By Ted Lee
The Enso of Christ
When I was 17 years old, I almost ran away to a Buddhist monsatery.
It was a conflux of events that led to this secret desire. I was finishing my senior year of high school and would soon depart for Brigham Young University—a university I did not have my heart set on but one my parents wanted me to attend—and then I would leave on a two-year mission. My teenage heart felt that once I stepped out of that high school for the last time, I would be leaving a comfortable world behind forever—a world where most of my friends were not members of the Church, where I could be the only Mormon, where my social life and church life would rarely intersect, if ever. I would have to abandon my circle of friends—most whom would be attending the University of Washington together, developing further bonds without me—and find new friends in a familiar-yet-foreign culture where I was no longer very special at all. I would be forced to immerse myself in the Church, and this prospect terrified me.
On the outside, I was a solid Mormon boy who loved to study the scriptures and live the gospel, who wanted to become an academic by earning a degree in theology—because I loved religion that much. In fact, to my exasperated Asian parents who wanted me to major in something more reasonable like law or medicine, I was a little too in love with the gospel.
But on the inside, I was terrified of losing myself. I had built my identity around being “the Mormon” in my social circles, but what would such a thing mean when surrounded by Mormons? Faced with this existential crisis, I entertained the idea that if I had to lose my identity I might as well lose it doing something I actually loved—and at the time, I was in love not with BYU, Utah culture, or even the prospect of mission life, but with Zen Buddhism. And so why not run away, become a Buddhist monk, and live the impractical theological life that Mormonism so explicitly denied me?
There was no particular point where I decided against the monastery; I simply took the path of least resistance. I went to BYU, where I floundered; went on a mission, where I thrived; and then returned to BYU, where I floundered once more, realizing much too late that not only did BYU not offer a degree in theology but that the Church offered no reliable position as clergy. I started half-wondering if I should contact a few old investigators and take them up on the youth pastor position they had offered me. As I wandered aimlessly from major to major trying to find something that captivated my attention in the same way that staring into the eternities did, the image of the Buddhist monastery loomed again in my mind.
“Out of all the religions in the world, why Zen Buddhism?” you might be asking. “What about it draws you in so powerfully despite your love of The Book of Mormon and Joseph’s sweeping revelations of an eternally expanding heaven of linkages and relationships between all of humanity? If you believe in the gospel, if you love the Savior, if you cherish the doctrines and scriptures, what else do you need?”
In answer, I would simply point at the ensō. The most well-known visual symbol of Zen Buddhism, the ensō is, to me, one of the most sublime and beautiful images I’ve encountered. The figure is simple—a circle, drawn in a single, usually swift stroke of the sumi-e Japanese calligraphy brush. It represents both enlightenment and the void, the universe and nothingness. When I look at it, I see the face of God.
After my mission, I decided to turn my escapist fantasies into practice by starting a zazen practice: sitting meditation. The principles of zazen are remarkably simple. Dogen, the founder of the Sōtō school of Zen, wrote:
For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Zazen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down . . . .
Having thus regulated body and mind, take a breath and exhale fully. Sitting fixedly, think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen.
My decision to practice zazen was also simple: I desperately craved a refuge. Rarely do I find comfort in the scriptures or in my church meetings; in fact, I often leave my ecclesiastical endeavors filled with turmoil and further questions. I have come to appreciate these emotions as productive—pushing me to find more answers, to turn the doctrines of God over again in my mind, to come and reason together. It is not after a particularly peaceful sacrament meeting but a particularly irritating one that I will break through self-imposed barriers of culture and spiritual myopia to discover a new theological possibility. Mormonism, after all, is a faith in which one is anxiously engaged. But sometimes, I need a break from this constant anxiety and engagement.
If I seek peace, if I seek the balm of Gilead for my wounds, if I seek a pavilion or hiding place to shelter me from the raging storms of life, I do not turn to holy writ or ordinances or prayer, whose paradoxes only agitate my mind. Rather, I sit and be still, attempting to know who is God. I sit until my mind resembles my motionless body. I stop doing works and simply empty my mind until it fills with eternity. And the more I sit, the less the anxiety and engagement that define the Mormon worldview sit well inside of me. If our gospel is one of peace, why does it cause so much conflict within me? If God is a God of love, why does so much of his plan for us create sorrow and division? If our Church is one that strives for total conversion and inclusion, why do I feel so isolated and betrayed by the culture it produces? If I’m trying to find answers to these questions while sitting, I know that I have not sat long enough. I need to quit thinking and just settle, like sediment in a pond. Only when this happens can I experience God’s infinities in all their horizon-expanding glory.
One of the first steps towards understanding zazen is to understand Dogen’s oft-ignored advice for its practice: “Have no designs on becoming the Buddha.” The art of zazen is usually mischaracterized as a quest for enlightenment, but to quest for something is to betray the point of zazen. Certainly, zazen can be productive therapy or provide emotional or spiritual benefit, but it is not the doing of zazen that takes you to enlightenment; it is simply sitting still until you remember that you are already there.
