This would not have been remarkable had I been a member of the Orthodox Church, which for more than a millennium has used that prayer as its preferred method of contemplation. For that matter, it would not have been remarkable had I been a Christian of any kind. As I was a Zen Buddhist who professed no belief even in God, much less Jesus, it came as a bit of a shock.
I was on my way back from the bathroom when the plane simply fell out of the sky. My feet kept lifting up off the floor. I hung comically for moments on dangly puppet legs, then somehow I managed to make it back to my seat. I had just buckled in when my wife turned to me from across the aisle where she was sitting with our two young children and said the four words no one on an airplane ever wants to hear: "Do you smell smoke?"
It was the moment we've all imagined. You look forward and backward into the faces of the others passengers (complete strangers, all but a few) and read there the selfsame thought: "So this is what it means to die..."
Miraculously, just minutes later we were back on solid ground. The plane, as we later found out, had developed an electrical fire in the control console, and the pilot, not knowing how long he could steer it, had descended as fast as he could, driving her for all she was worth, covering the 25 minutes back to Memphis in just under 10 minutes flat.
|When all seemed lost, it wasn't Mu I had cried out, or even Buddha, but of all things, Jesus--in spite of everything else I had ever believed or done.|
That evening, in the restaurant of the Airport Hotel, it occurred to me that I hadn't tasted Memphis barbecue in almost 35 years. Iced tea with lemon and sugar and endless pats of cold sweet butter on hot pan-baked rolls. My wife would have lectured me about my cholesterol had it not been for the fact that she'd just survived her worst nightmare and was busy working over an enormous plate of fantail shrimp.
Only later that night in the hotel room, with the children in bed, did I remember the moment during the flight when my spiritual life had taken a 180° turn and, as it were, headed back to port.
I had not set foot in a church in over 20 years, other than to attend a wedding or a funeral. I embraced Zen Buddhism at the age of 19, never once looking back on my Presbyterian roots. During all that time, it never occurred to me to recite anything other than the koan my teacher had assigned to me at the beginning of my Zen career, which I subsequently worked on for 14 years:
Monk's Question: "Does a dog have buddha-nature?"
Master's Reply: "Mu!"
Just that one word . . . Mu! (literally "nothingness"), repeated endlessly.
It seems silly to put a number on it, but I must have silently intoned Mu literally millions of times in the effort to plumb the mysteries of Zen. To suppose I somehow lacked faith in it seemed unthinkable. I had given it my all. But in that case, why wasn't it there when I most needed it? How was it that the words of the Jesus Prayer, which I knew only through one little book, the story of a Russian peasant called "The Way of the Pilgrim," came to me in that moment instead?
Arguably, there is a big difference between sitting in tranquility on a soft round meditation cushion and sitting in a plane that is making a beeline for the ground. The only comparable moment I could think of was the time a few years earlier when I had gone for a walk in the mountains and become hopelessly lost in a late-season snowstorm. I had no matches, not even a hat or a coat. On that occasion, admittedly, my lifeline wasn't "Mu." Instead, it had been the "Ten Phrase Life Prolonging Kannon Sutra," which some have called the "Hail Mary of Zen."
Kan-ze-on na-mu butsu yo butsu u in yo butsu u...
"Kanzeon! Salutation and devotion to Buddha! We are one with Buddha..."
Why hadn't that short sutra come to mind again on the plane, I asked myself? Maybe it was the difference between "probably-going-to-die-if-I-don't-get-found-soon" and "definitely-going-to-die-right-now." I had to be honest: When all seemed lost, it wasn't Mu I had cried out, or even Buddha, but of all things Jesus--in spite of everything else I had ever believed or done.
It wasn't that I had become a Christian (though for a long time afterward, I did recite the Jesus Prayer whenever I sat down to meditate). And it certainly didn't mean that I had abandoned my Buddhist beliefs. If anything, they were stronger than before. It took awhile, but finally the answer came in the form of a lesson I had been taught years before but had never properly understood.
When I lived in Jacksonville, Fla., I used to walk each morning by the house of a man who raised the most remarkable roses. Even the local horticultural society had nothing that could compare. One day, I asked him what his secret was. He led me into his garden, where he showed me California roses, Japanese roses, roses from all over the world. They were all different, he told me, but they had one thing in common: Each had been grafted onto the root stock of an indigenous Cherokee rose. "I can grow any kind of rose I want, and it'll be beautiful," he told me conspiratorially, "as long as it's grafted onto that root. Any fool knows you can grow any rose you want on a root that's already there." At the time, I thought he was just talking about roses. But maybe he was wiser than I thought.