Christian Contemplation and Zen Enlightenment:

Are They the Same?
A Workshop with James Arraj -
DVD (transcript online below)

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Christian Contemplation and Zen Enlightenment

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Filmed in 1991.

This is a workshop given in August, 1991 at the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita, Kansas. It describes how Zen is coming into the Catholic Church, especially through the Catholic students of the late Zen master, Koun Yamada, and it tries to give the flavor of Zen practice by including part of an actual Zen awakening account (excerpted from the video Zen Journey). Then it compares Zen enlightenment with Christian metaphysics and mystical experience by looking at contemplation, according to John of the Cross, including the story of a Christian contemplative experience (excerpted from the video A Contemplative Journey) and the revolutionary insight to be found in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. Finally, it frames an explanation of Zen enlightenment from a Christian point of view, following the work of Jacques Maritain on the mysticism of the Self.

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Online Transcript:

Jim. We have Christian spirituality, psychologies like Jungian psychology, Eastern forms of prayer, and the sense of the earth and ecology. In each area there are challenges. On Tuesday we took up Jung’s psychology. Here is Jung’s psychology, here is the Christian journey. They are interpenetrating and people are trying to live out both of them. If we distinguish them we will be able to unite them. If we don’t distinguish them, one may gobble up the other. That’s where we’ve been. Where we are going is to do the same thing when it comes to a question of the East, and in the East there are so many different currents. We could do it with Tibetan Buddhism, or Taoist Yoga, but I know more about Zen so we’ll try it with Zen.

A tremendously exciting thing is happening. It’s like two spiritual galaxies are colliding and intersecting, and this intersection is probably one of the most important things that happened to Christianity in centuries. But at the same time, no matter how exciting it is and how enthusiastic we get, we face a challenge of how we are going to bring it together.

If someone came up to us and said, "I want to go on the Christian journey," and we say, "That’s nice." And then they say, "But I don’t want to pray." Then where are we at? How can you go on the Christian journey if you don’t pray? You are going to stand outside it, and you’re not really going to understand it unless you practice it.

The other spiritual journeys are the same, so if someone comes to a Zen master and said, "I really would like to understand Zen, and I want to make Zen part of my life, but I don’t want to sit," he would sort of roll his eyes. Well, he has more control than that, I guess, but it’s the same problem. If we want to understand what Zen Buddhism is like, we have to sit. I’m not saying we have to practice certain devotional aspects that go together with Zen Buddhism, but the heart of Zen Buddhism is zazen. Without zazen, no Zen Buddhism. So I think we should start by sitting. We’re not going to sit long, but you might find that after we have overtaxed this, the discursive mind – Zen people call it the monkey mind – it might be restful to – I won’t say turn this mind off – we don’t have that much control over it – but picture it as the waves on top of the ocean. We are always moving. The mind is always going here and there. We can’t just say, "OK. Blank. Turn the OFF button." But what we can do is try to quiet this mind and sort of get a more objective view of it, and more importantly, realize there are depths within ourselves that we ought to fathom, and it’s to fathom those depths of the self – or in the case of the Zen Buddhist, they wouldn’t say the self, they would say the non-self, non-ego, the no-self. What we will do is sit. It will give us a sense that these questions we are talking about really should be answered by practicing both traditions, not just knowing about them, but practicing. Let’s do a little Zen practice and then we will start talking about it.

If you were to go to a zendo you would all have your pillows, etc., but people do do zazen in chairs. Westerners do it, especially at the beginning, because they can’t twist up their legs. The reason the Zen people use the lotus, or half lotus, leg posture is because they found it helps quiet the mind.

Everyone sits.

One of the things they advise Zen students to do is straighten their spine. The Zen people usually leave their eyes open, but for a lot of us who have gotten used to praying with our eyes closed, it’s OK. The hands usually go in the lap, and the important thing is what we do with our breath after we take the posture, and more importantly, what we do with our mind. We want to breathe down in our stomach. As we breathe in our stomach expands and goes out, and goes in when we breathe out. That gives a different center of gravity. We want our center of gravity to descend down near the solar plexus, down where the Zen people call the hara point. Let’s imagine the waves are here, and we’re going to take a little journey, and we are going to put our mind down near our hands, or near our solar plexus, and I want you to try to sense the depths that are in us because it is out of those depths comes the awakening the Zen people are so earnestly striving for.

Try to breathe from the abdomen and let you mind go away from all this turmoil, and go down to the stomach. Keep your attention down in those depths because those depths are the depths that Christian contemplatives travel into, the depths of the soul. While you have your attention there I want to read something.

Here Jim reads a poem by John of the Cross.

Let’s slowly come back up.

It’s a fairly well known fact that many Zen students are Catholics, and used to be Catholic, and many are Christians. I think one of the reasons may be that so often we have lost our way to those depths in our own tradition and we turn to the East to find it because we have a hunger to go down in those depths and explore them. So we turn to Zen.

The real issue that is going to come up is just how do these journeys intersect? Are they the same? Obviously there are profound analogies because we are leaving the ego behind and going down in these depths, and are reaching for some sort of absolute. At the same time we have to ask the questions and say, are these really the same thing? Is what St. John of the Cross said in that poem what the Zen people would say? There is no escaping that, and the more we get into this issue, the more critical that problem is going to be. The more we practice both paths, the more critical that problem is going to be.

Zen people have their poets, too. Reads from Master Fumon – the moon is the same old moon, and the death poem


Get that? That’s what the Zen master would say. Do you understand that? Can you show me those wooden lambs leaping out of the void?

Are we dealing with some kind of mystification? No. There is something here that has energized people for thousands of years so they would devote their lives to it. They have a monastic tradition just like our own where people will devote themselves to search for the wooden lambs.

One more. A koan. Chinese Zen master Joshu. "Why did Boddhidharma come from the West?" Boddhidharma was a Zen teacher who came from India to China. They could have said, "What is the meaning of Buddhism?" Joshu looked at the monk and saw the monk was asking questions and wanting conceptual answers, and he said, "The cypress tree in the garden." That’s the answer he gave. If the monk had been ready, that would have been enough answer to tell him what the essence of Buddhism was. What kind of sense does that make? We’re pretty much into thinking it over, and so we are in another world. If we don’t practice, we can’t penetrate that world because you can do it here (in the head). We never get anywhere until we exhaust this kind of conceptual thinking about things, and we get away from this and get down here (stomach) away from all this conceptual thought. We could say this is pretty esoteric, and it’s not going to effect me because I’m a Christian, but personally sometimes we may not be called to go on any sort of Zen journey, but for the Catholic Church it’s not as if this intersection is going to happen. It is happening now.

We are going to take a look at a few of the specifics so we’ll draw some diagrams. In the year 1870 in Japan a baby is born called Harada who becomes a Zen Soto Zen monk. The Rinzai Zen sect is the one you hear about because they are the ones who use the koans, but the Soto sect has other ways of going about it. As he gets into his 30s he says he’s not enlightened. I know all about Buddhism, but I haven’t experienced Buddhism. He finds an enlightened Zen master, a Rinzai Zen master, and he becomes awakened. He takes what he thinks are the best parts of the Soto Zen tradition and the Rinzai Zen tradition, and he puts them together. He never married (some Zen priests marry), and he had a monastery, and he had intensive practice there – sesshin. In these retreats you would sit maybe six hours a day, and people may be silent or bellowing at the top of their lungs their particular koan, which is often called "mu." So you hear people going "mu" as loud as they can, trying to understand.

A monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have buddha nature?" and he says, "mu," which means "not." The monk goes away, and thought everything had buddha nature, including dogs, but the answer is not something you are going to think about. Joshu could have said, "Yes." Or he could have said, "The cypress tree in the garden," because it’s not conceptual.

Harada Roshi is making sure that Zen transmission goes on. The Zen people like to think that from the time of the historical Buddha in India to now there has been a transmission, not just of words like, "here is what the Buddha said,’ but from mind to mind – that you got it. You pass it on and make sure your students have it, really understand it – not just parrot it.

So Harada Roshi gets the dharma from his teacher, and he receives the kind of confirmation – the seal of approval – saying, "Now you are ready to teach." So he teaches. Since he is so dedicated he begins to have many successes of his own. His successes are spreading around Japan. He lived until 90 or so and died in 1961. When he died, his epitaph was, "40 years I have been selling water by the river. Ho, ho, ho."

