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Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Boston 1992
Highlights of the Working Group "Zen Awakening and Christian Contemplation: Practice in Both Traditions" held at the 4th International Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Conference, Boston University July 30 - Aug. 3, 1992.
Nine people active in the Buddhist- Christian dialogue speak from the heart about their own inner journeys: Ruben Habito, who completed koan training under Koun Yamada; Patricia Dai-en Bennage, a Soto Zen priest and first foreigner/woman to complete full advanced teacher training; Susan Ji-on Postal, a Zen priest and leader of the Meeting House Zen Group in Rye, New York; Astrid O'Brien, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University; Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest recently installed as a Zen teacher by Tetsugen Glassman; Thomas Hand, a Jesuit priest and pioneer of Zen-Christian dialogue in Japan; Sr. Agnes Lee, a Chinese Catholic nun and Zen practitioner; Jim and Tyra Arraj of Inner Growth Books and Videos.
Also included are some responses from the audience.
Im Jim Arraj, and Id like to welcome you to this core group on Zen awakening and Christian contemplation from the point of view of practice in both traditions. Most of the people on the panel are dual practitioners, and we would like to examine the question that arises from carrying out a dual practice.
I want to understand my practice or my life not so much as a dual practitioner, or a dual life, but a simple practice that cuts across two traditions - the Buddhist and the Christian.
As a teenager I was faced with questions about life and death which led me to a search which led me to the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines. There I practiced the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in my Jesuit formation, and that was a key turning point in my own life. In my late teens I received a major jolt.
In 1970 I was sent as a missionary to Japan, and there I began my training in language and culture. I was assigned to Kamakura, and there I had the great fortune to have Fr. Hand, here today, as my spiritual director, and Fr. Hand was already receiving direction from Yamada Koun Roshi, and so he also encouraged me to join his Zen group. And there I found another turning pint in my own life journey.
What happened was I was led through the basic steps of zazen: posture, breathing, and silencing the mind to the point of stillness, and from there given the classic "mu" koan which somehow or other I must have been given a good tailwind - with some good hints from Yamada Roshi. After a few weeks, after a day at a sesshin, I came home, just trying to relax and beginning to look for a beer and so on, when as I was sitting in my chair something suddenly dawned on me, something that cracked that koan "mu," and it came in an unexpected way. Somehow I knew. What did I know? Well, the only image that came to mind was I knew why the Buddha was smiling with that half smile, that there was something there. I knew what was behind that smile. In may sound like an exaggeration, but for me the heavens and the earth opened, and I burst out laughing.
I knocked on Tom Hands door, and said, "I got it! I got it!" I was laughing, and tears were streaming from my eyes. I have to see Yamada Roshi. From there, I telephoned Yamada Roshi, and he welcomed me in dokusan that evening and gave me the usual checking questions.
He said, "There is something here, but lets ripen it a bit." I still felt I had to tell him something, that I hadnt exhausted what I wanted to express to him. I asked if I could see him again tomorrow, and he agreed.
When I saw him the next day, he gave me some more questions, and then said, "Yes, this is what we call the kensho experience in Zen, so from now on your practice will be from a different angle, no longer trying to knock on the door, but now trying to open different kinds of doors to the same room." You will find out there are no doors at all, but anyway, it is like having gotten hold of a master key. Now you can go in and out, and open those imaginary doors with your master key. Each koan from here on will be like a door you can now open with that master key you now have in your possession, which you can swallow if you wish.
That was the point. You can swallow that master key so you are that master key. After 16 or 17 years, in 1978, Yamada Roshi gave me permission to teach others in that way. During that time I found myself having to struggle with some basic things I held precious from my own background, namely I came to Japan as a missionary in the Christian Gospels, and I realized I had to rework my understanding of what that Christian Gospel was all about. In my own struggle I was faced with the challenge Yamada Roshi had given to those Christians he had admitted in practice.
He said, "Well, Zen is something that does not rely on words or letters, as everyone knows is one of the cardinal principles of Zen. Yet it has to be expressed in words or letters, so we have volumes of materials written on Zen. As you Christians deepen and purify your own experience in Zen, I would like to invite you to attempt to express what you are experiencing in ways that will be able to resonate with those people who come from your tradition.
But before being able to express it for others, I had to be able to clarify it for myself. So that was the struggle I had to undergo for several years. I am still in that process, if I may confess. I have simply discovered a new way to read Scripture that does not just invite theological concepts, but a very, very direct way where the words of Scripture address the here and now.
