Photo by Richard Cartmell on Unsplash

The American monk and theologian Thomas Merton (1915–1968) adapted some of the work of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (370–287 BCE). Here is a bit of Merton’s adaptation, with slight changes of my own:

Once three friends were discussing life. One said:

“Can people live together and know nothing of life,

work together and produce nothing?

Can people fly around in the air

and forget to exist,

forever and ever?”

The three friends looked at each other and burst out laughing.

They had no explanation, and so

they were better friends than before.

Then one of the friends died.

Upon hearing of the death, Confucius sent a disciple to help the two remaining friends chant the funeral obsequies.

Upon arrival, the Confucian found that one of the friends had composed a song, and the other was playing upon a lute.

The two friends sang:

“Hey, Sung Hu, where’d you go?

Hey, Sung Hu, where’d you go?

You have gone where you really were all along,

And we are here, damn it, we are here!”

When the Confucian heard this

he burst into the room and said,

“May I inquire where you found this

in all the books of funeral obsequies,

this silly singing in the presence

of the dearly departed?”

The two friends looked at each other, laughed, and said:

“Poor fellow! He doesn’t know the new liturgy!”

(Adapted from a translation by Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, New Directions pp. 54–55)

Daoists loved to stick it to the — as they saw the situation — stuffy Confucians. Like the Confucian in this anecdote, I think that we in liberal religions have yet to learn the new liturgy — the song that will make sense in this digital age.

But it is time we did because the answer to the question that the three friends pose is a resounding “yes!”:

Can people fly around in the air

and forget to exist,

forever and ever?

The answer is yes we can. We can forget to exist. In our digital, instant, and constant deluge of information, we can easily forget to exist and we can easily “fly around in the air . . . forever and ever.”

In order to be spiritually and mentally healthy, it is absolutely imperative that each of us not forget to exist.

How can we help ourselves and others to remember to exist?

There is nothing conceptual in the question or in the answer. That’s why the Confucian in the story doesn’t get it. He knows tradition. He knows all the concepts and all the answers in the old liturgy. Yet, as the Daoists in the story know, he is clueless because existence itself — being itself — has no answer and never has.

In order to be relevant in our post-pandemic ago, we must say hello to a new liturgy so that we can answer basic existential questions:

“Can people live together and know nothing of life,

work together and produce nothing?

Can people fly around in the air

and forget to exist,

forever and ever?”

We must learn to live together, embracing life, working together to meet human needs, with our feet on the ground, embracing existence itself.

Share this...