Harada Roshi has many students. One of them is Yasutani. Yasutani is a Zen priest, married, has a bunch of kids, he can’t find a temple to support him, so he works as a grade school teacher, and finally he finds his way to Harada Roshi, and he really gets it. The dharma is passed on to Yasutani. His responsibility is to pass it on to the next group of people, so you see a little Zen monk running around Tokyo in his sneakers and tattered robes, and he is an enlightened Buddha.

Yasutani, after World War II, has an American student. An American executive, fed up with the rat race, leaves everything, he goes to Japan and is determined to seek enlightenment. Finally after a big struggle studying with Harada and going to the tough course because Harada Roshi was a tough guy determined that if you had it in you, he was going to get it out of you, he goes to Yasutani. Finally he gets it. This person is Philip Kapleau, and he came back to the States and set up a Zen monastery in New York. He wrote The Three Pillars of Zen, which is one of the best ways to get a sense of what Zen is about because it talks about actual practice and trying to get enlightened, people talking to the master, and people actually getting enlightened.

Yasutani also had a student called Yamada. Koun Yamada, a Japanese student who got the transmission, and Yamada, in turn, passed it on, but this time we have Catholics in Japan who want to really understand Zen Buddhism, are willing to really work on it. Of these people here – Ruben Habito, Willigis Jager, Ama Samy, and Fr. Hugo LaSalle – all of them are Catholic priests. They become Yamada Roshi’s students and received the transmission from him, so they are Zen teachers. Hugo LaSalle died just a little while ago. They are officially part of the Zen lineage. The Zen transmission has gone from Zen Buddhists transmitting to Zen Buddhists to Zen Buddhists transmitting to Catholics practicing Zen Buddhism, a tremendous quantum leap that we really don’t pay enough attention to. Robert Aitken is another student of Yamada, and he, in turn, had a student, Patrick Hawk, who is a U.S. Catholic priest who is another Zen roshi. These people are going around all over, and people are coming to them. They are teaching people zazen, how to practice zazen. That’s what I meant when I said the Catholic Church is already involved in Zen. This illustrates what is going on. It is happening to us and we are not going to escape it as a community.

I find that very exciting because there are so many spiritual riches in the East and we can use them. They can feed us. When Buddhism was in India – it died out there after a while, part of it went to China, part of it went up into Tibet, and the Buddhism that went up into Tibet had its own distinctive character, and it was a Buddhism that not only retained the idea of sitting in the half lotus and breathing, but it retained much of a whole Yoga tradition so there is a Tibetan Buddhist Yoga, which is also fascinating. Around the third century in India Buddhism was still there, and they had a famous university, Milanda, and all the people were studying Buddhism. From there a lot of that went to Tibet and it was saved in Tibet, over the centuries, with these sages and monks either in giant monasteries or within these hermitages and caves, and spending literally years to penetrate the substance of this spiritual tradition.

Once the Chinese invaded Tibet, then the flood of Tibetan wisdom began to enter the West, and we are the beneficiaries of that sad tragedy that is still going on.

Here is our problem We have this wonderful thing happening. This wisdom of the East is flooding around us and is attracting us, and many of our fellow Christians, and what is the problem then? Well, life isn’t that simple, unfortunately. There is a challenge we have to overcome if we are going to integrate these two spiritual paths.

I’d like to talk about the problems through some comments by people who are in a different and more authoritative position to see. David Loy is one of Yamada’s students. He got interested in Christian mysticism, and is certainly aware of Yamada’s Catholic students, and he started reading the Cloud of Unknowing, and he decided to send a questionnaire out to Yamada’s Catholic students. But most of them didn’t answer. Maybe that’s Zen-like, too, but a few did. He found two different tendencies. Some wanted to maintain a strong distinction between Zen practice and Christian practice. And then there were those who see them driving at the same thing, and therefore to be eventually united. It seemed to Loy that they meant mostly Zen practice with Christian terminology. There’s the problem. Which is it? Are we talking about two spiritual journeys, or are we talking about one spiritual journey? If the roshi can’t tell us, we have to say, "Why not?" It means it is a real issue. We have to know this, and it is so hard to know. You could wonder what Yamada thought of having all these Catholic priests as students. (He recently died, as well.) He must have been an exceptional man because I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have had people from the Buddhist side saying, "Why are you messing around with these Christians?" He must have been exceptional to receive these Christians and give himself to them, and give the most precious thing that he had, and he did, even though they weren’t his. He made them his in the most intimate way he knew how, transmission of the mind.

What did Yamada think of all this? One time after his Catholic students were actually getting over the hurdles of Zen and becoming accomplished Zen teachers, he sat down with Ruben Habito and Hugo LaSalle. He says, "There are some questions I would like to ask Christian who come to me for direction in Zen. I have been wanting to ask these questions for a long time now, but I have kept them to myself as I felt these may just confuse Christians as they begin their Zen practice, but I feel confident I can ask both of you now."

"Why did you not just continue doing meditation practices following your own Christian tradition instead of coming to Zen? Was there something lacking in Christianity that led you to seek something in Zen, or did you have some dissatisfaction with Christianity that led you to Zen?"

We have to realize this is a man devoting years of his life to these students. You can see how reticent he was because he must have had a great spiritual delicacy. He also asks:

"And also a question to Christians who have had the Zen experience through the "mu" koan," which means they had started getting awakened. They get over the first hurdle. "How would you express this experience in your own Christian terms?" And a third question. "For those who have had the "mu" experience, there is given the koan about the origin of "mu." How would you answer a question about the origin of God?"

Those are good questions. Those are our questions. We really have to say, "What can Christianity say about Zen enlightenment? Tomorrow we are going to talk about Zen, about Christian wisdom, and finally try to describe what Zen enlightenment is from a Christian point of view. We are setting the stage for that. I will show you part of a video of a lady Zen priest who had begun to awaken her mind and is going to tell us how she went about it. I will also show something about a Christian who received contemplative graces, the kind that John of the Cross talks about in terms of infused contemplation. If we listen to these two people maybe we’ll get a clue of what’s happening. Are they saying the same thing? These people are not theoreticians. They are practitioners, and they both have had deep experiences. That’s one way we are going to try to get at it.

Tell me what you know about Zen in relation to Christianity, and tell me what kind of questions arise from what I’ve been saying.

Some people are going to want to stay away from the Eastern religions and others are going to say, "This is it. We were stymied and now we are going to find the answers." We’ll have the whole spectrum, and we are going to have to muddle through to see if there is some way to reach that integration.

We are talking about Zen, and one of the problems in a Zen-Christian dialogue is that when we talk about Zen, the Zen people know what Zen is, and a Zen master will go to a meeting with the Christians in Kyoto, and he will tell them he was awakened when he saw the cherry blossom fall off the branch. What are Christians going to tell the Zen master about what happened to them? Bernadette Roberts is talking about experiences, but oftentimes Christians aren’t sure what they should bring out of their tradition to confront Zen with. Is it the monastic tradition? Is it the Christian mystical tradition? Is it some kind of something else? To me that points out that on the Christian side we are just beginning to get some ideas of what to do. I see that one of the indispensable steps in this Zen-Christian dialogue is for Christians to go to their own tradition and try to gain a deeper understanding of it so they know what they are talking about. We need to know what we are talking about. If we think we are experts in our own tradition because we have lived it for so many years, and we’ve lived it almost professionally, many of us, for so long, yet we still have to undergo this kind of interior turning to our tradition and try to penetrate the wisdom of our tradition.

What we have to do is talk about John of the Cross – that’s one way I try to get at the Christian mystical tradition – but there is something else, and this something else I don’t think many people are going to like. There is another part of our tradition that nobody wants to talk about in relationship to Zen Buddhism, and that is the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Why? Because for many of us such a thing seems so conceptual, so dead, so much of that scholastic past we want to shed – those manuals of Josephus Grett. There is a tradition in Christianity which we call the mystical wisdom tradition. Now that’s in resurgence. It starts in the Scriptures and we can follow this fantastic tradition of wisdom. But there is also a theological wisdom, a wisdom of theological reflection, and there is also a metaphysical wisdom that the Catholic faith possesses and has nurtured for centuries. What happened? That is, in my mind, as critical as recovering the mystical tradition of the Church if we are going to understand Zen because when our friend Fumon says, "The moon is the same old moon, the flower is exactly as they were, yet I’ve become the thingness of all the things I see," is he talking like John of the Cross? Is he saying something like John of the Cross is saying, "Lost to myself…?"