Just to give an example, the words of consecration in the Catholic Eucharist, "This is my body," - a very powerful primal word. This word can call for a lot of theological speculation, but rather than that, it invites us to a direct experience of the here and now, something that cuts through all our concepts, and so for me this is what I would like to continue deepening in. It is an awareness and an appreciation of that mystery which is offered to us in our Christian scriptures, and to express it in a way that would also invite others to experience, and not theological concepts and so on. Zen has opened up for me a dimension that is not really different from what I had known, but gave me a way of cracking that world in a very direct way that is simply taking a posture, and breathing, and silencing, which is basically a reposing of our whole being to be able to listen to that mystery. That has allowed me to listen a bit more to the very words I was familiar with in Christian scripture, and so that is what my Zen journey has led me to.
Sr. Agnes Lee
I am a Chinese Catholic nun from Taiwan. I was raised in a Confucianist, Taoist, Buddhist culture with no specific religious preference. In my childhood I was very much drawn to Christian religious and spiritual values such as the Beatitudes. What do "blessed are the poor" or "blessed are the pure of heart" mean?
I was so curious about Jesus of Nazareth. Why did He die such a human death, and why did so many missionaries come to Taiwan? I found that in His life He was a man of no-self. To me He lived a self-less life. His death is so solemn. In Taiwan we say there are two kinds of death. One is a light as a feather, and the other is as heavy as the Thai mountain, which is one of the five mountains in China.
In my first year of high school I went to a convent and asked for baptism. After high school I knocked on the convent door and said I wanted to be a religious. Then I got religious training and formation. We have prayers, the Hours, spiritual reading, the rosary, etc. In my religious formation I found something was missing in my understanding of the Christian religion and the Christian tradition. I found so many sermons and so many doctrinal teachings were simply not convincing.
I enjoyed the practice of silence, and through this practice of silence I learned "just doing." I also felt I was in heaven during Mass and the chanting of the Office in Latin and felt I was chanting with all the saints and angels throughout the ages. Now, only now, after encountering Zen and my own tradition, do I understand, because I did not understand Latin. Yamada Roshi said, "Words with meaning are dead. Words without meaning are alive."
It was in my undergraduate years I discovered Teilhard de Chardin, and he led me back to my own tradition. I found theology inconsistent and contradictory all over the place. When we see something contradictory, we say, "This is a mystery." I discovered it is not consistent because it is not grounded in cosmology.
We are told to love God is to love people. But how? I dont know how to love. Tell me. Can you give me a prescription how to love God? Nobody told me how to love God, and my neighbor, and I dont know how. This is my problem.
I think that in our spiritual teaching there is a lack of psychological foundation. It is not Chinese. I feel Christianity needs badly inculturation because in each culture there is sufficient vocabulary to be used.
From the Taoist tradition I entered the Zen world. I read Zen books in Chinese. I was so happy, and at the same time I was so frustrated. I didnt really understand them, but I was very happy. From Zen I find it is Chinese, and it is simple, practical and intuitive. After Zen the Christian scripture became alive for me.
At the baptism of Jesus, for instance, that is the moment where Jesus existentially finds His idica (identity). It was not a voice. And the creation myth in the Old Testament. I appreciate more and more the Christian treasures.
I graduated from Catholic high school, went to Bellermine College, entered the Society of Jesus in 1938, went through Jesuit training in the old style for 15 years until ordination in 1953. Then I went to Japan. The first life-giving experiences I had in Japan came from Catholic sources. Karl Rahner said grace is not just a theological thing, it should be your experience. That doesnt sound like much, but for me that was a big experience. I was supposed to experience grace.
I felt at home in Japan, and the Japanese consciousness fascinated me. When I was in Tokyo I read Fr. Hugo LaSalles book, Zen, the Way of Enlightenment. I was interested in Zen from afar, and while at a picnic and someone said, "Zen," a little boy immediately went into the lotus position and just sat there. Something clicked.
I tried to sit, but it didnt work at all. In the spring of 1967 I walked down the hill from our language school to a dilapidated Zen temple where the Sanbo Kyodan Zen group was meeting. Yamada Sensei was taking over from Yasutani Hakuon Roshi. Yamada Roshi accepted me as his Zen disciple.
I was the first of a long line of professional Christian Catholics who entered the Sanbo Kyodan. I didnt know why I was there. Yamada Roshi asked me, "What is your aspiration, your intention for doing Zen?" I said something about to-go, which means integration. He didnt know what I was talking about, and I didnt, either. Then he said there are two kinds of Zen. There is Buddhist Zen with all the Buddhist trappings, statues, etc., and then there is just simply Zen. He said, "You do Zen, and you will become a better Christian." And that was true. That was the policy he maintained wonderfully until the end of his life. I started with breathing, then I went to "mu," and it took me a long, long time to get through "mu." I was like a wooden log, or rather, I was all stuck here. (head) Finally I did get through "mu," my kensho was approved, and so I started in the koan practice, but then after about my 7th year of Zen practice circumstances were such that I had to suspend the practice, but I have never really left the Sanbo Kyodan and have been practicing Zen ever since.
