Many years ago another friend (and coworker) invited me to attend his church's Passion Play. He was going to be in it, as was another friend/coworker who was portraying Jesus. I gladly accepted and looked forward to seeing my friends perform, to watching the unfolding of this traditional story in perhaps a slightly different light (this was at a Nazarene church, which I had not been to previously), plus they had talked about the dramatic way the cross is erected at the time of the crucifixion, dropping down into a slot and lunging out toward the audience some, enhancing the importance of that moment visually and viscerally. In addition to experiencing and enjoying all of that, something unexpected came about as I watched and listened that evening.
It was during a well known part of the story, when the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who has committed adultery, stating that per Moses' law she is to be stoned to death, testing Him to see how He would respond. His response is to invite those who are without sin to throw the first stone, resulting in the crowd contemplating this some, realizing not one of them is without sin, and eventually dispersing, leaving Him alone with the woman. He then tells her they don't condemn her, He doesn't condemn her, therefore she is to go forth and sin no more.
When I had encountered this story before, I heard Jesus' final words to this woman as a command to stop living the way she had been living up to this moment and not to engage in sin. Certainly the advice to no longer commit adultery or any other sin and live a more wholesome life is implicit in His words and good advice, but it seems there is something deeper being offered as well, not only via His words but also in what He helped happen in the moments before. Through having everyone in the crowd reflect and understand that they are all sinners, they realize that at the root of things they are the same as this woman, and she the same as them. This being so, ultimately one could say there are no sinners and no non-sinners, and by extension no sin, but simply and profoundly the common experience of a beautifully complicated life made up of choices, mistakes, regrets, lessons and an overall movement toward betterment and wholeness. To put it more radically, it's impossible to sin when in a place of deep connection and non-separation. Speaking from such a place, "sin no more" is not so much a command as a profound statement about the fundamental condition of reality and existence itself, a returning from a world of duality and division to a territory of "sin no more." This is not giving license for people to do what they will freely, but instead is about not cutting oneself off, either by thinking you are higher or lower than others, as you work with and through the consequences of your choices and deeds. In this there is an invitation to experience the inherent freedom of a human life, to not make of it a problem or a prison, to not cast out or exile oneself or others.
It seems appropriate that I should revisit my experience from those years ago this Easter season, as lately I've been pondering sin some more, partly as a result of participating in one of those dialogue/debate panels again recently, but mostly because I find the subject itself and people's relationship to it interesting. There is no concept of sin in Zen or in Buddhism as a whole, the emphasis instead being that we are fundamentally good, with awakening and enlightenment being an inherent aspect of existence. As a result, it is difficult for me to relate to and understand sin when people bring it up, primarily in the context of Christianity. However, in a talk one of my teachers gave he proposed that if there was sin in Zen it might be when we act from a place thinking we are separate, forgetting our connection with everyone and everything. I can agree with that, as I have known first hand and witnessed the harm, pain and devastation that is created through words, thoughts and actions that come from such a place. Holding these things in mind as I heard someone on that panel explore the idea of original sin, a different way of understanding it came about, dismantling the previous one: the act of eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is akin to the movement from unity to division, from wholeness to separation, from harmony to discord. Might it be that these two different traditions, one with a concept of sin and the other without, are essentially sharing a common ground of understanding and aspiration?
I read an interview with Bernie Glassman, Roshi (at SweepingZen.com) in which he stated that one thing Zen practice offers is the opportunity "to realize and actualize the interconnectedness of life." I'd break it down to say that the practice offers the realization and direct experience of the interconnectedness of life, something that can't be un-experienced once it happens. Simply having such experiences irrevocably changes the way one lives, and there is a natural impetus to allow this realization to be actualized and nourished. Perhaps this is similar to the opportunity and invitation being extended to that woman and those who would stone her. An opportunity to experience what it is like to allow the stones drop, to release the heaviness and hardness of judgment and condemnation; an opportunity to let go of the stories about ourselves and others, the inner and outer voices no longer reinforcing them, no need to keep carrying the harsh shoulds and shouldn'ts of how to be; an invitation to go forth in this place of connection and wholeness, to taste the inherent freedom that arises within that cleared space, no longer hindered by the obscurations and clutter; and in doing so, nourishing and extending this freedom to all, allowing it to become manifest and real.
Wishing you the peace and wholeness of this freedom, in this season and always.