What are we doing? In a kind of general sense Zen is very mystical. I’m not denying that. But let’s listen to Fumon when he says that. To me that doesn’t sound like the same kind of thing. Maybe I don’t understand Fumon. Maybe I don’t understand John of the Cross. That’s certainly possible. But then I ask, what else is in my tradition? What is in my tradition is the metaphysical wisdom of Thomas Aquinas. This metaphysical wisdom is not something like Plato, and Aristotle. That Greek philosophical wisdom came in the Church. Aristotle was just being made known when Thomas was teaching. But there is also a great Platonic element, and other elements went into Thomas. When they reached Thomas they underwent a transformation. Thomas was not just a tremendous philosopher and tremendous metaphysician, but he was also a great theologian and a mystic. So within that context he had an amazing depth of metaphysical insight. We are going to have to talk about this. I don’t think this is going to be an easy thing to talk about because our past is terrible. We have been victims of bad pedagogy. We have been destroyed in the schools because someone told us, "here it is," and they read some things on some hot afternoon in a classroom, listening to some kind of syllogism where we are kind of nodding off and they say we have to take this course in metaphysics and we just worry about passing the test and get out of there. Too bad because they murdered something really good.

Here’s Thomas. He has these insights. He didn’t hide them. He put them down in his Summa and everywhere else. But they are so much like little gems that you can read Thomas and read these words, and unless we get the insight that Thomas had, we don’t get it. We don’t understand Thomas because to understand Thomas is to understand that it is going down in the depths and it is having a metaphysical experience, and out of that metaphysical experience is born Thomas’ metaphysical words, and without the experience, the words are just empty.

So Thomas has this insight. Even the people of his own times didn’t get it. Most of them didn’t get it, or they got pieces of it. So it travels on. Thomas dies in 1274. In Spain in the 16th century Domingo Baņez was at one time the spiritual director of Teresa of Avila. Besides that, he was also a fantastic metaphysician, and Thomist. He saw it. One time he said, "Thomas says this so clearly, but Thomists don’t see it." Then he tries to explain what Thomas was seeing. It’s hard work. It’s sort of like explaining what "mu" is. It is something you can work on conceptually, but to do it just conceptually it is never going to hang together. Time goes on, and there are other people like John of St. Thomas, one of Thomas’ great commentators in the 17th century. Finally we get to modern times, Pope Leo XIII, and there is a revival of Thomism in Italy. He says we need this because what we have as Christian philosophy is a mishmash of this and that. Some pieces were taken from modern philosophy, and some isn’t even compatible with Christianity, so let’s get back to Thomas. So the tremendous revival starts. In some ways it was a very brilliant revival and had a lot of starts of the first magnitude in it, but it got institutionalized. Once you institutionalize something, then you need all these teachers of philosophy and they read the Summa, and they get little letters after their names, and they teach seminary students. It wasn’t alive. Sometimes it was, but lots of times it wasn’t. Anybody who went through it, well, they can vote whether it was alive or not.

We have all this Thomism supposedly going on in the Church, and people are forced to do it. People are supposed to be good Thomists and are supposed to know all the Thomistic theses and memorize them. Real life doesn’t work like that. Finally, at the time of the Vatican Council, the lid comes off, the pot boils over, people want to get away from this kind of stuff because it has been killing them for years, and so they did. Thomas disappeared. Thomism disappears. We are back into one of those eras like many years in the past where there is no Thomism. In certain places it stayed alive, and in certain places it is coming to life, but as a general thing we could say right now Thomas does not excite us. So when I say we are going to talk about Thomas Aquinas and Zen Buddhism, you say, "Oh, my God." Here is this Zen Buddhism spreading all around America, thousands of people are interested in it, and who wants to hear about some dry old philosophy?

We have to overcome that because we don’t know our own tradition, and if we don’t know our own tradition, we don’t know how to talk to Zen. That’s half the problem The other half is the problem of Christian mysticism. It looks different. We say we really know our Christian mystical tradition, but I think what we really should say is we want to know it, we are enthusiastic about it, we want to practice it, but we still have to learn it. There is a lot still to learn for all of us in that tradition. The last time people were enthusiastic about Christian mysticism was 300 years ago. They got enthusiastic principally because of the influence of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Their writings and the spread of the Carmelite Order, and the input of these other Orders set off this real surge of interest in mysticism, in the interior life, in praying, in practicing contemplative prayer all over Europe during the 17th century. But what happened? It ended in such a smash at the end that Catholics couldn’t go near their mystical tradition in any practical sense. They felt they had to be closet mystics for 300 years. That’s how bad it was. Why did this happen? This is a question that is somewhat intricate, but important for us because if we think that we know John of the Cross, we have to make sure we really know him. Otherwise, we can be talking about John of the Cross and mean something else. For example, John of the Cross died in 1591, 400 years ago, and his works were not printed until 1618.

In that time all sorts of things were happening. The world wasn’t waiting for the writings of John of the Cross to appear. His manuscripts were circulating around in monasteries, and people were already talking about what his writings meant before he was published. I think you can make a good case that some of the things they said about these writings were not quite right, and some of the things they said stuck pretty good Some of the issues that in the old days were known as acquired contemplation are things people said about John’s writings that we really have to take a careful look at. Is there such a thing? Everybody talks about it. They say they can find ten manuals on theology and they all give a discussion on this. There are some people who claim there is no such thing, and they claim you cannot find such a thing in the writings of John of the Cross. Fighting words maybe for some people.

I’m saying yes, let’s understand Zen, try to understand it from the inside, but let’s understand our mystical tradition and our metaphysical tradition, and then maybe we have a hope to try to put them together.

The next day.

We have four things to do today. We want to take a better look at Zen, itself, and its experience, we want to look at Christian mystical experience, we want to look at metaphysical experience, and then we want to say, what can we say about Zen enlightenment from a Christian point of view?

Sometimes we get the impression from reading Zen writings that they talk about nothingness, or the void, and it has been the impression in the West for quite a while that somehow Zen is nihilistic, like they are heading toward extinction, but that isn’t true at all. Zen isn’t heading toward extinction, towards pure nothingness in the sense that we understand it because why would these men and women, seized by pain and suffering just like we are, trying to find the meaning of existence, why would they just want to become extinct? They are looking for the meaning of life, and I believe that they must have found something terribly exciting and important to sustain them spiritually for these thousands of years. Any other way of looking at it seems to me we are reducing them to something that is a caricature. Their nothingness, their void, has to be something else.

Jim reads a passage from Huang Po, 6th or 7th century.

…no mere nothingness… an existence which is no existence… this true void does in some marvelous way exist…

We have to see we are dealing with a living spiritual practice.

Here is a video segment of Zen Journey: Susan Postal.

(Excerpt) I did just sitting for several years – wanted to give my whole life to practice. Zen was my life. Driving aspiration to break through and not be bound by this self which I began to know so well. Our experience of what is beyond the walls of self is very bright and very vast. The walls get thinner and holes get punched in them. We would tend to guild a frame around a hole. Koan "mu." I didn’t want to do this. It was an extremely difficult time. I thought I didn’t need this. I felt I was a failure. It took about 9 months, and then something began to shift. Everything was just loosening. It felt like the house of cards on which skeptical Sue and the whole structure was built start to go, as though the bottom card started to go. Then I experienced a crumbling of the whole edifice. The strange part was it seemed like no big deal at all.

That’s Zen. We really have to keep that in mind. Whatever it is that Susan is talking about, it’s not nothingness in the sense of nothing. It is some tremendous spiritual experience.

