A Zen Master's Guide to the Bible

A Zen Master's Guide to the Bible

A short introduction to the world’s first Buddhist Bible study group.

In the fall of 1999, my family and I were traveling aboard a commercial airliner out of Memphis, Tennessee, when the cabin filled with smoke and the plane suddenly plunged. In popular cinema, the flight crew are all over such moments—stowing trays, returning seats to upright positions, making announcements designed to get your attention but not cause undue alarm. In real life, they’re nowhere to be found. It’s easy to follow a manual when the plane seems to be winning its battle against gravity. When it loses, suddenly the term “safety belt” is exposed for the lie it always was. At that moment, you feel it all at once—I suspect everyone feels it. That’s when you start to pray.

As it turned out, that was also when my six-year-old daughter, Sophie, reached across the aisle to hold my hand. “Daddy, are we going to die?” she asked. I’d forgotten that young children pray to their parents in such moments. Not knowing what to say, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and asked the same question myself, listening to see if anyone would reply. And, indeed, I did hear a voice. Speaking in a whisper, with imperturbable calmness, it said four simple words directly into my ear.

“I don’t think so.”

Bizarre as those words were, coming from the one being in all the universe who ought to have been able to answer that question with a yes or a no, they calmed me down a bit, and I actually was able to relax. So I repeated them to my daughter, who passed them along to my wife, Perdita, who reached over to hold hands with my son, Jonah, who, like his biblical namesake who slumbered at the bottom of the storm-tossed boat, remained blissfully asleep throughout the whole ordeal. And 10 minutes later, we were safely on the ground.

“I don’t think so” wasn’t an answer you’d have gotten from the God I grew up with down South—the one with an opinion on everything political and a punishment for every liberal act. That God was certain about everything, especially when it came to homosexuals, feminists, Hindus, and the Jews. He’d have killed a planeload of ordinary sinners to get one certified Christ-killer, or saved us all to his greater glory on a whim.

I’d run as far away from that God as I could get, which turned out to be a Buddhist monastery, and even that sometimes felt too close. But a God who admitted calmly—serenely, even—that he didn’t know for certain whether my family and I were going to die? That was another matter entirely. It gave me the feeling that we would be taken care of either way; that, in fact, we couldn’t lose as long as we surrendered fully to whatever came next. If God could relax enough to stay open to what the next moment would bring—whether it brought a soft touchdown or a fireball of shrapnel—then, God willing, so could I.

Meeting the God of My Understanding

That was my first experience of what the 12-step recovery movement calls “the God of my understanding.” That God wasn’t interested in theology and had a hard time telling Jains from Jehovah’s Witnesses or jihadis from Jews. But he came when you called him—even if he sometimes turned out to be a “she” or an “it,” and was so indefinable that, in most cases, you just gave up and let the matter slide. In relationship with that God, the emphasis was on realizing your dependence upon a power beyond the self. Whether that power manifested in the laws of physics or in random acts of kindness mattered little, as long as you were willing to ask for help and wait for guidance, even if the help wasn’t always what you expected and the guidance turned out to be “Relax and trust. And stay open to whatever happens next.”

That was a revelation that had eluded me for more than 20 years of Zen practice. By the time I found myself on that plane out of Memphis, I’d been a Buddhist monk, a senior editor for the largest Buddhist magazine in America, and a meditation teacher for more than a decade. But I still hadn’t learned how to live fully in the moment. The trick is to believe in a power beyond the self, even if you couldn’t say exactly what that power was.

I got on another plane the next morning, a different person than I had been the day before, although I didn’t know it yet. I should have realized that my days as a Zen teacher were over, but it took a while to grasp what had happened. When I finally understood it, I did something very peculiar and started the world’s first Buddhist Bible study group.

A New Spiritual Community

That January, I posted a flier around Woodstock, New York, advertising a new kind of spiritual community called “Koans of the Bible,” after those paradoxical sayings of the ancient Zen masters that made sense only when you learned to stop making sense of them. It read, in part:

You are invited to participate in an ongoing study of the mystical teachings of the Bible. Participation in the group requires nothing more than a willingness to spend some time with the Bible’s more puzzling stories, parables, and sayings—from Genesis to the book of Revelation—reading them as a question, not an answer; cultivating openness in place of certainty, acceptance in place of denial. Please note, however: This study group is ecumenical and is, therefore, open to anyone of any religion whatsoever—or no religion at all.

