One of my absolute favourite films is the 1997 black comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. In it, Martin, a thoughtful and conflicted professional hitman travels back to his home town for his high school reunion. His former girlfriend Debbie, seeing his obvious anxiety and inner tensions, tells him what he really needs is ‘shakabuku’. When he asks what that is, she replies, ‘it’s a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality, forever.’
The film doesn’t go to any lengths to explain ‘shakabuku’, certainly not far enough to explain its significance within Nichiren Buddhism, where it refers to the rebuttal of teachings regarded as heretical or overly simplistic.
For the film, ‘shakabuku’ was a clever, throwaway line.
The interesting thing for me, though, is Debbie’s definition, which doesn’t seem particularly connected with the actual meaning of the term.
Her definition doesn’t remind me of Buddhism much at all, but it does remind me of Epiphany.
‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek term Ἐπιφάνεια (‘sudden manifestation’, ‘striking appearance’). The Feast of Epiphany, and the season of Epiphany that follows it, celebrates within Christianity the revelation of Jesus, the human baby born of Mary, as the Son of God.
It is tied to the biblical texts that speak of the Persian magi, who divine from their astrological observations the wondrous news that a divine king is to be born. Armed with this mystical belief, they set out from Persia to Palestine to find this infant king and pay homage to him.
Traditionally, the significance of Epiphany in Christian theology involves realization, revelation, coming to know, making an awesome discovery- the person of Christ.
If I were to take it in a slightly edgier theological direction, it’s interesting to reflect not so much on the revelation, but to whom it was revealed- not righteous children of Israel with their law and the prophets, but foreigners, gentiles with their esoteric occultism.
God’s revelation of salvation, it would seem, was open to everyone, using a ridiculously wide variety of means…
That fact in and of itself is a pretty swift spiritual kick to the head… and it opens up one more interesting reflective path:
Epiphany reminds Christians that the God they worship is actually forever in the business of swiftly kicking heads.
Epiphany is yet another reminder that everything we think we know- everything on which we have been comfortably relying- might be wrong, misunderstood, or might come to an abrupt and totally unexpected end.
The heavens declare, ‘expect the unexpected’…
This isn’t necessarily fun or exciting; it can be a disorienting, not particularly pleasant process, as anyone who has gone through a life-altering trauma with tell you…
An epiphany might come as a result of losing a loved one;
It might come as a result of separating from the love of your life;
It might come as a result of a devastating diagnosis;
It might come as a result of the collapse of a church community;
It might come as a result of new knowledge that throws a lifetime of assumptions out the window;
all of these and more can lead to an epiphany- a divinely-instigated moment of clarity that nothing will be the same, that transience and uncertainty are key components of human existence, and that in the centre of that transience and uncertainty must necessarily be our understanding of God.
God, ineffable and unknowable, and yet now a human baby, first recognized by gnostic occultists…
God, forever and unchanging, and yet seemingly ever-changing…
God, seemingly solid, but apparently fluid…
God, always thought of as an ever-present hope in time of trouble, and yet apparently silent, distant…
The mystery of Epiphany is this: Does faith endure the swift spiritual kick to the head?
It is foolish to brashly declare beforehand that it will.
It might not.
It might, but in a very different form, changed, transformed, chastened, refined…
But Epiphany assures us that, regardless of the outcome, the swift spiritual kick is coming.