Let’s talk about Christian contemplation. Is what Susan is talking about the same thing John of the Cross talks about? Is it? I don’t think it is. I am going to confuse everything now and make more problems because I don’t think it is. John of the Cross wrote his poems first. Then he wrote his commentaries. The poems are what burst out of him after the experience. John was born in a little town in Spain in 1542 and he grew up there, poor. He joined the Carmelites and was one of the first members of Teresa’s Reform. They took John and threw him in a dungeon in Toledo in a Carmelite house to punish him because he wouldn’t renounce the Reform. They were fighting over all sorts of technicalities, etc. It was while he was in that dungeon and while he was being abused by his fellow monks, he underwent what he later called the dark night of the spirit. It is out of that kind of personal suffering that his first major poems were born: "The Spiritual Canticle," and "The Dark Night." We could do this with a lot of figures in the Catholic mystical tradition, but what is Catholic mysticism about? What is Christian mysticism about? Is it about what Susan is talking about? It isn’t because for one reason you can’t make mystical experiences happen. Teresa and John are very clear when they say you can certainly prepare yourself, and you ought to be preparing yourself, but you can’t cause what they call infused contemplation to take place. That sounds like a complicated term, but it really isn’t. John of the Cross first talks about meditation. What he meant by meditation is not always what we mean by meditation where we have a very orderly practice: you read Scripture, you imagine a scene from the Bible, etc. He meant something wider than that. He meant anything we do ourselves, each time we use the intellect, the will and the imagination and senses. That’s what he meant by meditation. Sometimes he calls it the natural working of the faculties. We work. We pray. That’s meditation. His idea of meditation embraces a lot of things that today are considered sort of separate, like a more affective type of praying, or practicing the presence of God, or a more active recollection, or going into ourselves and trying to be close to God. Certainly we could call these things contemplation in the wide sense, but I want to use the word contemplation like John of the Cross uses it, so bear with me there. We will make that distinction. There are many ways contemplation is being used. I’m not saying they are wrong. My point is I want to use the word in a more specific way – the way Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross use it. They are saying anything we can do, the prayer we pray, that’s meditation. When we start the spiritual life often we pray, and it feels like God is responding. It is a sense of sensible consolation. This is great. I am praying. God is responding.

John of the Cross calls it this sweet spiritual water. Every time we want to drink, it’s there. That’s wonderful. Before all our faculties were attached to the world. God makes spiritual things sweet to us, so we leave the world. We say this is better. But, we say, this is God. This is where we go wrong. We say this spiritual water is the same thing as God, but really to communicate with us, God is coming through our natural faculties, our mind and will and emotions and imagination. God, because He is using them, can only communicate part of Himself because the channel is too narrow for Him to get through. He does what He can because of where we are. John of the Cross says the baby is carried around and nursing at the breast whenever it wants. That’s the beginning of the spiritual life for many people.

Then the day comes when the mother takes the baby and says, "That’s it. No more. Start walking." We can’t handle that. That’s bad news because we have identified our spiritual feelings and aspirations with God, and it is our way of contacting God, but we have identified it too much with God, Himself. So God says this person won’t grow if they don’t learn about faith. Then we carry and God has abandoned us. This is what John of the Cross calls the dark night of sense. He says the sun of divine presence seems to be shining down on us, and then we turn around and it’s gone. We ask what did I do to deserve this? What sin have I committed? What real crime have I committed that God has left me, and now I don’t have Him? Most of us have been on this journey long enough to know lots about these kinds of things – ups and downs, etc.

But then what happens? This is tricky. John of the Cross was a real mystic, a real contemplative, he saw it this way, but that doesn’t mean we all go that way. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of other ways to go that are our particular way. I don’t know that there are a lot of people who go by the way John of the Cross describes. I think there are a lot of other ways, and you see them in the saints: St. Therese, for example, people who are really holy, because the essence of holiness is really not contemplation. It’s charity, and contemplation is like an overflowing of charity into the mind. It doesn’t mean all of us are supposed to go the way John of the Cross describes. I think we have the universal vocation that we are headed to the beatific vision and seeing God, but in this life we all have our road to travel. I’d be reluctant to say that if we’re not contemplative like John of the Cross described in his books, then somehow we’ve messed up. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression that this is the way. I’m just using it as a way to contrast it to what we’ve been seeing about Zen.

There’s the dark night of sense and we go through that, and we learn to try to go by faith. That’s one way. But what John is talking about is a little different. He’s saying if we go in that night of sense, for some of us it’s because we are being called to contemplation. He says what’s happening is God is taking us away from this using of the faculties and introduces us to a passive and infused union with Himself. That’s what John of the Cross and Teresa are all about – this passive and infused union with God.

This union is not the same as us wanting to be with God, us in faith placing ourselves and living in the sight of God. It’s us experiencing within ourselves our union with God. It’s an experience. Contemplation doesn’t happen here (mind), it happens somewhere else in the depth of the soul – you could say in the heart, or the center of the soul. It doesn’t come through what we do. Let’s imagine there’s some poor soul getting all these consolations, and all of a sudden the lights go out, the sugar’s taken away, and God begins to try to come from behind – not the usual channels we are used to, but He’s trying to come up through the middle, and the guy says, "God’s gone and I have to go get Him." And he starts to use the old machinery again. "I have to meditate. I have to make all these acts. I have to get all these feelings going." And all the time God is trying to get to him in the middle, with this new kind of experience, and give him this new kind of union, this new kind of deeper experience.

Reads from John of the Cross. "At this time God does not communicate Himself through the senses like He did before… through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation in which there is no discursive succession of thought."

This simple contemplation is not some act we are doing. It is an act that is being done to us. God gives us that gift.

We have the dark night of sense, and there’s contemplation, the light at the end of the tunnel. But it is a long and confusing tunnel because almost all of us enter into some kind of dark night of sense. We can’t pray like we did before. It just doesn’t work. And the consolation disappears. And it often doesn’t take a long time before we really start practicing a life of prayer until that happens. But that night of sense in the wide sense that is a common experience is not the same as the night of sense that leads to this contemplation of John. If it were, he could have just said you go into the night of sense and come out to contemplation. He doesn’t say that. He says how are we going to know if we are called to contemplation from the night of sense? If the night of sense was automatically contemplation, he wouldn’t need to give his famous three signs t discern what’s going on.

What are the three signs? 1. We can’t meditate like we used to. 2. We don’t really want to get involved in all sorts of things, either. We have to make sure these things are happening not just because we are lukewarm and just don'’ want to make the effort. That'’ why he puts in the second sign, for example, we want to go out to nightclubs every night to get away from our time of prayer because if we do that we have to wonder if we are being serious enough. But if we can honestly say that we want to pray as much as we prayed before, but now we can’t do it the same way, then we have the first two signs. The first two signs are very common.

Now we get to the third sign. This is the most important sign, and there is a lot of confusion about what it means. 3. A person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God without particular consideration in interior peace and quiet and repose without the acts and exercises, at least discursive, those in which one progresses from point to point of the intellect, memory and will, and that he prefers to remain only in the general loving awareness and knowledge without any particular knowledge or understanding.

What does that mean? John is very clear and subtle when he talks about the transition from meditation to contemplation. He says that because the experience is so different and we are so used to pounding away with the faculties and making so much noise that God could begin to give us this experience of union with Himself in the center of the soul – this kind of union of whole with whole rather than broken up into pieces, and we wouldn’t even notice if because we’re too busy.

That’s a problem. We have to watch that because it’s such a delicate thing. At the beginning it may even be intermittent. If you pound away you could miss it.

When he talks about this loving awareness, this interior kind of quiet, he is not saying some kind of loving awareness that we generate. We have our own forms of interior recollection where we lovingly attend to God. That’s not what he’s saying. He says God is lovingly attending to us, and beginning to make us experience a certain interior union with Himself. What he is talking about is no different than what Teresa of Avila is talking about. She will distinguish between an active recollection we can do that is going within ourselves and being with God from a passive recollection where we are beginning to be more led by God, and then it comes to the question of what she calls the prayer of quiet, like the formal beginning of the mystical life, which is the same John is talking about here.


I am going to read you a couple of things about the way John describes this prayer.

"It is one act that is general and pure. This peace and rest of interior quiet. It is a loving and general knowledge of God. It is substantial and loving quiet. It is confused and general knowledge. It is general and loving attentiveness or knowledge of God. General and supernatural knowledge of light. Pure and serene light. Pure and simple general light. It is quietness and ease. Contemplation is naught else than a secret peaceful and loving infusion from God."

