The Koan of “You”

One of the central organizing principles of teaching at Appamada is that the dharma is, most deeply and fully, an expression of relationship. In his introduction to Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Norman Fischer speaks to the centrality of this insight:

“Although our lives are located in our hearts and minds, they are also located, perhaps most poignantly, in the space between us.”

He also speaks about the elegant treatment of this theme by Martin Buber in his classic, I and Thou:

“For Buber, there is no God, no absolute, no present moment outside the profound relationship that takes place between the I and the you, between the self and the other. Within the hallowed reaches of that ineffable experience (which is not an experience, Buber insists) our true self takes place. Relationship is the theme of the Psalms—specifically that most difficult of all relationships, the relationship with God.” (p.. xviii – xix)

Of course, in Zen practice and in all of Buddhism, “God” can be a problem, or at least a sticking point for some people. Norman continues in addressing this concern:

“For many of the religious seekers I have encountered, the word God has been all but emptied of its spiritual power. Even when it is taken in its most positive light it seems often reduced and tamed, representing some sort of circumscribed notion of holiness or morality. For me, what is challenging about “God” is exactly that it is so emotional, metaphysically emotional. The relationship with God that is charted out in the Psalms is a stormy one, codependent, passionate, confusing, loyal, petulant, sometimes even manipulative. I wanted to find a way to approach these poems so as to emphasize this relational aspect, while avoiding the major distracting pitfalls that words like God, King, Lord and so on create. My solution was simple. I decided to avoid whenever I could all these words and instead use the one English word that best evokes the feeling of relationship, the word you.” (p. xix – xx)

This is a stunningly simple and potent choice. In doing so he transforms “You” into a koan rather than as a someone or something to be known. Suddenly we are forced to confront the central question: “Who or what is this You?” A few last lines from Norman’s Introduction:

“With human consciousness, with language, the perfect silence is necessarily broken as we call out with words to one without a name or location, to all that immensity that surrounds us everywhere, inside us and outside us. The word you contains all that and includes all its sadness, intimacy, and power, for in the word you God becomes painfully close, utterly unreachable in his nearness.” (p. xxi)

At the heart of Inquiry we encounter the question, “Who am I? or What is This?” Relationally we also have to ask ourselves, “Who or what is the You being addressed in the Psalms?” Is it an external being, a universal energy or consciousness, our own deepest nature, or the ultimate, unknowable mystery? Might these all be different perspectives on the One? Reading Psalm 46 leads us deeper into this question.

Psalm 46

Norman Fischer version

You are our protection and strength
Help in the storm of anguish and despair
Exactly and easily found close at hand
So we are not afraid

Even when earth’s in upheaval
When mountains are carried to the sea
When the sea’s waters roar and foam
And the mountains quake and tremble with the water’s swelling—

In the middle of the world there is a river
Streams run into it, making glad your cities
Making glad the places where you are known
You flow as the waters of that river
And she shall not be moved
For you are with her
You are the morning that dawns over the quiet waters

Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—
What we see is all your doing
These desolations
These terrifying moments—
Only your unmoving movement—

You cause wars to cease when they cease, to cease forever
You break the bow, snap the spear
Burn up the war wagons

Be still—be still
And know me
Be still and know
That I am what the nations grope toward
I am earth’s desire

So we know you are with us
Our defense at the silent center of things

During extremely difficult times we long for “Help in the storm of anguish and despair—When the earth’s in upheaval—Nations rage, kingdoms tumble—we know you are with us.” How do we know? Who is it that is with us. Toward the end of the Psalm we hear the response and the injunction to practice: “Be still—be still/And know me/Be still and know/That I am what the nations grope for/I am earth’s desire.”

How do we come to know what is with us, always on our side, “our defense at the silent center of things”? Be still and know. This is the entry gate to the koan of “You.”

Koann of You

7 thoughts on “The Koan of “You”

  1. Just so, Flint! Many humans Instinctively cry out to something or someone that is not us, that is beyond the small circumstances of our ego “selves.” For a long time the kind of “zen” taught to me excluded any idea like this, and I felt weak for continuing to use the psalms as part of my practice. As an ex-Catholic nun, I learned that the images and universal emotions like suffering, joy, gratitude, love, defeat, and victory–the entire panoply of human experience–could be expressed in them. We can call upon the universal benevolence we hope is at the center of all things. I praise Norman Fisher for recognizing our desire to “cry out” to what is beyond ourselves, and for offering his version of the psalter. I use it daily!

    1. Thank you Robyn. Your experience matches mine in terms of realizing this universal human longing that cries out to be met. Certainly Norman’s translations of the Psalms met that longing in deep and inexplicable ways. I am glad we share that space of meeting in the Psalms.

  2. Thank you, Flint. I am grateful for the resource that you are, for the shared inquiry that connects me so profoundly to the inquiry and concern of others who are deeply aware of these questions and experience them as koans.

    I experience every aspect of my life, every twist, turn, dip and soar, every joy and sorrow as a koan, as turning toward intimacy and relationship with ceaseless wonderment.

    Your messages address the longing I have to connect with others around these aspects of lived inquiry: Do YOU these questions, as well, on your pilgrimage through this world?

    1. Thanks Lisa. Since I have moved along with you on many of these twists and turns I appreciate what you are communicating here. If we are fortunate, these questions never stop. And if we are wise we never abandon them. instead we move along our pilgrimage with them as our closest companions.

  3. I very much appreciate the poetic nature of Norman Fischer’s translation. The psalms hold a special place in my heart. They were written so very long ago and still to speak to my experience of the situation today. Just for kicks, substitute the word We for the words You and I. I struggle with my egoistic version of things and have been working with We. While my tendency is to prefer the quiet of being alone, I am pushed to examine more with other. We.
    Thank you, Flint, for your ever present encouragement to go deeper as well as rest in the present moment, Kathryn

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