humanity that includes accepting our gifts and strengths and our shortcomings and growing edges. In doing so, we would be able to see things more clearly with equanimity, find peace within ourselves, embrace the world, and offer ourselves in service to others.

I would like to close with this prayer from poet Dawna Markova:

May I, may you, may we
not die unlived lives.
May none of us live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
May we choose to inhabit our days,
to allow our living to open us,
to make us less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen our hearts
until they become wings,
torches, promises.
May each of us choose to risk our significance;
to live so that which comes to us as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which comes to us as blossom
goes on as fruit.

Gassho.