There are real issues about how perceptible contemplation becomes, and you can talk to people who seem to be contemplatives and they can tell you a lot about how dark the road is that contemplatives travel, and how many trials there are on it. It is no path of roses to be a contemplative because this is just the tiny beginning. The point I am trying to make is that contemplation in this sense is an experiential sense of union with God. Part of the problem with understanding what John is saying now is that after John wrote his books everyone wanted to be a contemplative. Teresa was more responsible than John because her books came out earlier and circulated everywhere. Everyone wanted to be a contemplative, and this included the members of the Carmelite orders. Since they wanted to be contemplatives, they read John and think it is fantastic. "I want to be a contemplative and belong to a contemplative order, so I better be a contemplative." They tried to be contemplatives, but what do you do if you’re not? I think there are many more people who aren’t contemplatives than are in the sense of John of the Cross. What do you do if you’re not? What happened – the short story – was they read John of the Cross, they read some of the passages, and they said really John of the Cross is talking about a kind of contemplation we can do ourselves. But that’s not really what John of the Cross is talking about. That’s where you get into the whole problem of acquired or active contemplation, as if there were two contemplative paths that we can go on that lead to the same spot.

Faith is something we can walk by whether we’re contemplatives or not, and even if we are contemplatives, sometimes the people who have great contemplative experiences suffer a great deal afterwards because they get put down on the ground and have to go by faith, as well. They were flying so high that it’s very difficult for them to do it. But we can go by faith, and we have to go by faith whether we get sensible consolations or not, whether we get infused mystical graces or not. We have faith, and we have charity, and we have hope, and those are the things that unite us to God, and that’s what we can do all the time. And we have to continue praying even if we don’t know how to do it. You have to continue because in faith we are resting in God. That’s what faith is, and it’s so dark to the natural personality that it looks like it’s a kind of blindness. John of the Cross talks about that all the time – how dark faith is to our intellect and will. He is talking in a kind of experiential sense. We have to go by way of darkness.

The point about his active contemplation is certainly we believe that God is in that darkness and we try to rest in Him and unite ourselves to Him, but the problem with acquired contemplation is when we say, "I have somehow, without experiencing it, I am experiencing God." It is a paradox, a contradiction. We read John of the Cross and say I am experiencing what John of the Cross says, but I don’t experience it.

Let’s not worry about that. We don’t have to experience it like he talks. Faith is the way to go. If God wants to call us to infused mystical graces, He can do that. He takes people by the hair of their head, sometimes, and does it, so if we are relating to Him in faith and love and our fidelity to our interior life, we are doing our part. He can take us if He wants us that way. Sometimes people picture John of the Cross being off somewhere in this dark night and on some journey where the practice of the faith in a sacramental way and the consideration of dogma and all these things sort of just fell away as if they were like little shells. It was never like that. He was extremely faithful to his own kind of external practice and to the teaching of the Church. He would even write some of his poetry about the Blessed Sacrament, and about the various beliefs of the faith. There’s no disjunction there.

What I want to do now is try to get a sense of what this kind of contemplative experience is like because even if we are not called to it, still it is part of our own heritage, and we should be aware of it in case we have to deal with it either in ourselves or in others. We are going to meet somebody who God just took a hold of and gave him some touches of this contemplative experience as if to get him started on the road because maybe there was hardly any other way to do it. He didn’t have any other way to find his way to God, so God had to take some pretty drastic means to do it. After this we will see what metaphysical experience is like, and finally we will try to put everything together.

A Contemplative Journey: Joe Patchett – video: (An excerpt)

I joined the Air Force. I was driving a car and had an accident. In the hospital with a body case. Books from friends. One was written by a Hindu priest – Autobiography of a Yogi – who said trust in a living God, a God of love. It was like he had a personal relationship with Him. I was awed. God of love who helps people. I was overwhelmed by a God of love. As a child I was a Christian. I became enamored of this God. Began to make personal acts of faith to God. It was a living experience. I would trust this God and He was there. I started believing in this God, and it was real. He had infinite power. All He wanted was love. A reciprocal thing. I felt I was making contact with God. I was entering into Him. Giving and trusting was everything. He was giving Himself back. It was a living experience.

Jim. They are both intensely on a journey, but the character of the journey is so different. For Susan, the house of cards falls and you become illuminated by this reality you find – the void. For Joseph it’s always God. He doesn’t have to wonder if this is a person he is in touch with. There’s no doubt in his mind, not because he didn’t have a lot of conceptions about the experience, because he didn’t. You see him struggling and reinventing mystical words, and in the beginning he is doing it because he’s in contact with the person of God. That’s how he looked at it.

If Susan was in contact with God in that way, then I don’t know if she could avoid saying it. For myself, I see them both going on this inner journey, but they are different kinds of journeys. They are both heading toward some sort of absolute, and I don’t want to say there are different kinds of absolutes. From a Christian point of view I don’t want to say that. I’d rather say there are different aspects of the absolute that you can contact.

The next part is the metaphysics of St. Thomas, and everyone will kind of cringe. The metaphysics of Thomas is not complicated, but it is so simple that we don’t get it. A lot of the most important things in life are like that. We are going to get the quick course in the metaphysics of St. Thomas.


Jim draws a picture


We are standing here at point A. This is the universe here between these two lines. This is all of creation. These are individual creatures -–trees and birds and butterflies, etc. When we stand here, we look at the universe and see distinctions. there is a tree and there is a man, etc. If I said to you there really is no difference between a carrot and you, you’d be upset because you might think you are being insulted. And in a very real sense there is a difference. I am not a carrot. You are not a stone. These are different things. The world is made up of different things. You can say the face of different things is turned toward us, and the philosophers call that essence – what a thing is. We see the different essences. That’s sort of everyday consciousness.

What Aristotle what a thing was, the essence, was sort of like the highest principle of it, that made it what it is. But when we get to Thomas, Thomas revolutionized metaphysics because for him essence, what a thing is, is not the highest principle. He was enamored with existence. Let’s say we can look at this from the point of view that we say what it is, but we can also take another fundamental way of looking at it, and say, it is. We can focus on the fact that it exists. We can focus on the fact that it is a being If this is the line of essence, in here we can say the tree exists, the stone exists, the man exists. All of these things exist, and because they exist they have this profound bond with one another.

Let’s say treeness is what makes a tree to be a tree. Let’s say it has the essence of a tree. But let’s try to ask ourselves a very strange question. Let’s ask what is the ultimate nature of essences, what makes a what be a what? There is some profound bond between all these different things, and it is the fact that they all exist. They all don’t exist in the same way, but they all exist. Each one of these things is a particular capacity for existence. Essence means nothing more than a certain capacity for existence. There is no essence like it is floating around, waiting for God to fill it up, because then it would already exist in some way. It doesn’t exist at all. It’s a capacity or a potential for existence.

Thomas saw this, and he saw that each one of these things is a certain kind of capacity for existence. Let’s say we could even given them numbers. Here are different kinds of capacities for existence. The different kinds of capacities are what make them different. They are still all being filled by existence. The existence fills them as far as it can, depending on their capacity, and so they exist with a certain kind of existence. For example, we have a big glass, and we pour in the existence, and it takes the shape of the glass. We have a limited kind of existence there, but it’s limited because it can only fill that stage that is developed.

One more step, and then we’ll know all about Thomas’ metaphysics. If we could really see this – not just talk about it, but really see it – it is sort of like a natural kind of metaphysical kind of contemplation. You can be a natural contemplative, a philosophical contemplative, and look at these things and get very excited. Here’s the next step. If each one of these things is a certain capacity for existence, then each one of these things has a limited kind of existence. Can limited kinds of existence be a sufficient reason for their own existence? In other words, these things receive existence. They are getting it because they are being filled up. They have a certain little capacity, and they are being filled up. But then you have to say, what is existence in itself? Suppose it wasn’t received? It had to come from somewhere. It is like the glass is not responsible for the whole picture. There has to be a water source. The water has to come from somewhere. There has to be the ocean. Thomas says, these limited capacities for existence that we see around us point to the fact there must be something, someone who is not an essence receiving existence, but is existence, itself. He says, everything here (on the essence side) if we really could see into its depths, points beyond itself, and it points to something or someone, to existence, itself, because if there were no center, there could be no circumference. If there were no unlimited existence, there could not be limited existence. We know that limited existence exists because we are it, and we know how limited we are.

