The Buddhist Koans of Jesus

(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa on March 18, 2018)


Not long ago, a Buddhist magazine asked ten leading people in the film industry to list their favorite movies with Buddhist themes. I was delighted to see one of my favorite films on the list: the Big Lebowski.

Now if you’ve seen the Big Lebowski, you’re probably wondering what in the world makes it a Buddhist film. It’s a comedy about mistaken identities involving underworld gangsters. The hero of the movie is an unemployed stoner known as The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges. There’s a lot of bowling in it—and not just ordinary bowling, but competitive bowling. And there is a lot of swearing.

But the Big Lebowski has become an unlikely Buddhist classic thanks in large part to the Zen-like musings of its main character, The Dude. And there’s also the name of the movie’s producers: the Coen Brothers. Only when Buddhists refer to the two of them, their names aren’t spelled Coen, C-o-e-n, but rather koan, k-o-a-n.

That’s because in Zen Buddhism, a koan is one of the most important teaching tools. A koan a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used to try to jolt the mind out of its normal logical reasoning. Your intellect alone isn’t enough to understand a koan. They have to be approached in a different way.

The Dude

So a movie filled with absurdities turns out to have a lot to say about the nature of reality. And the Dude is a kind of Zen master in the rough (who likes to drink a cocktail called a White Russian, as you know if you’ve seen the movie).

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Big Lebowski, and so once I started reading about it on the Internet, it was hard to stop. One article led to another, all of which were great time wasters when I should have been working on this sermon. But once I actually started thinking about what I was going to say this morning, I realized that the Big Lebowski provided some clues.

That’s because in the Gospel reading for today, it sure sounds like Jesus is using koans. And I realized that sometimes with Jesus, it’s best not to rely on your rational mind too much.

Let me first tell you a little more about koans in Zen. Koans can’t be solved like an ordinary puzzle, because they interact with something deeper than the mind. They’re meant to shake us to the core. They’re meant to be transformational.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  • When you can do nothing, what can you do?

And here’s a koan in story form. A young monk brought two potted plants into the monastery’s garden while the Zen master looked on. “Drop it,” instructed the master. The young monk gently let down one pot. “Drop it,” again ordered the master. The monk let go of the second pot, gently. Then the master roared, “DROP IT!” The young monk stammered, “But… I have nothing more to drop.” The master smiles, then says, “Then take it away.”

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

I know. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s the point, in fact.

Buddhist teacher Don Dianda describes koans this way:

“Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” Instead, they wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing. Koans don’t just come in through the front door and sit at the kitchen table, they seep into the structural integrity of the home we have built—our identity or ego. You don’t really know where they will settle or how they might flip a once tightly held belief.”

Now I realize it’s probably sacrilegious to equate Jesus with The Dude in the Big Lebowski. But I don’t think it’s wrong to view some of the more enigmatic sayings of Jesus through a Buddhist lens. Because once you start looking at them in this way, many of Jesus’ statements fit the classic definition of a Zen koan, and I think we can pick up some useful clues from our Buddhist brothers and sisters in interpreting them. Here are a couple examples from today’s Gospel reading:

  • Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
  • Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

One benefit of using this Buddhist lens is that through it, these old and familiar sayings can become new to us again. Author Robert Farrar Capon writes, “The first and most troublesome [obstacle to the parables], oddly enough, is familiarity. Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what is meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it is, too . . .[But] some of [Jesus’] parables are not stories, many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.”

So let’s look some more at these Christian koans, as I’ll call them. We’ve heard them so often that we think, oh yes, we know what that means. Nothing much new to see here. But instead, let’s think of them this morning as koans—they’re meant to split our heads open.

Jesus was really good at doing this to his listeners. The Pharisees hated it; his followers were often confused by what he said but still kept asking for more. Here are a few more of the paradoxical statements made by Jesus: It is better to give than to receive. The last shall be first and the first, last. We become wise by becoming fools. We become strong by being weak.

Over and over again, Jesus tells people that God isn’t something you can put into a tidy little box. God’s message can really only be understood—or rather internalized—by living it. It’s why Jesus himself came to live the Gospel. Think about it: Moses gave the Ten Commandments to the ancient Hebrews in the form of stone tablets. Look how well that turned out. Instead Jesus taught by actions, by stories, and by paradox.

Think of the contrast between “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

In using paradox in his teachings, Jesus is part of a long line of spiritual masters who realize that rationality can only take us so far. Human intellect is an amazing, God-given tool. It’s given us antibiotics and modern dentistry and the sonnets of Shakespeare, the ability to fly across the ocean in a jet and the International Space Station. But the problem with the intellect is that it can convince us that every problem we face needs the same hammer.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, paradox teaches us that two things can be true at the same time—and that spiritual advancement often depends upon keeping them in creative tension with each other.

Here’s an example from the Jewish tradition, a story from an eighteenth-century rabbi. He told all of his followers that they should keep two pieces of paper in their pockets. One piece of paper should say: “I am only dust and ashes.” And the other paper should say, “The world was created just for me.”

Both statements are true. And both of them should always be kept in the forefront of our minds, as well as in our pockets.

These last weeks of Lent are especially full of paradoxical images and ideas. A king who rides a donkey. A savior who takes on the role of a suffering servant. A gruesome death that leads to joy.

If we were Buddhist monks assigned these stories as koans, our teacher would tell us not to think about them, but to sit with them. Try to engage with them not with rational thought, in other words, but in meditation. To translate that into Christian terms, try to engage with them in prayer.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

One way that can help is to think of the times when we’ve lived with paradoxes in our own lives. For me, this happens every time I visit my mother in the memory care unit of her nursing home. Conversations with her no longer follow any sort of logical order. She speaks in dangling sentences that reflect her tangled thoughts.

And yet, communication is still possible—and sometimes I feel that our connection is in fact deeper because it’s not mediated by rationality. We sit and hold hands instead of visiting. When she sees me, her face lights up. Much of what ties us together doesn’t depend upon the correctly firing synapses in her brain. And it doesn’t depend upon what I say. For someone who’s relied on words—many, many words—my entire life, that’s a humbling admission.

I’ve learned that the best way to be with my mother right now is simply to be, not to think. That’s often the best way to approach an insurmountable problem, isn’t it? Sit with it. Try to become friends with it—or least put down the weapons you were trying to use to fight it.

So I invite you to enter into the rest of Lent, and the Holy Week that’s rapidly approaching, with a bit of Zen in your spiritual tool kit. Don’t worry about trying to understand it rationally. Don’t think about the many times you’ve been through this story before. It’s happening again, right now, as if for the first time. Jesus is inviting us into paradox. We can’t follow him with rationality, but we can follow him with our hearts.

The last shall be first. He who would save his life must lose it. And sometimes you can learn a lot from a silly movie. The Dude abides. Amen.


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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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