Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week discussing how in his professional life he works with individuals on improving their productivity. For instance, a good “rule of thumb” is to never have a business meeting without an established agenda as these meetings will always veer off topic and meander. Along these lines, Roshi noted that he was invited to the latest meeting of the Yorktown Interfaith Council which, of course, lacked a set agenda. This time the group was visited by an evangelical minister from Guyana. Roshi noted that this was probably the first time this minister was participating in an interfaith group. As such, he was very intrigued about the different beliefs represented and spent a considerable time peppering the participants with all kinds of questions on faith. Needless to say, this meeting definitely veered off in many directions.
Throughout the meeting, however, the topic of sacrifice kept surfacing from the minister. According the Christianity, God sacrificed his only son in order to absolve humanity of their many sins. Why would God make such a sacrifice? Here Roshi jumped into the discussion and stated that it would be useful to establish a shared definition for the term “sacrifice.” One definition of sacrifice assumes that there is a first party who performs a costly action to appease or create a more intimate relationship with a second party. This action may be minor like performing certain prayers or rituals or major like the surrendering a life of a third party such as a member of the community or valuable animal. So, in this definition there are three parties – each with a very specific role.
Roshi asked the minister if this definition was acceptable and he agreed it works, but admitted that he never thought about it so mechanistically before. Roshi then asked, if that’s the case, can he just explain what the three parties are in the Christ story? Who’s party one? Who’s party two? Because from Roshi’s understanding of the Christian faith – all the parties are God. God is sacrificing himself – namely his son to appease himself? The minister was really taken aback by such a question as it really went to the core of his belief system. Needless to say, there was a lot of discussion and time ran out for the meeting.
After the meeting, Roshi continued to think about the issue of sacrifice. The concept of sacrifice crosses all borders, eras, and religions. Why do humans from modern time to ancient cave dwellers have this concept of sacrifice? Why do we have the need to define ourselves by giving something up? Roshi then moved on to consider the topic of sacrifice in Buddhist practice. In Zen we do not sacrifice animals, possessions, or people. So, what do we sacrifice in Buddhism? Also, is a student practicing Buddhism the “sacrificing party” denoted in the definition discussed in the Interfaith meeting? In that case, who is the party we are trying to appease? Also, what exactly is being sacrificed? Do we sacrifice time when we do Zazen? If Zazen helps us to gain emotional balance, who is the beneficiary of that work? So, are we actually the third party? Perhaps we are the one being “sacrificed” for the betterment of all sentient beings. For example, we spend two hours each Saturday in Zazenkai in order to be better people with our families and communities.
Roshi noted that we can go even deeper in our contemplation of what sacrifice means. Ask, to what end and who’s the beneficiary of your sacrifice? Are you willing to sacrifice your desires and attachments and delusions? To what end? To create some kind of awakening or insight? Who’s the beneficiary of that? Initially, it’s always you. But if we can create a deeper sense of understanding and awakening the benefit flows to all sentient beings whether it’s because of our direct relationship to them or through some karmic link. This is why we take the Bodhisattva vows. We vow to live a certain way in order to relieve the pain and suffering of all sentient beings. We take this vow every day. But this vow doesn’t come without a sacrifice. That’s the point. What are you willing to do to be of service to others? Are you willing to give up your identity so that you can comprehend the larger identity of suchness?
Roshi noted that we are not attempting to graft the notions of sacrifice expounded in other religions onto Zen. However, it is an interesting way to look at our practice. This is a question which each practitioner must answer for themselves. What are you willing to sacrifice for your vow? How real is this vow to you? Some students may practice simply to gain some mental stability and peace. That is fine. Others may be willing to sacrifice much much more. That is fine as well. Again, it is a call which every student is asked to decide.
Roshi wrapped up the talk by noting that at the Interfaith Council meeting there was a representative from the Bahai faith. From this person’s perspective, the sacrifice of Jesus was not being crucified, rather it was leaving the perfection of heaven to come down to the suffering on Earth. Why would anyone want to leave heaven to deal with hunger, thirst, wars, and so much suffering. Dying on the cross was the easy part as it allowed the exit back to heaven. Roshi noted that this was a surprising and interesting perspective.
So, what are you willing to sacrifice? Perhaps like the Bahai perspective, the giving up is actually the easy part and holding on to all of our garbage is really the sacrifice. This is the shift in perspective that we practice to achieve.