The words are there, but to penetrate into it you need to have metaphysical experience, just like you have a religious experience. When Thomas says this, he’s not saying, I can reason and then I see existence. He doesn’t say that. He says, I know because the way the very intimate structure of reality of this center must exist, but I don’t see it. All I can do is reason from this (essence) to this (existence).

You can say that something is holding up that chair. There is something under it. Otherwise it would collapse. Well, that’s what Thomas is saying. He says if these are the rays, there must be a sun, but I don’t see the sun. You don’t see God through metaphysics. You don’t have a vision of God in metaphysics, but you can know God must exist. Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God are just a tradition in the church. He didn’t invent them. You can even find remarks in St. Paul. Thomas says existence, itself, has to be in the center. Now you know all about Thomas’ metaphysics. There’s no more to it. You just have to meditate 20 or 30 years on it.

The problem is words are never enough, and that’s especially true when it’s a question of metaphysics. We lost it because we went into the classroom and told the kids about Thomas Aquinas, and the kids groaned. It wasn’t alive. It wasn’t real.

Let me give you some idea of how metaphysics starts in actual reality. It doesn’t start in the classroom. Here’s a story someone recounted. "Early one morning when I was busy making breakfast, the sun came over the horizon and its first rays streamed through a window and struck a red cup sitting on the kitchen table. I had seen that cup hundreds of times before. I had washed it, put it away, drunk from it, and let my fingers get warm around it. But until that morning I had never truly seen it. The sun seemed to illuminate the cup from within."

There are lots of ways we can approach metaphysical insight, and then you need that flash of lightning that leads to the actual insight which is the metaphysical insight. Jacques Maritain’s wife, Raissa, had some experience before their conversion to Catholicism that helped them on the way to metaphysics and Catholicism. Here’s one. She was in a car passing through a forest. "I was looking out the window – thinking of nothing in particular. Suddenly a great change took place in me as if from the perceptions of the senses. I had passed over into an entirely inward perception. The passing trees had become much larger than themselves. They assumed a dimension prodigious for its depth. The whole forest seemed to speak of Another. It became a forest of symbols and seemed to have no other function than to signify the Creator."

That’s another kind of metaphysical experience. From that experience the lightning can flash and you can see what Thomas means when he says existence, or "esse" in Latin, "to be." What does it mean "to be?" We take it for granted because we’re all busy about the fact of the ego, and we say, "I, I, I." But really the most profound thing we could say is, "I am." But what does that "am" mean? What does it mean to exist?

If those things were to become our preoccupation, and send shivers up and down our spines, maybe metaphysics would some day become alive again because that’s what it is about. It’s about the meaning of existence. In ancient times it was the queen of the human sciences. It is very exciting and very important because without metaphysics you can’t put together the rest of philosophy. Without philosophy we are leaving our reason behind, and we’re not going to have much of a theology, and we are leaving a good hunk of ourselves beyond on this spiritual path.

We got through Zen, and with Susan’s help we saw that it was real. We went through Christian mysticism with Joseph, and saw that this was real. Now we are at metaphysics, and I want you to see this is real, as well. One of the best metaphysicians in this country is Norris Clarke, a Jesuit priest who taught for many years at Fordham and all over the country. When you hear him talk, there’s a difference, and the difference comes because somehow it is alive for him. We had the fun one time to interview him. Once you talk to him you understand why he is so excited about metaphysics. He tells the story when he was a teenager – he lived around New York City – and he used to like to go to high places, climbing trees, climb pillars that go up to the George Washington Bridge, etc. He didn’t say this, but I imagine he kept pushing his luck, going higher and higher. On the other side of the Hudson River in New York is the Palisades, a big giant cliff. One day he decides he is going to climb the Palisades. Pretty soon he’s 100 or more feet off the ground, and has 20 or 30 more feet to the top. He has no belts or hooks. He runs out of hand holds. He can’t go up. He starts to go down and he realizes he can’t get down. He is stuck. People start gathering because they see someone hanging on the side of the cliff up there. Then the cops come, and they are using a bull horn. "Come down here. We’re going to come get you." He’s still a teenager, and he’s afraid he’ll be arrested, and his parents will be disgraced. So he does a very crazy thing. He had one hand hold going over to his right. He said, "I can swing over to my right, but there’s a projection of rock there so I can’t see what’s over there, and when I swing over, I don’t know if there’s anything there! But if I could swing over, and there’s something there, I can see I could make my way to the top." For me, I think I’d let the cops get me. He does it. He swings out, and as he swings out, he gets what he calls "a taste of existence." Like he said, he’s there to tell the story. There was a place he could stand and he got up to the top before the cops got there, and beat it. But when he swung out, he knew something about existence. And that’s the reason, I think, he is such a fine metaphysician because he knew the difference between existing and not existing. He knew what a rich and vibrant thing existence was. It wasn’t a word or a name. It’s everything.

We should really try to put this all together. We should try to figure out our original question of contemplation and Zen. We have taken a round about route, but can’t help that. The only way we can do it is once we know the principle partners, then we can have them deal with each other. Without knowing that, we’re not going to get that far.

I don’t think that Zen is the same as contemplation. I am not saying by that there could not be people who are receiving from God infused contemplation along with their Zen practice. It could very well be happening. But Zen as Zen practice is not aiming at union with God. The Zen people, as much as they say that enlightenment is a gift, they are also very aware that you have to work and work to get it. I don’t think we would ever have a sesshin – an intense Zen retreat – to arrive at infused contemplation. It would go against the grain of what we believe about infused contemplation to think that if we pushed ourselves hard enough for that week we could arrive at infused contemplation. We don’t do that because it can’t be done that way.

On the one hand Zen is not Christian contemplation, and on the other hand Zen is not something we use conceptually to leap beyond our mind, which is what St. Thomas is doing here. Zen is not a philosophy. They don’t want to be philosophers. They may philosophize afterwards on the experience, but that’s different from creating a metaphysics.

They don’t want a metaphysics like we have Thomas. In metaphysics we are using the mind to go beyond and take that leap and say, "God must be in that darkness." Each one of these three things has its own kind of darkness, and so they may look identical but they’re not. Metaphysics has its darkness because once you know that God must exist in that center, fine, that’s a kind of knowledge, but a knowledge that they use to call analogical, meaning I know it’s there, but I don’t see it. Some people think Thomas is saying you can’t know anything about God, but he’s not saying that. If he was saying we just can’t know about God, he wouldn’t have written his whole treatise on the attributes that natural reason can apply to God, like He is good, true, etc. What he is saying is this: God as existence so transcends these little essences that it is like the owl looking at the sun. He says there must be a God, but don’t expect that our little concepts grab Him. They just sort of point to Him, and give us some weak, imperfect knowledge, but very important knowledge, that God exists. It is part of the whole Catholic tradition that we can arrive at God’s existence through reason. I think the problem resides not in what Thomas is saying, but in our weakness in penetrating what he is saying enough to get to this intuition of being so it will be convincing.

I don’t think that Zen is interested in creating a metaphysics. It is not a metaphysics, itself, except after the fact because Zen really is about some kind of experience.

In metaphysics we don’t experience God. We don’t have any contact with Him. In Christian mysticism we have this interpersonal contact. I’m going to put Zen in the middle and say it is kind of a mystical metaphysics, or a metaphysical mysticism. We cannot by our own natural striving know God in His inwardness, know God as Trinity, know God as this community of persons. That’s where the whole distinction between nature and grace comes in. We can have a natural knowledge of God, but that natural knowledge of God is different than the knowledge of God that comes through revelation, the knowledge of God that comes through faith, because the knowledge of God that comes through faith is a knowledge about the inwardness of God.


Jim draws a picture


Three circles. Here is our metaphysical circle we just had. Everything points to the center. But the center is not something we can contact, grasp, see. Otherwise it would be the beatific vision. If you get hold of God and see God, seeing God is no different than having the beatific vision and seeing God as Trinity. If you see God, that’s what He is like. All we can do in metaphysics is point and say I am convinced there is a center. I don’t contact it, and we thirst for contact. We don’t want to just do this. That’s one of the reasons why metaphysics suffers because even if we do that, and exciting as it is, where is contact with God?

