Bridging Buddhism and the Bible
An Interview with Clark Strand
What inspired you to pursue Buddhism, and what, specifically, was "that moment" of initial awareness like for you?
That's two questions with the same answer. It was the initial moment of awareness that inspired me to pursue Buddhism. It came in the summer of 1977, when I was 19 years old, and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of my life.
Given all that, the moment itself is very hard to describe. I was reading a book on Zen one evening (not even a particularly good one, I recall), and I came to a passage that changed everything in one stroke. It wasn't the content of the passage, per se, but the effect it had on me that was so important. It simply wiped out everything I had ever known, or thought I knew--about myself, about the world, about everything. All at once.
That moment lasted only for a second or two. But that second has lasted a lifetime. After that, there was no choice, really, but to study Zen.
How, then, did your path unfold for you?
Following that first experience, I spent three weeks in more or less complete samadhi. It wasn't that there were no thoughts in my mind, but that I felt no attachment whatsoever to the thoughts I had. During that time I had no dreams; I would just lie down every night and enter a very deep, very restful, very clear place. It was like lying at the bottom of a sea of light. During the daytime I did everything by intuition, and intuition worked without a hitch.
Then, finally, I woke up one morning and realized that I had slept. I knew right away that it was over. It was as if whatever light had been switched on inside my mind had just as suddenly and inexplicably been switched off again.
The weeks that followed were like a mirror reflection of the ones that went before: everything was opposite. I slept a lot, felt despairing, and was plagued by the same thought that kept circling 24 hours a day inside my brain. That thought was, "What happened to me during those weeks, and how on earth do I get it back?" I tried going back to college, but it didn't work. I really had no interest in anyone or anything unless it could answer that question.
Finally I left school in Tennessee and headed for Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen monastery in Upstate, New York, that had opened just the year before. I had read an article about it in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times and had some vague idea of how to get there.
When I arrived I met with Eido Shimano Roshi, the abbot of the monastery. He said that I should sit zazen (Zen meditation), and gave me very brief instructions on how to do so. I could tell that he had had the same experience I had, and it was quite clear to me that he had found a way to stabilize it. So I did what he told me to do.
I did a lot of zazen, and I mean A LOT. I pretty much ruined my first marriage because I was so driven to meditate. I did retreats as often as I could, both at the monastery and on my own (with a few fellow seekers who lived nearby) and finally entered the monastery full time as a monk. By 1988 I had a shaved head, a large temple of my own, and was on the verge of becoming a Zen master.
What do you mean by "on the verge" of becoming a Zen master? It sounds like you were already teaching Zen to others. What happened next, where was your church, and what became of it?
My teacher, the abbot, had decided to hand New York Zendo (the Manhattan temple where I was stationed) over to me. Shortly after he told me this, he returned to Japan for a year, leaving me in charge. That came as a big surprise--to me and to the other members of the zendo, where, comparatively speaking, I was a newcomer--but in another way it seemed quite natural. By that time, as you put it, I was already beginning to teach. And I had known for a long time that I wanted to pass Zen along to others.
Then something unforeseen happened. I began waking up every morning so depressed that I found it difficult even to get out of bed. Something was terribly wrong, but I couldn't say what. People kept telling me what an honor it was to be named the roshi's successor, and everyone, including the roshi, seemed to think I was up for it, but something seemed "left undone." It just didn't seem credible to me that I was what they called "enlightened."
You might say my eyes were finally opened about that time. I looked around me and began to realize that the vast majority of what passed for enlightenment in the Zen tradition was the fulfillment of a kind of formula. In my heart I knew that there was no "formula" for enlightenment, so I had to leave.
How did you know that there was no formula?
For one thing, I'd had a fleeting glimpse of it, so I knew that much for myself. (There was no identifiable "cause" for the breakthrough I had experienced, no "formula" by which I arrived at or sustained it.) And then, I had seen an example of it, too.
He was a Ch'an (Chinese Zen) Buddhist monk who lived in obscurity in a small shack in Monteagle, Tennessee, a few miles from the town where I'd gone to college. I had met him about the same time I met my other teacher, Eido Shimano Roshi, but the two were as different as night and day.
Eido Roshi was every bit the imposing Japanese Zen master, with an impressive charismatic bearing and immaculately tailored robes. Everything about him was polished and refined. Deh Chun, by contrast, looked like a homeless person. He didn't wear fine robes, but dressed in secondhand clothes purchased from Good Will. Most of the time he didn't even wear his dentures. Without them he had only two or three teeth, but to this day I've never seen a more peaceful, more beautiful smile.
Deh Chun had it. You could tell. Even the local rednecks on his street in Monteagle could tell he had it, though perhaps they couldn't have told you what "it" was. He seemed to make so little effort, spiritually speaking, and certainly didn't advertise his wisdom. If anything, he tried to conceal it most of the time.
