There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Rachel has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theological doctrine is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise.

We try in all sorts of ways to explain the Trinity, through diagrams, through analogies, through some really bad and usually silly similes and metaphors. Most such explanations are less than convincing, and virtually all are theologically problematic. As Brian McLaren has observed:

Seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists.[1]

So I’m going to leave Christian theology behind for a moment and ask you a question from another religious tradition: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

You’ve probably heard that question before. And you probably know what it is: a koan which is the unanswerable question a Rinzai Zen Buddhist roshi poses to his or her student for contemplation.

You may not know that it is actually a misquotation. The actual koan – attributed to the 17th Century Zen master Hakuin Ekaku – is, “You can make the sound of two hands clapping. Now what is the sound of one hand?”[2]

Hakuin offered the Single Hand koan as an alternative to the koan traditionally used at that time to begin a novice’s Zen path. This koan is called “Mu” and dates back to the 8th Century and the Chinese Zen master Zhaozhou, known in Japanese as “Joshu.” It is a story which goes like this: “A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu said, ‘Mu’!”[3]

Because Buddhist teaching is that all sentient beings (which includes dogs) have buddha nature and because the word “mu,” in its simplest meaning “can be read as a negative answer: ‘No,’ ‘No way,’ [or] ‘Not at all,’” the student is asked to contemplate the master’s confusing and apparently contrary answer. However, as Prof. Ruben Habito has noted, a reading of mu simply as no “would not get to the import of the koan. [Mu] is an answer that invites the practitioner to go beyond conventional meaning, and be opened to an entirely new horizon of seeing things.”[4]

So … various exegetes have interpreted Joshu’s answer

  • as a verb referring to “the activity of emptying out” (perhaps akin to the Christian concept of kenosis?);[5] or
  • as “go[ing] beyond ‘is’ and ‘is not’ to a place beyond all dualities, to being as it fundamentally is;”[6] or
  • as “a kind of universal negation that pulls the rug out from underneath whatever preceded it;”[7] or
  • as “a non-literal way to express a transcendental negation” which cuts off and discards “any and all thoughts or uses of reason and words.”[8]

The Irish poet theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama has suggested that the best understanding of Joshu’s answer, “Mu!”, is “You’re asking the wrong question.”[9] Which, interestingly enough, brings us back to the Trinity, because this was almost precisely John Wesley’s position on attempts to explain the triune nature of God.

In Wesley’s Sermon 55, sometimes titled On the Trinity, which he preached in Cork, Ireland, in May of 1775, he said this (now, this is 18th Century Anglican talk, so bear with me):

I believe this fact . . . that God is Three and One. But the manner how I do not comprehend and I do not believe it. Now in this, in the manner, lies the mystery; and so it may; I have no concern with it: It is no object of my faith: I believe just so much as God has revealed, and no more. But this, the manner, he has not revealed; therefore, I believe nothing about it. But would it not be absurd in me to deny the fact, because I do not understand the manner? That is, to reject what God has revealed, because I do not comprehend what he has not revealed.[10]

In other words, trying to explain the Trinity, which we always are tempted to do on Trinity Sunday, is to ask the wrong question. I’ve come to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as Christianity’s Mu.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki, the first westerner and only woman (so far) to be ordained a Rinzai Zen priest, wrote of Mu and all koans, that it “cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason.”[11] That, I believe, is also a pretty good description of the mystery which is the doctrine of the Trinity: it cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason . . . and it ought not be preached in a sermon.

I’m not even sure why we call it a “doctrine”! The Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved, a statement to be elucidated, an axiom to be proven. Is the beauty of a rose something to be solved? No, it is merely the inherent nature of a rose to be beautiful. Is the love between spouses something to be explained? I’ve presided at more than enough weddings to assure you that marital love is nearly always inexplicable; it simply has to be experienced. Can you prove the majesty of great symphony? The triune relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the same sort of thing; it is the inherent nature of God, a mystery to be experienced not a formula to be explained.

So, if explaining the Trinity is the wrong question, what is the right question for this Sunday? Well . . . it just might be the question posed in today’s Psalm: “What are people that you should be mindful of them? Human beings that you should care for them?”[12] The answer, of course, is that humans bear the image of God. “Though the language of ‘imago Dei’ is not used explicitly here,” the psalmist’s recitation of the order of creation and humankind’s place within it “proclaims the likeness of humanity to the divine.”[13] Episcopal theologian Catherine Wallace asserts, “The imago dei [the likeness of God] within us is made manifest in our own human capacity for chesed.”[14]

Chesed is a Hebrew word often translated as “kindness,” as in that familiar admonition from the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[15] This word chesed appears 248 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Though, as I said, it is often translated into English as “kindness,” there is actually no direct equivalent in our language. When Miles Coverdale made the first English-language translation of Holy Scripture, he invented the hyphenated term “loving-kindness” as a translation. It is also sometimes rendered as “mercy,” “compassion,” “steadfast love,” or “covenant loyalty.”[16] According to Jewish tradition, chesed is one of the thirteen middot or qualities of God; in fact, “over and over again, [it is] the central attribute of God in Hebrew Scripture.”[17]

It has been said, to bring us back to the doctrinal theme of this Sunday, that chesed “expresses the primary character of the Trinity in their relationship with each other.”[18] The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is a communion of persons bound by the gift of self in love. This is the essence of chesed and belongs to God’s nature from all time.