The deepest problems were those connected with my whole mind-set. First of all, in Zen there is no personal God. For a Christian that is an immediate stumbling block. Its a tremendous thing if you really think about it. There was no personal God. However, all these problems that arose became a source of later profound changes in my mind-set and in my life. For example, the profound personal God which in a sense didnt disturb me but was down deep, and I wondered, "What on earth is going on here when you can have a highly developed, superb spiritual training going on with no knowledge of so-called personal God?"
The answer to that began when one day I was standing on the roof of our language school, looking to the west at a not particularly beautiful cloud bank, and suddenly something just clicked, a switch just turned inside of me, and all I could say, and I kept saying it over and over, "God is different. God is different."
The second thing that was a deep problem was the kind of attention that was called forth by the Zen practice. I can still remember Yasutani Roshi thundering that you must become a hakushi, which means a blank sheet of paper, and then he would say you must give up all judgment, and you have to give up judgment of pleasant or unpleasant. Thats a judgment of feeling. You have to give up judgment of beautiful and ugly. Thats an aesthetic judgment. You have to give up true and false. This was very powerful because this was an intellectual judgment. He said you have to give up moral judgment, right and wrong. Oh, thats even more threatening for a Catholic Christian, and finally - and this was the big one - you have to give up the judgment of good and bad, good and evil. I didnt understand. I couldnt follow it. However, sometime later, this bore fruit in a total change in my consciousness. I woke up very early in the morning, and I lay there in a kind of a pre-awake state, which is an excellent state because the poor old logical mind cant get going at that time, and that was when I suddenly realized powerfully that there is a world beyond good and evil, and it changed my whole consciousness, and so evil is not a problem for me down deep.
The last one is, where is Jesus Christ in this? I can still remember sitting there saying mu, mu, mu all day long, and saying, "Where on earth is Jesus Christ in this?" because for a Christian we are to learn of Christ. We are to follow Christ. Is following mu following Christ? And it was for me the biggest problem. Here I am, a Jesuit priest dedicated to Christ Jesus, Catholic and all that. This led to a series of insights, and they continue over the years.
Zen was always looking for the self, and you start with the small letter self and find the big letter Self, whereas in Christianity you try to get rid of yourself. We talk of not only self-denial, but self-hatred right in the Imitation of Christ, and so you look at Christ. You find yourself in Christ, and its a valid path.
But what I did come to find was the importance of the first personal pronoun of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. That is the most important word in all the Scriptures in my mind. If you really go into what Christ Jesus means by "me," "I," "my body," if you get into it you will find yourself. You will find all reality.
Im Susan Postal - Ji-on is my Dharma name - a Zen priest, a student of the late Maureen Stuart. My Zen training is completely home-grown. I am a product of American Zen which in some ways the Dharma has taken root here in this country because my teachers were American. Their teachers were Japanese.
My own religious background: I had rebellious parents. They left Christianity after they were confirmed, both of them, as Lutherans in Europe. They met in this country and were both rebels. My father went to science of mind lectures, my mother followed Krishnamurti around. I said I wanted to go to church like my friends. They said, "Were not going. You find your own way."
My friends went to the Presbyterian church, so I went to church. I fell in love somewhere with Jesus when I was about 12, and I stood up an accepted Jesus. I tried to get my parents to come, and they came once at Easter. When I was about 14 or 15 when I was working with the youth group, they started talking about the boxes. If you didnt believe here, you werent saved - those kinds of boxes. I just didnt buy it. I remember saying, if God pervades everywhere and in all things, what are these lines?
Then I went to college and a friend took me to hear Alan Watts. It was 1958, I was a Freshman, and it was literally a light bulb experience. I said, "Thats it." I didnt know what "it" was, but I was completely convinced that this made sense, and I remember going back to my dorm and sit zazen, but I didnt know what I was doing. I read D.T. Suzuki. I didnt know Suzuki was in San Francisco. All I knew was books. So I wrote papers on Zen and existentialism, and my professors said I was crazy. They said Western mind cant understand this stuff. In 1969-70 I took bodhisattva vows in the Tibetan tradition. Mme de Salzmann warned me I would have a lot of trouble with the Tibetan tradition, and I did. It somehow wasnt quite congenial for me, but I learned a great amount.
On the one side I had a very good Dharma foundation of understanding the teachings of Buddhism, because the Tibetan tradition starts with the knowledge of how reality works. On the other side it was demanded that I do practice which I didnt want to do. I had to do 100,000 of these different mantra which I thought was bizarre. So somewhere I was given instructions that it didnt matter whether I liked it or didnt like it, whether I had faith in it or not, but if I did these things they would do their work. It did turn out that I wasnt at home in the Tibetan tradition, and I yearned for Zen where I had the original "thats it," so in 1980 I became a Zen student in a formal way, but as a lay student. At that time I was a single mother raising two kids and working full-time, and sitting a lot. I feel a tremendous gratitude for this no-nonsense approach in Zen which doesnt let us cling to anything, and certainly not embroider our little spiritual hat.