Over here, let’s call this Christian mysticism, and in this one the center appears as a Person. The contemplative has some kind of contact – not perfect, but some kind of taste or touch with that center – if this is the soul, if God appears in the center of the soul, and there is an intersubjective union. Not a union like we have with an object where I say I’m the subject and there’s God and He’s the object, because then that wouldn’t be very satisfying. It is one where I am inside myself. I’m the subject, I’m in me, and I know me in a special way. My knowledge of myself, my self-conscious knowledge of myself, is our own inwardness. We are in our inwardness, and we are looking out at other people, and they are out there, and I’m in here. When God comes in this contemplative way, He doesn’t approach us as an object. He gets in the middle of our own subjectivity like a deeper subject. He comes in that way, and that’s why you can’t get Him with concepts. That’s the whole problem if you keep on working with the natural mind, kind of shouting out all these ideas because it’s a whole coming inside our little whole. It is the whole subject of God, not object, not knowledge about God. It is that living presence of God that Joseph was trying to tell us about.


Jim draws a picture


You could say that if this is God appearing in the center of the soul, and this is our own subjectivity, you are sort of experiencing the other person from within rather than from without. That’s the only way I could put it. If you love someone so much that instead of being outside them all the time, you could sort of get inside them where they are, looking out. You got in there, and you are spirit to spirit. St. John of the Cross is talking about something like that. But this time God is transforming us into Himself, so that we are becoming God – certainly not like our nature, our being, because we are just limited creatures – but by being transformed in knowledge and love. We are directed towards God because He is where our knowledge and love are going. So there is this tremendous mystery of transformation we hear about all the time in dogmatic terms, and John of the Cross is trying to say that in the Christian life we actually experience this becoming God. That’s the only way you could put it – participation in God’s nature.

We leave Zen right in the middle because Zen is not either one. You don’t get to contact with God by this kind of contact that comes from Christian mysticism. You don’t arrive there by technique. No matter how elevated and spiritual the technique is of controlling the mind, or controlling the breath, and concentrating, you can’t arrive at God’s inner nature. Why? Because there’s such a difference between the level of our being and the level of God’s being. The only way you can arrive there is not because it is due to us. That would make God by nature, and we know enough about selves to see that’s not true. The only way you arrive is through God’s gift and through the transformation that comes through knowledge and love, that transformation that comes from grace. The whole Christian mystery revolves around that kind of distinction. Zen is not Christian mysticism in that sense. It doesn’t sound like it. Someone like Suzuki was aware of that difference. The Zen person doesn’t go around praying and thinking about God and trying to be transformed into God.

At the same time, the Zen person will say certain things that are really very interesting. One story is about a lady who is studying the koan "mu," she gets awakened, and the roshi say, "Yes, you got it." Then the roshi says, "Now you understand that seeing "mu" is seeing God." Why would the roshi say that? He’s not a Christian. He doesn’t care about thinking of God as some kind of God he would pray to. That’s foreign to him. So why would he say it that way? That’s a clue.

Another clue is that let’s imagine we’re born in the 7th century in China, and we never heard of Christianity. We have this thirst for meaning and a thirst for the absolute, and their thirst then is no different than our thirst now, and it is a thirst for God. But since there’s no revelation, then how do we articulate what we call this search for God? I think that at times the Zen person was forced to turn within, to look at the human subject, and try to go down as deep as possible inside that human subject to find the most ultimate reality that could be found by plunging into the depths of the human subject, and that means putting away all these thoughts and concepts because that’s too much out here, and go against the grain, plunge into those depths, and try to find the ultimate depth you can get to by sheer heroic human effort. I am not saying that they are any less involved in a world of grace than we are because God is everywhere. I’m trying to focus on their techniques, their distinctive Zen journey.

What happens? It is as if to say that in the center of every soul, in the deepest part of our being, is that place where we come into existence. God doesn’t just create our soul and then, off the assembly line, next. He sustains everything that exists in existence at every moment. So somewhere in the depths of our self, in the depths of our souls, there’s a point where we touch God. God touches us. He has to because He is keeping us there. There is some center point. We’re not talking about when God sort of makes His presence felt in the center of the soul through grace and then this sharing of His own life. I’m not denying that Zen people can’t experience that, and they probably do, but when we are talking about Zen as Zen, if this is the human soul, we spend our time looking out, and we spend our time on the superficial level with all our ideas. We don’t even see the things around us clearly because our ideas are getting in the way and we are looking out through them. The Zen person, in my estimation, tries to quiet all this, but there are layers and layers of our ideas and thoughts and emotions, and they start going down through these layers. The whole Zen journey has its own kind of phenomenology – how it happens, what goes on, and sometimes they experience things that are like Philip’s kundalini.

Other times they experience visions and revelations, and all the time the Zen master keeps on saying, "Don’t stop there. Keep on going down because you have to get to the bottom." The roshi says, "Yes, you will realize your true nature only after your mind has become as empty of thoughts as a sheet of pure, white paper is free of blemishes. It is simply a matter of engrossing yourself in "mu" so totally that there is no room for thoughts of any kind, including "mu" itself." In other words, let’s attach ourselves to this koan "mu" and get away from all this stuff, and use it as a way to quiet the mind and reach a certain kind of stillness. You can’t do Zen and keep on thinking about it. You can’t try to do no-mind and keep your conceptual mind working. So what happens is if you practice long enough and hard enough, that house of cards is like all these different layers, and they begin to collapse and are no longer operative in the same way, and you get down, and finally, when all the collapse is done, when all the layers have fallen, you experience what is at the center. What’s at the center? Existence is at the center. What does that mean? At the very center is the point where God as the author of existence is touching the soul and bringing it into existence. If we could get back to that point, dig down far enough where we no longer have any ideas, and we get back to simply THAT – that THAT is the very point where God is infusing existence into the soul. Or put another way, that very center point is the existence of the soul inasmuch as it is springing forth from the hand of God.

There are profound analogies between what happens in that state and what happens in the mystical state, but there is not an identity. It is the same kind of process. You lose the ego, and arrive at some absolute, and that is certainly an absolute, but you are not arriving at an experience of God as person where you enter into the person of God and are transformed that way because you can’t do that without knowing what is happening to you. Joseph couldn’t talk like that if he didn’t think that God was present to him. What’s happening here is God is present by His creative power so you are actually contacting God, but you are not contacting God in a way that mystics contact God by grace. You are contacting God as He is the author of being. What’s happening here is not the same as what is happening in the metaphysics there where you know the center is there. You are experiencing the center. You could say that you are having a natural mystical experience of God.

This is a point we have to get straight. The Buddhists are just as holy as anybody else because the way we conceive of God is that everybody is called to share in that life, and it is going to happen in all sorts of ways. From our Christian point of view, and we don’t want to sound imperialistic, but we are saying that the Buddhist is destined for the vision of God just as much as we are. It is not the Buddhist’s fault that he was born before the time of Christ. God is there, drawing everyone to Himself in the depths of their being. I think that in the depths of the Zen Buddhist giving their life for their practice, God is operative. And I think He’s operative by grace, and I also think that grace can permeate this whole experience. I want to distinguish these experiences in order to bring them together.

Let’s imagine here’s the soul, and here’s God. To be crude about it, here’s the existence of the soul. What’s happening is we are going down, down, and we hit here. We don’t hit God directly and immediately, but we hit Him mediately through the existence of the soul, but this existence of the soul has been purified of all concepts and ideas. Picture of you can the point where we are coming into existence, and that point becomes luminous because it is so close to God. It is not like we can somehow touch God in an experience of grace, because then God would be manifest, but it is like He is trans-illuminating the very foundation of the soul which is its own existence.

I think the difference is that there are different ways of trying to reach God. There are different journeys toward what we are calling God. The Buddhist journey I’m sure is permeated with grace, and I can’t imagine that some of those people have to be a lot more put together than we are even on a level of grace, but they don’t know grace as grace, which is our gift, but they know things that we don’t know that could very much enrich us because we don’t know that much about the self.

Reading: story of Philip Kapleau when he became enlightened. He walks into his final interview with the master. "Hawk-like, the roshi scrutinized me as I entered his room, walked toward him and prostrated myself, and sat before him with my mind alert and exhilarated." The universe is one," he began, each word tearing into my mind like a bullet. "The moon of truth." All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared, in a dazzling stream of illumination, and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight. For a fleeting eternity I was alone. I alone was. Then the roshi swam into view. Our eyes met and flowed into each other, and we burst out laughing. "I have it. I know. There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything, and everything is nothing," I exclaimed, more to myself than to the roshi, and got up and walked out."