It is no wonder that the Psalmist describes chesed-capable humans as “but little lower than the angels,”[19] nor that Micah encourages us to love chesed.

In his book Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic, Rabbi Yoel Glick writes that individuals who work from a foundation of chesed

. . . have loving compassion for our suffering and merciful wisdom for our earthly struggles. They pour out their love on us. They teach us how to sanctify our existence. They strive with compassion to alleviate our sorrows. They work with mercy to ease our burdens, to lighten the load we carry in our lives.[20]

How do the saints do that? How do they find that foundation? Or, to put it more pointedly and personally, how can we, you and I, find that foundation? I think I get a hint from Mu. I think we have to strive to accomplish some of that “active self emptying,” some of that “transcendental negation” that discards reason and words. I think we find the foundation of loving kindness when we lose the things that keep us from it, and I find the guidance to do that more in poetry than I do in theology. So I want to close with the words of a poet who is neither a Buddhist nor a Christian.

Naomi Shahib Nye is a Muslim, a Palestinian American from New Mexico, whose poem Kindness helps me understand both Mu and the doctrine of the Trinity:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.[21]

Our God who is three-in-one and one-in-three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not an equation to be solved, not a doctrine to be explained. No, it is a relationship of chesed to be experienced. Dear People of God, may chesed, the loving kindness at the heart of the Holy Trinity, be yours and may it go with you everywhere, like a shadow or a friend. Amen.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on June 12, 2022, Trinity Sunday, to the people of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church, Gambier, Ohio.

The lessons read at the service were Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; and St. John 16:12-15. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).

Illustration: The Chinese character “Wu” (“Mu” in Japanese)


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Brian McLaren, Rethinking the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, Tikkun, June 25, 2012

[2] Linda Sue Grimes, The Sound of a Hand, Owlcation blog, March 29, 2022

[3] K. Yamada, Gateless Gate (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson: 1979), p. 11

[4] Ruben Habito, Mumonkan, Case No. 1: Joshu’s Dog, The Elijah Interfaith Institute blog, undated, accessed June 10, 2022

[5] Bret W. Davis, Letting Go of God for Nothing – Ueda Shizuteru’s Non-Mysticism and the Question of Ethics in Zen Buddhism, Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy, Vol 2 (Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Nagoya, Japan:2008), pp. 221–250, 236

[6] Prof Glenn Taylor Webb quoted in James Ford, Mu & Nothingness: A Reflection on Zen and the Great Empty, Patheos Monkey Mind blog, March 5, 2018

[7] Tom Wardle, Mu: The Zen Koan as a Love Letter, Patheos Monkey Mind blog, November 2, 2021

[8] Steven Heine, Four myths about Zen Buddhism’s “Mu Koan”, Academic Insights for the Thinking World blog (Oxford University Press, April 28, 2012)

[9] Pádraig Ó Tuama, This fantastic argument of being alive, interview with Krista Tippet, On Being blog, March 2, 2017, accessed June 10, 2022

[10] John Wesley, Sermon 55: On the Trinity, §15 (May 8, 1775), on West Blocton Bible Methodist blog, accessed June 10, 2022

[11] Isshii Miura and Ruth F. Sasaki, The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York:1965), p. 5

[12] Psalm 8:5 (An Inclusive Language Psalter, General Theological Seminary, undated PDF document, accessed June 10, 2022)

[13] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Commentary on Psalm 8, Working Preacher blog, May 30, 2010, accessed June 10, 2012

[14] Catherine M. Wallace, Confronting Religious Absolutism: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR:2016), p. 26

[15] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

[16] See Kurt Stuckmeyer, Some Thoughts on Loving-Kindness, Following Jesus blog, May 17, 2015, accessed June 10, 2022

[17] Wallace, op. cit., p. 25

[18] Ian Hempshall, (C)hesed loving kindness, Trinity Lewes blog, October 13, 2016, accessed June 10, 2022

[19] Psalm 8:6 (BCP Version)

[20] Yoel Glick, Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT:2015), pp. 25-26

[21] KindnessWords Under the Words: Selected Poems (Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, OR: 1995), p. 42