I came to an impasse with my teacher at one point, and we missed each other somehow. I entered a very dark space where I felt somehow as though the little core of who I am in this life, this little baby-budding bodhisattva was not being understood and supported, and I actually wanted to die. I thought, "If this isnt good enough, then whats it all about?" I was in a place where I think if my son hadnt been living with me I dont think Id be here.
I was starting to injure myself physically, and I was finished. I decided I was not a good Zen student. I walked into a church and started to pray. I dont know why I went to that church. It was close y. It was an Episcopalian church. They had evening prayer. I didnt go on Sundays. It didnt fit, but I would go every evening. They read the Psalms and we prayed. There were about 5 or 6 people who met down in the basement.
I didnt say anything. I just wept. I said, "Do you mind if a Zen student prays here?" and they said, "Fine." And I did this every day. I would go and pray, and I wept. I would go to work and go the church and cry, and then go home and have dinner with my son.
And somewhere I just needed to put myself in a place where I could give up, and that would be supported. Somewhere I began to see that I was giving up, but that didnt mean I had to die physically. I didnt have to kill myself. I was literally giving up. Susan just couldnt do it anymore. But that for whatever moved my feet brought me into a place where that surrender could then be the beginning of a new life. I didnt know all that. I just knew I had to be there because there was nothing else to do.
After about 2 months of this daily weeping, one night everybody got up, and I didnt get out of my chair. I couldnt move. I remember feeling I couldnt get up, there was no body to get up, and the priest there whose name was Fr. Godly, he said, "Oh, you want to talk?" I said, "I dont know." And he said, "Come into my study." He said, "I see a terrible wounding," I hadnt told him anything. All I had asked was could I come. And I said, "Yes." He said, "Do you want to talk about it?" And I said, "No." He said, "Do you want to pray for healing?" And I said, "OK." And I was like wood.
So he started chatting with me to make me feel better - about baptizing a baby this weekend, etc., etc., and all of a sudden it came out of my stomach, "Will you baptize me?" I had never been baptized. He said, "Now?" And I said, "I dont know." So he said, "Lets pray." So he held out his hands, and I put my hands in his, and he said, "Its OK now."
He said, "Lets go into the chapel," which we had just left, where all the candles were still lit. He said, "Its funny we left all the candles lit. We must have known we were coming back." And he took out a little tin basin and a little cup, there was nobody there, and he took out a book and asked, "Are you comfortable with these words?" And I said, "I can translate pretty well," because it wasnt my language. And he proceeded with the baptism.
I dont know what happened because I was in a funny place, but he tells me I started to smile. What I knew was that my heart was set on fire as though this huge match just touched this fuel that had always been there, and all the pain was just completely healed. There wasnt even a residue of it. And I had this new life in my heart that I can only describe as sitting with Christ, being with Christ. It was just burning. And I thought, "Oh, my God, what is going on?" I thought I was going to feel some blessing from above, and I didnt know I would feel a burning from within, and I was rattled. Fr. Godly was watching, and I said, "I have to go home now." And I went home. Jonathan, my son, said, "Where have you been?" And I told him I had just been baptized!
The next day I went to the zendo as usual. I sat down and said, "What do I do?" And it was a though I could talk to my heart which was very odd, and I get this very strong, almost words, "Sit here with Christ. Thats it. Dont move from this cushion."
I dont feel two things, and I dont feel I have dual practice. Im glad Jim used that phrase and it gives us all something to talk about. But what I do feel is two lineages, or two intravenous tubes. It is as though something has entered through the Bodhidharma and it is my life, and it flows in my veins, and we call this "lineage" whether it is a particular line, a particular teacher, or the Dharma. And so that flows and it is in my bones.
But something also happened in that little church, and that also flows. And they all stir together. I dont find in my heart, in my practice, I cant find a different color fluid from each intravenous. It is of one color and one flavor, and yet they enter differently, and yet they have a different flavor in some way, but not in their functioning.
Patricia Dai-en Bennage
The last few weeks of August of 1945 just after World War II I was six years old, we had bought an old house that had belonged to missionaries to Japan and Korea, and my room was the missionarys. He had left behind some letters, and I looked at them, and not one of them was in English, and not one of them was in the Roman alphabet. For a child who knew the alphabet, it blew my mind, and something just imprinted itself on my heart at the age of 6. I went to school in the south in Texas, and was a ballet major. Texas was a big change for someone who was from Pennsylvania. It was also the year James Meredith entered the University of Alabama or Mississippi, and it was not easy to make friends, and so I read books. I found a book called, Zen. That my was my start, and I read Zen books from between 17 to 34.
