Sunday, June 16, 2013

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.


The Japanese master Nan-in gave audience to a professor of philosophy. Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor's cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: "Stop! The cup is over full, no more will go in." Nan-in said: "Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" 

As with many of the Psalms, this passage is riddled with metaphor and terminology familiar to those who would have written it. Try to put aside any preconceptions you may have about the meaning of words like "wicked" and "righteous;" much of the true meaning of the original text may have been lost in translation. For instance, "to sin" is more accurately translated as "to miss the point," rather than as performing an act of evil.

This is a passage that basically outlines the nature of an enlightened being. From the first sentence, the message is dissociation or detachment from the common world. It seems paradoxical, in a sense: don't follow the words of people who cause suffering, but don't try to stop them from doing what they will. The last part of the sentence reconciles these two parts, cautioning not to associate with mockers. The message is simply to not allow oneself to get caught up in the affairs of those who are missing the point. We hit what we're looking at, so pay attention to helpful things, and leave the rest alone.

In the second verse, there is reference to "the law of the Lord." Time again to empty your cup; put aside your preconceptions about what or who "the Lord" is. A common theme in Buddhism is Dharma - in Daoism it is the Dao, or Tao. Many adherents to the teachings of the Buddha or the writings of Lao Tzu spend a greater part of their lives striving to understand the essence of the Tao. Simply put, the Dharma or Tao is the Way of the Universe, including all the ways its pieces interact and flow. A common attempt to explain the Tao is the analogy to a river: ever flowing, ever changing, never the same twice, and going about itself without trying, without supervision. The catch 22 is that the true nature of the Tao cannot be named or conceived by the brain, cannot be held in the mind nor explained in words. A name is not the Tao; it is a concept of the mind. The Tao dodges every explanation, as explanations are just chains of concepts. Concepts are thoughts, and the Way of the Universe is not a thought; it is a Reality. Even all these words are only, at best, pointers in the right direction, and at worst just a lot of hot air.

"The law of the Lord" is one of the Bible's phrasings of that Reality, of the Tao. In Psalm 1, the Blessed Man meditates on the law of the Lord day and night, striving to comprehend it, to live it. He delights in the law, the Way of the Universe, because it is forever pure and untouchable. It is perfect - no amount of thinking or doing can change the Way or corrupt it. Unlike all other things within the universe that wither and die, the Tao is immutable, permanent. No matter what, the blessed man can always find the Tao and rest in it.

In verse 3 we find the first reference to the river. The Blessed Man is like a tree planted by the river. Who planted the tree? No one did. It came to be that way because that is the law of the Lord, the Way of the Universe. The seed carried by the river became deposited and grew; when the conditions were right, it bore fruit. In this verse, the Blessed Man is likened to the very Tao itself: he is the tree, which is part of the whole flowing Tao. Since the Tao is permanent and undying, and the Blessed Man is the Tao, he is also undying, and his "leaf does not wither." Whatever he does prospers, because everything he does is done in line with the law of the Lord, the Tao, and so is natural.

But "not so the wicked!" Who are the wicked? Those who sin? So, those who miss the point - those who do not "get" the Way of the Universe. If they do not live in line with the Tao, then how are they living? If they are missing the point, what are they hitting?

This is where things get a bit deep, and personal. It's this part that is the crux of the whole ordeal. We've mentioned that the Tao, the law of the Lord, is permanent and unchangeable, and that it is the only "thing" that is that way. If you examine the objects around you, the body containing the eyes reading this, even the thoughts in your mind, you will begin to see that each and every one of them came to be, persists for a time, then dies away. Furthermore, none of them exists on its own. They are each dependent on all the others. They are not separate; in fact, at a subatomic level, they are all the same.

The "wicked" hold onto the belief that, despite this, they are separate. I do this, you have done this. Would you call yourself wicked? Probably not. So let's change the meaning of that word in this context to something more like "lost." Now ask, what is it that is separate? What is it that these lost people are identifying with? The specific answer does not matter. Whatever it is, it is impermanent and not separate from anything. See for yourself. Do you think that you are your thoughts? They are gone already. Do you think that you are your body? All the particles making it up have been replaced countless times over the years. Are you your memories? They are nothing but a string of thoughts. All these things are temporary, impermanent. When the "wicked" identify themselves as any of these things, they will sooner or later find their identity blown away like chaff on the wind, and that is a very painful thing to experience.

So we've examined how the "wicked" miss the point and found that those senses of identity have nothing supporting them. They do not stand up to judgment; they fall apart when scrutinized. The Blessed Man, however, does not identify with anything material, not with thoughts nor emotions. Seeing how he is not apart from anything, he becomes aware of his true Self as inseparable from the flowing Way of the Universe. Those who miss the point ("sinners") consider themselves somehow separate from all the rest, and so cannot be counted among the "assembly of the righteous" - those who see as the Blessed Man does. Within the "assembly" there is no individual, and no distinction from the Tao.

The last verse is a summary. The "righteous" are aware of their lack of separation, and so act in line with the Tao. In fact, they have become the Tao, the law of the Lord, so to say that "the Lord watches over the way of the righteous" is recursive: the Lord is the Tao is the way of the righteous. Identifying with anything else, calling yourself anything temporary ("the way of the wicked"), will inevitably lead to your concept of self to perish.