These last words were meant to warn pious churchgoers that we welcomed atheists. After all, this was a spiritual study group, not a religious one. We weren’t out to convince anyone of anything. They could bring the God of their understanding to reading the Bible, even if that was no God at all.

I feared that would weed out a lot of people, but I couldn’t see any way around it. Alcoholics Anonymous had thrived, beginning in the 1930s, not just because it provided a lifesaving service to recovering alcoholics but because it offered a new model of spiritual practice that did not rely on everyone thinking and believing in the same way. The first night, 50 people showed up, an astounding number for a winter Thursday in a small Catskill Mountains town, even if the town was Woodstock. It seemed that the logic of bringing the God of your understanding to a Bible study meeting was more appealing than I would have thought.

I gave a talk that first night, explaining what it meant to read the Bible as a question, not an answer—the idea being to open our minds, not shut them down—and the next week we began in earnest. We sat in a large circle, meditated as our conscience moved us, then read a chapter of the Bible and started to talk.

That was more than 10 years ago, and we have been talking ever since—a group of individuals from diverse religious and spiritual backgrounds, including atheism, with only two simple rules to guide us:

1. We get to question anything.

2. We don’t get to throw anything out.

We discovered these rules early on in our discussions about the Bible; in the years since, they have become a topic of constant conversation in our Woodstock group and the other Koans of the Bible groups it has inspired.

When they come to a Koans meeting, most people understand the first rule right away. It’s what kept them out of church in many cases—the idea that they had to check their doubts at the door. In most churches, people are there to learn what the church thinks about God and the Bible. The church is definitely not there to learn what its people think.

The second rule arose as a reaction to the first. Not throwing anything out meant we didn’t get to rewrite the Scriptures, as strong a temptation as that might sometimes be. Our job was to question the Bible, not dismantle it.

Over the years, we discovered that the very stories from the Bible that troubled us the most—the ones that had never truly left our minds since childhood: tales of a lost paradise, of an irrational sacrifice, of a deceitful brother who nevertheless is favored by God—were the very stories that could become the vehicle of our spiritual liberation, once we questioned them openly and honestly and came to them as we were, rather than as some church or synagogue would have us be. But that wouldn’t happen if our purpose in reading the Bible was simply to get rid of it, to deny its relevance, or to pretend its teachings were simply untrue. To our great and lasting surprise, we discovered that we could agree with the fundamentalists about one thing: the literal meaning of the text was important, just not for the reasons they thought.

One day, a woman at one of our meetings asked a deceptively simple question: “Why is it so important for people to believe that the Bible is God’s word?” She’d wrestled with this question herself for a while before handing it over to the group to see what they would say. Several members thought the divine origin of Scripture was a way of legitimizing the authority of a priestly elite. Such priests saw themselves as responsible for interpreting that “divine word” and enforcing what it said. The word gave them power but only if it came from God. Others thought it was a response to existential panic. In reality, human beings had no idea what the meaning of life was, nor did they know where, if anywhere, they were headed after death. The Bible answered questions they couldn’t answer for themselves—but again, only if it came from God.

Finally, someone who’d been listening to the discussion for some time asked, “What if we wrote the Bible? What if we’re responsible for every single word?” I remember a stunned silence spreading over the room as people took this in. We’d heard it said many times that human beings wrote the Bible, not God. But we’d never followed that idea to its natural conclusion—that the Bible is Western humanity’s oldest, longest, most passionate, and most troubled letter to itself. You might not read that letter with any regularity or even know for certain what it said, but it still had your name on it. It had all our names on it. Its story was our story—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly—every single word.

Probably Zen would have brought me the peace I was looking for had my Japanese teacher been able to explain it to me in terms of that age-old letter. That was my initial rationale in developing our Koans of the Bible study groups. They were a necessary hybrid. It didn’t matter to most of us what the sound of one hand clapping was (a traditional Zen koan); the question didn’t even make sense. But ask any of us why God would tell Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountaintop, and we’d find ourselves in a state of profound spiritual ferment—provided we chose to tackle the question honestly and not run away from it into simpleminded faith or postmodern despair. Those were the real koans for Westerners, I realized, not the obscure Chinese texts from which most American Zen masters insisted on teaching.

Appreciating Your Roots

Imagine the surprise of my old Buddhist peers when I announced one day, seven years later, that I had trained two individuals, a man and his wife from Montgomery, New York, in a complete course of Zen koan study, using only the Bible as my text. As strange as it might seem to use the spiritual tool of one tradition (the Zen koan) to unlock the spiritual text of another (the Judeo-Christian Bible), I found that the effect of doing so roughly doubled the benefits of spiritual practice. Like many mixed breeds, it might look a little funky at first glance, but it made for a healthier dog—and in our case, a healthier God.