I was able to dance professionally, and at the point in my career where I could have made it or not made it, I got very sick, and I knew I would be second string after that, having recovered from pneumonia. And I entered a marriage, and we were sent to Japan for business for three years. We were extremely busy. When we came back we realized the only thing we had in common was this interest in Japan. It wasnt possible for him to return to Japan, so we went our own separate ways. I returned to Japan and had a 4 1/2 mat single room. From 17 to 34 I had only books, but when I hit a zafu, I hit home base. I knew where I belonged. I passed out the first day because I sat with such determination. I studied as a lay practitioner for 3 1/2 years with Omori Roshi in a very, very severe setting. He was kind, but those around me made it very clear where my seat was for zazen, where my seat was for tea, where my place was for calligraphy, and I needed to do zazen bad enough that those conditions were just fine for me.
But when it came to talk about ordination, it just was not possible. Then he had a stroke shortly after, and there was no way I could continue in that lineage.
I decided to do a pilgrimage on the island of Shikoko around the 88 temples which takes about 6 weeks to walk. I said the Heart Sutra at each temple. I found a temple, and there were 5 soy sauce vats turned upside down with doors and windows cut in them, and make-shift tin roofing. There was a bus with no seats and a beautiful yellow carpet and a place for the zafu, and in the back a lovely Bodhidharma, and the scales fell from my eyes. I said, "Of course. You dont need an expensive temple or an ancient temple. You just need to be the real thing, you need to be a real teacher." I asked to practice there. He said, "No. If you dont have ordination you cant train here." I said that was what I was hoping for. Then I began to chicken because that means no money, having my head shaved. What if something goes wrong in Japan? Its not my country. It took me 6 months to decide. I went back to America and discussed it with my family, and then came back.
To enter the world of that kind of training is 180 degrees different from anything you can ever imagine. Your whole evaluation is turned upside down, and our practice is to live that every second. Everyone and everything and every moment is our teacher. And the rougher it is the bigger and better the teacher, the bigger and better the teaching opportunity.
Coming from Pennsylvania I didnt know what it was to be a minority, but I did in Japan. I didnt with my hair and clothes, but I did when I left my hair behind and became a female monk with the others, and found there was no way I could get people to like me at all.
After the first year I was sent to a womans monastery. A year later it was condemned because there were water marks on the walls and snakes took short-cuts across the corridors, and while the new monastery was being built we lived in nooks and crannies like rats, and many of us got very sick - tuberculosis and pneumonia. In my case it was only malnutrition. This was perhaps the most important lesson that I got because from my former dancing days I was strong, and now I could see what it was to be sick, old, frail, and the only way you know that is to be there.
Sr. Agnes asked yesterday, "What is the prescription to love people?" I think the only answer is live, get sick, get hurt, and get old, and maybe in those personal experiences if you are blessed with that karma, you will experience what others experience, and then you cannot help but love them because there is no difference between love of self and other.
When I left Japan, a Dharma brother said that when you want to replant a tree it is good to cut back the branches so that it can travel easily, but always make sure you have a lot of rich earth at its roots so that you carry the roots and the earth around it to give the tree good nourishment. That rich earth around the roots are your tradition, but the leaves and the branches are the extraneous parts - your robes and how you look. So take good care of your roots, but look well to how much you can cut back.
When I tell you I came from a pious Catholic family and was educated by nuns, and then went to a Jesuit high school, you will not be surprised to learn I entered the Jesuits. And then a few years later I volunteered to go to Japan to convert the Japanese to Roman Catholicism. God is very patient.
I was in Japan, and I came to ordination just at the time of the Second Vatican Council, which was a great sea-change in the life of the church. It was the end of a whole Catholic culture - which was the only culture that I knew. A sea-change should not frighten a sailor, but because of my limitations, this end of the only Catholic culture that I knew was very traumatic. And from that fire I learned some lessons I would like to pass on to you.
The first is never to confuse God with the way God is manifested in a particular culture. Faith demands the destruction of what faith built. God asks us to renounce not just what is the worst in us, but what is the best in us. We do not know God. We do not know Gods will. We do not know Gods providence. We must beware of religious teachers who speak glibly about these things.
St. Basil in the 4th century said that anyone who says he knows God is perverted, not simply wrong-headed, but perverted. You can say this is just apophatic theology. Surely you knew these things. But there is a difference between knowing things and having them burned into your soul.
I began to sit, and I tried to reduce prayer into its simplest form. I was finished with God-talk so I just tried to sit quietly. I was very lucky. I was helped by Fr. William Johnston who had done so much theological work with the Buddhists, the Zen master Fr. Kadowaki, and the Zen teacher Fr. LaSalle were all there.
They sent me to Yamada Roshi in Kamakura. I think that for me psychologically he was a father figure. He was wise and road, and completely without anger, and sure of himself in what he wanted to teach. He was not a narrow, nit-picking religious figure. In a word, I loved him.