Anyway, Deh Chun was the real reason I knew there was no formula for enlightenment. I know this will be hard for some people to understand--especially those who are committed to one of the many spiritual technologies that are supposed to make you enlightened--but I am convinced that Deh Chun hadn't become enlightened by following any of them. In fact, I believe he became enlightened by not following them, but by finding his own way.
That must have been why, having lived as a Ch'an master for many years, in the end he chose a life of seclusion in a little hick town in Tennessee. There he was free, as Paul put it, "to work out the terms of his own salvation."
Salvation (call it enlightenment if you will) is the soul's work, the work that every being eventually has to do. There is no formula for it, just as there is no formula for just this or that shape of cloud passing through the sky. Clouds may resemble one another in certain ways, but each one is wholly unique.
I became a cloud when I realized this, and clouds don't do well in temples. They never have.
How did your discovery of yourself as a cloud then lead you to the Koans of the Bible program that you are now teaching?
Along a very cloud-like path, drifting here and there, much of the time feeling lost, even though strictly speaking a cloud can never be lost, because the whole sky is its home.
After renouncing my vows as a monk and leaving the temple, I did a lot of different things, both spiritually and professionally. Sometimes the two went hand in hand.
During the mid-90s I decided to broaden my understanding of Buddhist thought and practice, which until then had been pretty much limited to Zen. So I took a job as Senior Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. In that job I not only learned an enormous amount about all different types of Buddhism, I also formed many valuable friendships with Buddhist scholars and teachers from around the world.
Beyond that, I was also privileged to get what you might call "the bird-eye view" of Western Buddhism, because I was in a position to see it all, and not just its parts. Every day the magazine would receive manuscripts, emails, phone calls, faxes, letters--you name it--from all over the world about every imaginable variety of Buddhism. And they all ended up on my desk. I was remarkably blessed.
Nevertheless, because of that experience, certain overall patterns became impossible to ignore. The most striking pattern I observed was how many Westerners got involved in Buddhism for twenty or thirty years only to find that, in the end, they still hadn't "gotten it." I don't mean that their meditation or mantra practice hadn't helped them in any way. (In many cases it had.) But they were still restless, still unsatisfied with what they had learned. What's more, I discovered that this was true of a surprising number of Western Buddhist teachers, some of whom had hundreds of students of their own.
I carried that knowledge with me when I left Tricycle and moved to Woodstock in 1996. And it worked on me. In fact, you might say it was a problem that just wouldn't let me go.
In a nutshell, the problem was this: If enlightenment could not be achieved by a "formula," how else were we to achieve it? It's fine to say, "Be cloudlike--do it in your own unique way." But if you don't know what your way is then you're still out of luck.
Anyway, I asked myself that question more or less continuously for three years (for roughly a thousand days, the traditional period of training for a Zen Buddhist monk), and finally an answer came. It wasn't the answer I expected. It wasn't even an answer I wanted to hear. But the more I thought of it the more I realized that it was the right answer and I would have to go in that direction if I wanted for myself what it was that Deh Chun had so obviously had.
The Bible is the spiritual matrix of Western society. It is the point of origin for all of our deepest beliefs and hopes and fears. And this is true for almost everybody in our society, whether or not they were raised in a religious household.
This past summer I was having dinner with some friends when, out of nowhere, one of the women asked me why on earth I felt it necessary to use the Bible as the basis for my teaching. When I told her that it was pretty much the basis for everything in Western society, whether we liked it or not, she became adamant.
She spoke of having been raised in a family of artists, where they felt at best disinterest, at worst disdain, for the Bible and its teachings. She was convinced that the Bible had nothing to do with the way she thought or felt about her life. On the table next to us was a color-xerox portfolio of amazing portraits she had painted over the past few years--the subjects were all naked and many appeared in garden scenes which were clearly reminiscent of Eden (one even had a snake). I decided not to point this out. For that matter I hardly spoke at all. She was too busy proving the very point she was arguing against.
She went on for the better part of a quarter-hour, vehemently, with great passion, about how the Bible didn't matter to her. It didn't seem prudent at the time to point out to her that it obviously mattered a great deal.
Anyway, I am no longer surprised by the power of the Bible to throw people into spiritual crisis. I have worked with ministers, agnostics, Zen Buddhists, therapists--you name it--and, so long as they were raised in this culture, the Bible works for them all . . . so long as they read as a question and not an answer. That, really, is the secret to what I teach. I ask to people to read the Bible like a Zen koan--a question without an answer. Provided that they do that, and resist the impulse on the one hand to reject what they read and on the other to embrace it as "the answer," it gradually makes them cloud-like. How this happens is a mystery, but it clearly has something to do with what in the West we have always thought of as God.