At last, I think I know why.

Many years ago, I taught high school in Jacksonville, Florida, a city known for its many beautiful gardens. On my walk to and from work each day, I passed the house of an elderly, somewhat stoop-shouldered man with a shock of pure white hair, whose name, like mine, was Clark. Before his retirement, he’d been the last fully employed telegraph operator in the continental United States. There wasn’t much work for him toward the end, he told me. The Southern Railway had kept him on “for insurance purposes,” in case it received an emergency distress signal from some rural outpost and needed to send a reply. This never happened, and Clark instead spent 10 years sitting in his office with several hundred books on roses, looking forward to the day he could retire and have a garden of his own, which he eventually did.

When I met him, Clark had won every prize there was for growing roses in northern Florida. I once asked what his secret was, and he took me into his garden, where we stepped through row after row of astonishingly beautiful flowers. “You’re doing just what everybody does when they’re looking for my trick,” he told me. “Don’t look at the flowers; look at the roots. That’s where you’ll find your answer.” I followed his instructions. Even so, it took a while for me to understand what I was looking at. Finally, I saw it.

“Every rose in your garden is grafted onto the rootstock of another rose,” I said, astounded at the care and patience such a project had to have entailed.

“Bingo,” Clark said. “Any fool knows you can grow whatever you want in this part of Florida, as long as it’s grafted onto the root of a Cherokee rose. It’s indigenous, you see—been here all along. Took me seven years to do that.”

I thought back on this story years later and realized he’d been more correct than he knew. Before that plane ride out of Memphis, I’d always thought of myself as a Buddhist. But it was mostly an illusion. You can take the boy out of the Bible Belt. You can shave his head and give him a black robe and a Japanese Buddhist name. You can even make him a Buddhist teacher. But you can’t get the Bible out of him—not if it was there in the first place, just like Clark’s Cherokee rose. When my plane was going down, the Buddha, like the flight crew, was nowhere to be found. It was God I called out to and God who answered—the God of my understanding. On my return to Woodstock that week, I bought a Bible and began to read it again after a lapse of 30 years. Time to get grafted, I told myself, if you want your Buddhism to ever look like those roses. It was the smartest decision of my life.

Forming a "Koans of the Bible" Discussion Group

To begin with, all you need is a Bible, a room to meet in on a weekly basis, and as many chairs as you have people. If the room where you meet charges rent, pass the hat to collect the necessary funds. If you meet in someone’s home, be respectful of that space, arriving and departing on time. Most meetings are from 75 to 90 minutes in length. If you meet in a church or synagogue, be sure to clarify from the beginning that Koans of the Bible is “a spiritual Bible study group, not a religious one.”

When you are ready to begin, observe the following guidelines to have a successful meeting where every voice is heard:

  • Begin on time with a period of silence, preferably in dim light, during which members are free to pray or meditate silently as they like.
  • After 10 or 15 minutes, the timekeeper will announce the meeting with the words “Koans of the Bible,” followed by the day and date.
  • Read the chapter from the Bible that you chose the week before, dividing the verses in the chapter among the people in the room, so that each participant gets to read a few verses out loud. If this is your first meeting, choose a well-known chapter from the opening of Genesis, or the twenty-third Psalm, or some other chapter likely to be familiar to all.
  • After the reading, begin your discussion, imposing no fixed structure on the order or manner of speaking. If the meeting is large, you may appoint a timekeeper to monitor three-minute shares, keeping cross talk to a minimum.
  • As a general guideline for your discussions, remember the two rules of koan study: (1) You get to question anything, but (2) you don’t get to throw anything out. Each person in a meeting is entitled to question the Bible as he or she sees fit. But no one is allowed to “throw out” the question or the opinion of another. Our spiritual progress depends upon our unity, and our unity depends upon the observance of these two simple rules.
  • At the end of the meeting, agree on the chapter for discussion the following week. Some groups find it easier to choose a book from the Bible and work their way through it from beginning to end, taking as many weeks on any one chapter as the group collectively decides.
  • Leave a few minutes for fellowship following your discussion, so that members may exchange contact information and, if they wish, respond personally to individual shares.

Clark Strand is the author of How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not (Doubleday, 2009).

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