The point of Zen training is to grasp the teaching of the Buddha and to live it out. It is not to be a Buddhist. There is another world again. Now you can be a Buddhist if that is your thing, but it is not necessary. See the point of the Buddha and then live it out.
Yamada Roshi said to us Christians there, "I do not want to make you a Buddhist. I want to empty you in imitation of Christ your Lord who emptied Himself." I thought this was ecumenical at its best. This Buddhist is going to make a Christian of me finally. We must not expect too much of our teachers. Yamada Roshi said, "I am teaching you koans. I am trying to deepen your vision, and then you take your vision where you want to take it. I am not a spiritual father. I am here to sharpen your vision - like an optometrist."
We must not sentimentalize kensho. Kensho is an insight into nature - your own nature and the nature of the object in front of you, to see you are really one, to be experience of unity, to be experience of emptiness. It does not make a teacher infallible. It does not free a teacher from addictions that he may have. It does not keep a teacher from making bad mistakes. So when Zen people talk about how there is no difference between good and evil, they are talking in the absolute sense. But in the practical relative ethical level where decisions are made, there is a big difference between good and evil. Therefore, as teachers we must be docile, but we must also be discreet and not give ourselves over to another. It is interesting that many Americans who are quite anti-clerical in dealing with their own clergy are absolutely prostrate before a Zen teacher.
Find a teacher you love. Find a teacher who loves you. When I had returned to the United States and was teaching, I had a call from Yamada Roshi. He was in New York on business and wanted to know if possibly I could find time to have lunch with him. "Oh, yes, Yamada Roshi, I can find time to have lunch with you."
I was teaching at St. Peters College, and I continued sitting as best I could. I finally began to find some peace. I had no more questions about Zen, and had no more hope, either. I will sit quietly and live out my life. At this time I get Glassman Sensei. He was in New York and I asked if I could become his student, and we hit it off. He asked me to begin koan studies. I did not want to do this because Yamada Roshis method was to stay on "mu" until you passed it. It was the first koan.
Glassman Sensei said that is one way to go about it, but you will kill people that way, too. If they cant pass "mu," they might give up in despair. He said the koans are many different doors into the same room. You can knock on all the doors until you see which one opens. It made a lot of sense finally, and so I did it. I saw him every week and I did a koan a week. I saw him every Thursday. I began to feel for the first time my ship was leaving the dock. And then finally for me there was one koan that was definitive.
I used to think that the phrase of Jesus that we must die to ourselves had always seemed to cruel, and now it seemed like the greatest mercy. Zen has given me an insight into a wider self. St. Paul says the mind cannot conceive of the things which the Lord has prepared for those who love Him. Life is an endless journey to see what the true self is, that it is not separate from the life of Christ. There is only one Christ loving Himself. And this will be an endless journey never to be exhausted.
I realized, too, the unity with Christ, that there is no gap between myself and Christ. We are Christ in this world. In the end, what have I learned? A Zen poet said, "A water bird comes and goes, leaving no traces at all. Yet it knows how to go its own way." Thank you.
I think I began my quest as a very small child. I had the conviction that the everyday world is not the real world, and I was always trying to break through the surface or pull back a curtain. Catholicism seemed to offer hope, but the more I got to know it as a Catholic, the more they seemed to be concerned not with finding reality/God, but with keeping rules.
At 11 I became an atheist. My parents and relatives didnt go to church, so it was no problem to drop all religious observances. However, not long before my 13th birthday I began to - the only word I can use is - know. That doesnt mean cognitionally, but its the word that fits. I began to know fleetingly a loving presence, that asked me to assent to or deny it. I sensed that the assent would have to be expressed in a living relationship, and began to search for a story that would fit my experience. What I found was a very different sort of Catholicism rooted in the life and example of Jesus, in teaching that God is self-emptying love. But the practices which had fostered this relationship had developed within the religious order, so I concluded that it was necessary to enter the religious state. Further, my gift of self would have to be as total as I could make it, and to me this meant entering the strictest order which I knew, which was the Trappistines.
I corresponded with the Abbess, but because of parental opposition I could not enter until I had come of age, and could earn enough to cover the expenses of not only clothing, but also the dowry. So I entered college, intending to become temporarily a teacher. In college I met philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas who showed me that intelligent reflection could foster an even deeper commitment to God. I hungered to know more. What to do? Go to grad school or go to work? I wrote the Abbess asking for guidance, and she replied that she did not feel I was called to her Order.
I was a little sad at this, and then in another way very much relieved. "Oh, boy. Now I can go to graduate school." So I did. I spent two very happy years at Marquette in Milwaukee, and I got a teaching job at Fordham, literally while the ink was drying. I got the degree in August and started teaching in September. Four months later I was engaged to another philosopher. We married a year later, and two months after our first anniversary our son was born. A daughter followed two years later.
