Friday, April 23, 2010

On hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan — for the first time!

Issan said that he really read only one book as an adult, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He had read it several times. But he didn’t have to read the gospel to understand it.

In 1991, I had asked my friend, Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., of the New England Province to come by and say Mass for the Catholic men in the AIDS Hospice.

It was a Saturday evening. He was due to arrive at 5 or so, and I was scrambling, assembling a few basics, actually just the essentials, bread, wine and a clean tablecloth for the dining room table. Issan, who was at the time in the final stages of HIV disease, came downstairs in his bathrobe, to ask when “Father Joe” was due to arrive and see what I was doing. After I explained, he said with a big smile, and firmly, “Mass will be in the zendo.” He took over, and directed all the preparations with the same care that he would have given to a full-blown Soto Zen ritual. Then he went back upstairs, and when he came down again, he was dressed in his Zen robes. He greeted Joe at the door with a hug and kiss, thanking him for coming and telling him that Mass would be in our chapel, the zendo, and I would get him anything he needed.

Issan and five or six of us sat in meditation posture on cushions while Joe improvised the Liturgy, beginning with a simple rite of confession and forgiveness. When it came time to read from the New Testament, Joe took a small white, well-worn book out of a pocket in his jacket, and told us that his mother had told him that the story he about to read contained all the essentials for a Christian life. Then he read Luke 11, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Issan sat right next to me but he gave his entire attention to Joe and the Mass. I couldn’t get a read on how he was reacting. The next day, I discovered that he had fallen in love with Luke's parable, and Joe.

Sunday mornings were the usual community gathering of the Hartford Street community, and Issan began to talk about Fr. Joe and the liturgy. He was really exuberant. He turned to me and asked, “What was the little white book that he read from?” Startled, I said that was the New Testament. “Oh,” said Issan, “it must have been in Latin when I heard it as an altar boy—or something, but it was exactly how we should lead our lives as Buddhists.” He then said that during the Mass he had the experience of really being forgiven and that the experience had allowed him to feel such peace with his early religious training.

When Joe and I had dinner together the night before he flew back to Boston, I told him what Issan had said. A few days later, the small New Testament that had been in his jacket for years arrived in an envelope addressed to Issan. He would die 6 months later, and, during one of out last meetings, asked me to thank Joe again for the zendo mass after he was gone. I did. And that New Testament which passed from the pocket of Joe’s jacket to Issan’s room at Hartford Street is now on my altar.

For another piece on the Good Samaritan and Buddhism, go to "We Inter-Are" by Morgan Zo-Callahan.

The image of the Good Samaritan is from the painting by Vincent Van Gogh.