Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by discussing the Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kipper holidays practiced in the Jewish religion. Part of this tradition in these holidays is reflection and atonement. Roshi emphasized that the concept of atonement is common across many religions. Atonement or “At-One-Ment” is a practice of reflection and cleansing of negative karma. Reflection is such a critical part of a spiritual life, and as such, most traditions incorporate holidays and ceremonies which invite practitioners to reflect and understand how their past actions brought them to this exact place in time. The major difference in our tradition, however, is the centrality of this reflection.
Roshi next commented that the first chapters of Genesis are read during the Rosh Hashanah service. He commented, that in all great literature the key message is right up front in the first few lines. The Bible starts with “In the beginning …” So, we know we are in for a long “grand” story with many crucial lessons for us. As an example, Roshi asked us to consider that in the creation story God created light on the second day, but created the stars including the sun on the 4th day. A reasonable person would ask how could you create light before the means to produce it? It would be like expecting light from a flashlight with no batteries!
There is a deep message in this passage which resonates with our practice. The “light” created on day two proceeds everything. The Bible is asking us what light existed before the first star came into being? Does this not sound like the question of what was your face before you were born? It does as both are pointing to the exact same thing. The “Light before Light” is the original existence of suchness which pervades everything, everywhere. Coming to terms with this “Light before Light” is what we train for in Zen.
Should we be surprised that the key to enlightenment is right on the first page in the Western Bible? Absolutely not! The answer we seek is written everywhere. It is in the Bible, it is in a tree, it is written in the stars, it is right in our own heart and mind. It is everywhere because it existed before we started dividing up everything into our small dualistic packages! The Light before Light shines everywhere for all time. Our practice is simply stopping and realizing this.