Meanwhile I continued to teach full-time, and to work toward my Ph.D. There was neither time nor energy for more than Sunday Mass. But I felt I had lost touch with what was most important, and I prayer for guidance. Again, I experience a loving presence, much stronger, and no longer fleeting. I longed to respond without reservation, but didnt know how. Neither could I find anyone who could give me wise guidance. I found plenty of people who were willing to give guidance, but none of it seemed to me very wise.
Therefore, when after several years God seemed to have vanished utterly, I took it very hard, blaming myself for failing to respond. Determined to serve God nevertheless, I tried everything within reach to remove whatever was blocking or holding me back. I spent some time in Jungian analysis, and a longer time in the Charismatic renewal. From both of them I gained something, but neither of them dealt with the struggle I was having.
I had first learned of Zen from Fr. Kennedy in 1966. At that time I read Fr. LaSalles Zen Catholicism, and tried to do zazen, but it was too hard without a teacher, and I soon gave it up. Meanwhile, Bob had gone to Japan, studied Zen there, and continued with it after his return.
When in 1980 some other students of his teacher set up a zendo literally two blocks from my home, I felt I was being given a good, strong push, and it seemed only reasonable to give it another try. I thought of zazen more or less as an ascetical practice whose goal was to break free of self-centeredness, and since it had to be my self-centeredness that had separated me from God, this practice seemed to offer some help. But I also felt some resentment that I could find no help in the churchs spiritual tradition, and I discovered a loyalty to Jesus that was based neither on argumentation nor a creedal commitment. It was simply there.
So I was always trying to reconcile my practice and my loyalty. I couldnt leave Jesus, and neither could I entirely leave Zen, although I tried a good number of times. Even though it was less a matter of having chosen Zen practice than of simply not knowing what else to do.
I learned early on that the reconciliation would have to be on an experiential level. The theoretical approach would get me nowhere. But all the time I kept asking, "Why must I do this? Why cant I find a more traditionally Christian practice that wont raise all these questions?" And that has been a very long struggle. Only in the last 8 months has the internal conflict begun to subside. The inner rebellion has gone, and zazen, while still an ascetical practice, has come to be prayer, as well, even as I am expressing my longing to let go of self-centeredness so as to be open to God, to other persons, and to the whole world of other beings, responding to each in Jesus spirit. There is no way that I can cause this transformation, but I believe that this is our true being, and that I can be brought to it by God. So I practice in love, in trust, in hope, regarding such questions as to whether God is personal or impersonal, a holy other out there or a holy imminent. I had no answers because I had no experience on which to base an answer except that the presence never seemed to be either way out there, or -the Sufis have a beautiful expression. They say, "Allah is closer to each of us than our jugular vein." - neither did this presence seem to be a thing, and I find the Christian belief in the Trinity in whom there is distinction but no separation both acceptable, and reassuring.
The question of the relationship between Zen awakening and Christian contemplation is a way for me to focus on some of the deep issues that come when you try to practice in both traditions. The problem is that it is very, very difficult to talk about, and if I were to say these two experiences are different, I would feel very uncomfortable because it would seem to be saying there are two different kinds of absolutes. Two absolute realities: one for Buddhists and one for Christians, and I could never say that. If I said these two ways are the same, then I would have to contend with people I respect who would not agree with that, for example, D.T. Suzuki or Thomas Merton, both of whom have made statements in that way, that they would not just simply say they are the same.
So the struggle is to try to find a way to try to talk about this kind of deep question without flying off into something theoretical and abstract that gets away from experience, and on the other hand, trying to deal with it.
If I give you a little idea of my own journey perhaps you can see where I am coming from when I try to talk about that question. I grew up in a Catholic family, but I had never gone to any Catholic school, and frankly, I had no personal contact with my faith. My family went to church, so I went to church. But it was as if I was asleep - not just in regard to my faith, but other whole parts of my life. I had some obscure sense of wanting to find some meaning to my life, even though I couldnt quite articulate it that way. I had no theological or philosophical background at all, and I thought I would become a theoretical physicist, and that would be a way I could discover some kind of meaning.
Then one summer all that changed. I fell in love. Now, thats a normal and natural thing to do when you meet an attractive girl, but somehow it wouldnt just stay like that, and it was as if I was compelled to ask, "Why was this girl so lovable?" It was almost as if it was a spontaneous koan that I couldnt escape. It sort of grabbed hold of me and consumed me day after day. I had to keep on asking this question. It was as if for the first time I began to awake, and she was the most real thing I had ever experienced. I was tremendously attracted to her, and yet I had to question why that was so.
First I said perhaps it is because she is such a nice person and because of her personality, and what she ways and what she does, and while she was very nice, I saw as I really looked at her that that was not the reason. However nice she was, that wasnt the root of why she was so lovable.