This runs counter to the Mormon characterization of exaltation as a multiple-step, one-size-fits-all self-improvement regimen that, if followed correctly and completely, can make you perfect sometime in the future. As a people and a culture, we treat grace less like a gift and more like food storage—God forbid you ever find yourself in such a situation where you’d have to tap into it, but thank God that we followed the prophet’s call and stashed it in our basement, just in case of emergency. But outside of special circumstances, the average Mormon need only rely on old-fashioned willpower and grit to climb the ladder into exaltation. After all, Utah’s state motto (and Brother Brigham’s) is “industry”; its flag bears the insignia of the busy beehive—in Zion there is no time to indulge in simply sitting.
An old Zen tale speaks of a man who hikes up a large mountain and digs around on its surface, muscles straining, sweat streaming, laboring day after day in hopes of finding a nugget of gold. One morning, after a particularly hard rainstorm, he heads towards the mountain and finds that all of the dirt has washed off its surface, revealing its core nature—a massive monument of solid gold that time had slowly covered in layers of dust. I wonder if our religion celebrates the man who is content with what he believes are rare and valuable scraps that he earned for himself, all the while ignorant of the untold riches abundant under the surface he labors over.
However, to characterize zazen, or the enlightenment one finds, as cheap or easy because all it takes is just sitting (and honestly, how hard can it really be to sit still for extended periods of time?) compared to the constant, high-maintenance, endurance-testing marathon of busyness that Mormonism prescribes ignores how terrifying being alone with yourself really is. Many practitioners (myself included) can tell you stories of exiting a zazen session sobbing, your body shaking from the exertion of allowing emotions to batter you over and over as you sat silently, like a rock on a stormy coastline. There are times when I give up and stop sitting because my brain will not sit still with me; there are times when I find myself clawing my way out of silence because I cannot bear my own company that day. Those moments happen more often than I’d like to admit.
Sometimes I wonder if the Atonement was a particularly intense session of zazen, the Christ sitting cross-legged on a meditation pillow in Gethsemane, blood oozing out of every pore, his trembling yet perfectly upright frame hiding the impossible torrent inside him as he takes all of the world’s sins and torment into his consciousness without succumbing to it or losing himself in the darkness.
The Atonement, like silence, is a terrifying thing. Its magnitude is unfathomable. Our scriptures propose that Jesus took upon himself not just the sins of the world, but the pains and abuse and trauma of the world—every unique case inflicted on every person that was, is, and will be. All this, the prophets argue, is so “that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” and so “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12). But we rarely sit down and consider what this actually means—the full extent of this promise—and how it fulfills the now centuries-old conundrum of how Jesus could be both fully divine and fully human.
Because of the Atonement, Jesus understands what it’s like to be raped; he understands how it feels to be molested as a child, to be physically and emotionally abused; what it’s like to be a soldier or a slave or a prostitute kidnapped from home and forced into subhuman conditions. Jesus knows what it means to live in an internment camp, to be the victim of genocide, to lose entire social circles to AIDS. Jesus understands how it feels to hate your own body because of gender dysphoria, to be tortured by cruel captors, or to be orphaned. That he has experienced the deepest depravations humanity has to offer ties him and his body tightly to the earthly experience, a fully embodied God who has experienced the utmost limits of mortality and beyond; it renders him more fully human than any of us could ever hope to be. Yet for him to emerge from the cumulative horrors of the Atonement all the more perfected speaks to his divinity. And how could we even begin to argue that Jesus is still just a man when he understands the loss of children through miscarriage or the unique tragedies women have endured throughout history? How can we argue that Jesus is heterosexual or cis-gendered when he understands more keenly than many of us ever will the individual torment of every person who can’t conform to society’s sexuality and gender standards? How can we argue about his race when he has experienced the terror of racism of all kinds, the fear for one’s family’s safety, the cruel, nonsensical logic of being hated, tortured, and killed because of the pigment of one’s skin?
The miracle of the Atonement is its ability to collapse every category and dissolve every difference into an emptiness filled only with the pure, unadulterated love of God. Deep within the broken heart and body of Christ is an eternity that threatens to swallow us whole, a prospect so terrifying that we reflexively shrink from its awe-inspiring dissolution. To lose ourselves in Christ is to lose ourselves entirely—to be stripped of our earthly identities and become incorporated with the Everything and Nothing that Christ offers us freely—to become completely immersed and absorbed into that one Eternal Round: the ensō of Christ. Faced with the prospect of our wills being swallowed up, we rigidly define the boundaries of the Atonement, we confine its access points, and we restrict and ration out the extent of its unlimited power and who it applies to and when and how and where—because as mortals we are terrified of its all-encompassing nature. We seek to control it before it can overpower us and erase those identities and divisions we hold dear so that we can stay different and special. To lose ourselves in Christ is to lose our Mormon-ness.
When I look at the open ensō, I see the Atonement, an act that subsumes everything in the universe within it, both the redemptive absence of and the full, crushing weight of sin, a symbol of deliverance from as well as the epitome of every curse and calamity, and the deep scars they leave within us. While strikingly simple in concept, the totality of all it represents eludes our mortal understanding, no matter how hard we grasp at it.
When I’ve walked all I can on the beach and fall to my knees, I do not look for the company of Christ’s footprints next to me. What I hope to see instead are two meditation pillows, the Savior crouched in the sand, waiting for me. He has always been waiting for me to slow down while laboring on my own agendas. He has been waiting for me to finally stop. When our eyes meet, he does not speak. I no longer expect him to say anything at all. Instead, he picks up a stick and scratches a figure into the sand.
He draws for me the ensō. And he invites me to sit with him.