The recent fire in Notre Dame is a terrible and dramatic reminder if anyone needed one of the inescapability of impermanence. I think that for many people, the images of the cathedral on fire are reminiscent of the pictures after 9-11 of the towers burning and falling down. Somehow the unthinkable happening. Something that we could never imagine suddenly taking place, right there in front of our eyes, all too visible.
In addition to the reminder of impermanence, it is interesting to me that it seems that the source of the fire in the cathedral was an accident that occurred in the process of restoration and renovation, which itself is a kind of reminder that sometimes our attempts to fix things backfire and cause the very thing we're trying to ward off. There are also dramatic stories of the priest who rushed into the burning cathedral to rescue the relics of the true cross and the crown of thorns, relics that I gather had been brought back from the holy lands during the crusade led by the French king, I believe, Louis. And one can imagine this medieval king arriving in triumph in Jerusalem, rescuing the holy lands from the infidels, and the locals all too eager to ingratiate themselves with the new conqueror, producing exactly the sorts of things he was looking for to take back home as souvenirs. These things become enshrined and somebody risks their life to try and save them.
It very easy to think of a gullible French king triumphantly returning home with pieces of the true cross, sort of the medieval equivalent of being sold the Brooklyn Bridge, and yet so much of religious tradition involves the enshrinement of, if not physical relics, the conceptual, metaphorical, doctrinal relics that have been handed down century after century, and that which we take to be signs of the true religion or true belief. So it is interesting to me in that context that not long afterwards, at Easter, the Times ran an interview by Nicholas Kristof with Serene Jones, who is the President of Union Theological Seminary, and he asked her some very pointed questions about the Easter story in Christian doctrine. And he's basically asking her things like, "Can I still be a Christian if I don't believe in the virgin birth? If I don't believe in the literalness of the resurrection? Can I still be a Christian? What does it mean?"
And she gave some very interesting and pointed answers. She said, "You know, the idea of the virgin birth is just nuts!" She said, “You know, obviously, this is a kind of idea that enshrines male beliefs about the impurity of sexuality and the female body, and that it's not particularly Christian to have to believe in those things.” She says the resurrection for her has nothing to do with whether Jesus physically was resurrected or went up bodily into heaven; the resurrection to the head of Union Theological is a symbol that love cannot be killed, that there is something that survives the worst we do to each other. And she says, "I don't believe that the crucifixion was preordained, or arranged by God, in order to sacrifice his son and redeem the rest of us. The crucifixion was the equivalent of a lynching; it's not something we should imagine is part of God's plan." So forth and so on. Whatever you think of the particulars of these things, here we have someone trying to articulate a way to be Christian that isn't literal minded.
In addition to her explanation of the resurrection as an image of the triumph of love over death, I always thought of it also as the eruption of the inexplicable or the irrational into a world that we're inclined to think is totally determined, and that science and common sense and the logic of the world are all too often evoked to prop up a particular social status quo. This is just the way things are, this is the way things always have been, and it's futile, if not crazy, to try to imagine them being different. So the resurrection in that sense -- or any miracle -- is a kind of defiant says-who in the face of what everyone calls the conventional wisdom, or common sense, or the way things have to be.
We might imagine that some of the language of Zen koans is also this kind of revolt against the rational, against the expected ways of saying and doing things, a revolt against the common pictures of piety and devotion. It's exemplified in Bodhidharma telling the old emperor that all his good deeds have accumulated no merit, that there's nothing holy in this universe, or a Zen teacher being asked what's the Buddha, and saying dried shit stick -- this kind of eruption of the irreverent in the holy of holies.
Notre Dame will, no doubt, be rebuilt. The news was filled with offers of hundreds of millions of dollars suddenly donated to help the poor of Paris -- oh no, not that -- to rebuild the cathedral to its former glory. It raises the question of what it is we think we do when we maintain a tradition. Do we run in to rescue the relic, do we raise money to rebuild the building, or is there something about the way we live and love and treat each other that is the true continuation of a religious tradition?
I think that those questions apply to our Buddhist tradition certainly as well as the Christian ones, and it's obviously always easier to laugh at the folly of someone else's relic or archaic fundamentalism, but we need to ask ourselves what is it that we think we're preserving and how are we preserving it.