So I went back to pondering that again. Then I thought maybe it was because somewhere deep inside her heart, or soul, or however I could try to express that, thats why she is so lovable - because there are some wonderful qualities there. So I looked at that, and I saw that it was as if she was the most real thing that had happened, and yet she was a reflection of something else, as if the source that was attracting me was not in her, but was somewhere else.
At this point I really was in deep trouble because I didnt intend to do anything like this. I was very happy to be in love with this girl, and now I was led into some area that I had no knowledge or experience of. It sounded like religion, but it didnt sound like anything I knew from going to church. I really didnt know what to do about it, and it was as if a door had opened onto two very closely united paths. One was that the more I saw how real she was and how she was a person for me, the more I felt I could somehow see that the source of this love I felt, or this light or warmth, or whatever way I could express, was somewhere else.
That was almost easy to see compared to what happened next, which was the feeling that this first path was an insight into the nature of things, and it activated my mind at its deepest roots to see that. But then I saw that if this girl, this person, was so living and so attractive, then the source of this love must somehow in some way I could not articulate be somehow personal if only it could be cleansed from all the limitations that were so clear to me, but somehow this mysterious presence was there, but I had no experience. It was as if a finger was pointing at it.
The next part of that journey was to say, "What does this have to do with the kind of religious upbringing I had?" Is it possible to actually enter into the darkness that is beyond all these human limits and try to find that presence, to find that loving presence that I know exists, and yet I have not experience of? It was in that way that I began to grasp the notion of faith. Faith, unfortunately, is usually understood as some kind of blind thing, but in reality it is a movement of the heart that reaches out to try to go out and explore this reality.
It was after all this happened that I discovered Zen, and I discovered it in a practical way by reading Philip Kapleaus The Three Pillars of Zen, the stories of Yasutani Roshi and his students, who was Yamadas teacher, and I was very struck by that because I said, "Wow." But I had to look at it from where I had been, so I had to ask myself, how does this relate to what Thomas Aquinas was contemplating when he looked at the mystery of existence, or what John of the Cross was singing about when he was in his little prison cell in Toledo being tormented by his brothers in religion and had these deep experiences of God? And so that would be the context in which I would sit.
I very much believe that both Christian mysticism and Zen are experiencing the same reality. I cant get away from that. It is the same mysterious reality. At the same time I feel that just as Christian metaphysical experience experiences that reality in one way, and Christian mysticism experiences it in another, then Zen, too, has its very distinctive way of experiencing that reality.
I was raised as a Catholic, but when I was a teenager I had a very bad time of it because the beliefs I had had as a child no longer worked. I was reading books about how life has no meaning, death would just be blackness, so I didnt know what to do about that. I remember looking at a little baby, and thinking, "What is this child? What is going to happen to this child? What is the future, the eternity, of this child?" Or I would look at the starts and say, "How wide, how great, how expansive is our universe!"
I literally went through agony because I did not want to live without God. I felt that if I couldnt have God, then life wasnt worth anything. So after a year and a half I went into my room, and I demanded a miracle. But it didnt happen, at least not the way I thought it would happen, so I decided that if I couldnt live without God, then I would choose to live with Him. And it was as if a hand went into the very core of myself, turned me around, and focused everything so that the agony I felt, the torture of a year and a half, went away, and I felt peaceful for the first time in my adult life.
After that I decided to do a lot of reading. What really called to me was reading about the mystics. I found myself reading St. Teresa and St. John, and I wanted to experience mystical union. So what had happened as a teenager was something permanent. That shift in that few seconds remained permanent in me. Later when Jim and I got together and we started reading Zen, we got excited about it.
One time we decided to take a few months off and go on retreat. We had two children. They were 3 and 4 at the time, and we went to the cliffs at San Onofre in California - we were in a State park there - and we would alternate days. One person would sit all day and the other would take care of the kids and cook the meals.
After six weeks it was like I would stare at a blade of grass, or I would notice the tip of a branch. I did not become a mystic after reading St. John. I did not experience infused contemplation. As a Zen student I did not experience awakening. But I would have little flashes. The beauty of a flower would leap out at me, or the inner sense of a person would talk to me, or the sunshine hitting a coffee cup. I just couldnt talk about it, but these were just little touches. The way we stand now is that when I sit, I find myself trying to breathe, trying to quiet the mind, trying to reach a special Zen kind of stillness. I rest in that for a while, and then I find my heart beginning to open up and reach toward God in that desire for union. So my heart becomes active and I know I am in a state of prayer. Then, after a while, I will go back into the Zen sitting, and it is like alternating. It is like two parts of the one cloth. I feel Zen and Christianity are not fighting one another. They are together. If I were to choose to simply pray, it wouldnt be enough for me. I would need to sit. If I chose simply to sit, I feel that that would not be enough, either, because then my heart would be missing something.
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