If we give up all concepts in order to enter this night to try to reach the very bottom of the soul where the soul is springing into existence – so we are going to experience the very existence of the soul as it comes forth from the hand of God – if we do that, then when we have this experience, the concepts are far, far away from us, and in this one experience, we are experiencing the existence of the soul, we are experiencing God as the author of experience, and we are experiencing existence like the outer circle of the metaphysics where existence is in everything. But they are all bound together because we achieved the experience engulfed in a night of all concepts. In other words, we have put away all our "what, what, what," and we go down there and it explodes, and what we are getting is these three things together.

First the Zen person can say there is nothing. What does he mean? Is this nothing? No. Not at all. You don’t work that hard for nothing. No thing. There is no more concept. You have reached what we would call an absolute. They don’t even want to do that because they would say that’s too much of a name, a word, a concept. That’s why they don’t want to use the word God because they figure to use words, you are too far away from the experience, and you are far away from their experience if you use words, which is why they hate words because they are going through the night of all concepts to experience that. But once they come out of there, they can’t distinguish between what we would call the human soul, between God and between all creation, so they will make statements that are intelligible if we keep that in mind, but will be unintelligible if we don’t. For example, going back to Joshu and the cypress tree in the garden, imagine if we could see that cypress tree as it sprang forth into existence, as it came forth from the hand of God. Imagine if you weren’t distinguishing God and the tree. You could say, "the cypress tree" and mean the total meaning of existence. They see it as a tremendous gift. They thank the Buddha and the patriarchs, and they ought to because to arrive there is a rare stroke of fortune. It is like a great gift, but it is not, in itself, transcending the level of nature. That’s not putting it down. It is just to try to distinguish it from grace, a grace that may work right in and through it. In itself it is not the same experience as the other one.

The other half of the story is we don’t have what they have, and we – lots of times – don’t have what we are supposed to have, so where are we? They, at least, have some experience.

Among the Zen Buddhists they say that the cause of so many of our problems is the divisions we see among each other. If you have this experience, you realize everybody is one, and you drop all these divisions, you drop all this desire and anger and greed. If you saw everything as one with you, then you are not going to get peeved the same way. The other fact is they take the vow of the bodhisattva which says, "I do not want to go to nirvana – the enjoyment of this – without saving every being." That’s a pretty powerful statement.

I would imagine they would say there is never an end, and in fact they have quite elaborate schemas of different levels of enlightenment. The ox-herding pictures are geared to the different stages of enlightenment, to explain those stages. The first koan "mu" is the beginning. They talk of someone as "stinking of enlightenment." They got enlightenment, but they haven’t actualized it in their personality, in their body, and in their daily practice with other people.

From a Christian theological perspective the original state was probably a state of what we are called contemplation now. It was probably a state of metaphysical knowledge like we are talking about. Was it a state of Zen-like knowledge? It could be because that Zen-like state – imagine using your mind to the utmost to experience God to the utmost – it’s really a beautiful thing. On the other hand, it may be that part of that drive that we experience for redemption, among the Zen Buddhists because these terms are strange to them, they have to seek redemption in this way. That’s the pearl they know, and they seek it. I would imagine God would honor that, that it could almost become sacramental for them to do that.

Two problems. One is Christians want to have this interpersonal relationship. The other problem is that if you shed everything – the gateless gate – if you go through the doorway that makes you shed all your concepts, it is very hard for you to talk about distinguishing God from the soul, from the created universe. When they reflect on the experience, they unite these things in a way we would not unite them. If we were to practice Zen and we weren’t aware of that, we could start thinking Zen, and then turn around and look at our own Christian heritage and start reinterpreting our Christianity to fit Zen philosophy. That could create a big problem. If you remember the David Loy survey and Christians are doing Zen but having Christian terminology. We don’t want to go down that road, either. When they talk about emptiness, or shunyata, the void, we’ve already talked about how that is not mere emptiness. It is some marvelous existence. But because they have to leave these kinds of distinctions behind to get to the experience, you can’t expect them to find the distinction very readily when they come out of the experience. The "nada" of St. John is in its ultimate sense the dark night of sense that comes from contemplation, itself. Contemplation is so bright and so powerful that it is like darkness to the soul. That’s God’s presence coming, and the other is a stripping away against the grain of nature. At a certain point in the journey he makes it clear how terrible it is, and it is very hard to deal with because it exposes the slightest fault and what they used to call concupiscence – the twists in the human personality coming from sin.

Let’s talk about practice. Is it possible to practice both the Christian journey and the Zen journey? One point. This whole thing about experiencing the existence of the soul through this whole experience of God as the author of existence started back in the late 1920s and 30s. Jacques Maritain was reading a book by a Dominican theologian, Andrew Gardeil, about Christian mystical experience. As he read it he got this idea about the East, and in his mind that was Hinduism. He wanted to understand Hindu mystical experience, and this gave him a boost Maritain, because he knew people who were deeply interested in India and mysticism, people like Olivier Lacombe, developed this idea and eventually he wrote an essay about it. He was lucky to have people like Olivier Lacombe and Louis Gardet. They pursued Maritain’s ideas along this line, and wrote many books. They finally wrote a book together called "L’experience de soi" – "The Experience of the Self." They called this a mysticism of the self. Unfortunately, their work isn’t very well known in the United States. Too bad, because I think we could make some real headway with some of these issues. I’ve been trying to do this in relationship to Zen, and Zen wasn’t present in the West when they were doing their work.

Let’s get to practice. A while after Susan had her awakening experience, she had another experience where she reconnected with the Christianity of her childhood. She said it was like a reconnection of heart. She had this experience of the heart where she felt an urge to be inserted in the lineage of Christianity. She is in the lineage of Zen, but she wanted to be inserted in the lineage of Christianity because somehow it was speaking to her. She has somehow become a bridge this way. She’s trying to come from that Zen side and discover how she can be a Christian. But it’s not going to be an easy task for her because of the institutional church. I do think that if she could connect with someone like John of the Cross, then maybe it would be different. In the parish there is too little feeding of the soul as far as the life of prayer goes. I think that’s important because this happened to her after that initial awakening.

Is it possible to be a Zen Buddhist and a Catholic, a Christian, at the same time? We are going to get a variety of answers, but what do you say? Can I in good conscience as a Catholic practice Zen Buddhism? Can I sit and try to reach enlightenment, for example? Yes, I think I can, in fact, I do it, so I hope it’s OK, but I’, not saying there aren’t a lot of issues. I could be a Catholic who goes on my Christian journey, and then reach that dark night of John of the Cross, and I feel stuck. So I take up Zen. If I make some headway in Zen, then I’ll say Zen is a continuation of the Christian journey. That’s a possible scenario. You start your Christian journey and you get to one of those places where it is just drudge, drudge. So I use Zen and get to this enlightenment experience, and say this is the same as Christian mysticism and this is the same as John of the Cross, and then we get things mixed up. If we could really understand what’s going on, we could avoid those problems.

We could say why bother with Zen? We have our Christian life of prayer. What good is Zen going to do us? There are a lot of riches in that tradition if we could get to them. For example, how to control the mind, or how to reduce this constant whirling of conceptual thought.

If we could find the right balance point, could it be possible that – when John of the Cross talks about Christian contemplative experience and how we keep on pounding away and are not paying attention to God becoming present to us – well, imagine instead of pounding away, we started quieting the mind for a while using Zen in order that this presence could become more manifest. That’s just a hypothesis.

There are devotional aspects of Zen Buddhism, and we can’t forget that. We’re being very selective here today. There are other forms of Buddhism that are very devotional, and there is some of that in Zen. Most of the things that happen in a zendo like Susan’s where I have sat are things that don’t discomfort me because I have my own interpretation. If they are offering incense to Kwan Yin – the statue – I am not feeling that they are worshipping Kwan Yin. They are not interested in worshipping Kwan Yin. They are interested in enlightenment. You’d have to feel your way. There are other aspects that would be harder to accept. I don’t have all the answers, and those answers will emerge slowly as people practice both ways. I’m not afraid of it. I don’t know how many people feel inclined to practice both ways, but what would happen if a Zen Buddhist like Susan did begin to experience what she calls the ignition of the heart? These people may already be wonderful contemplative, but deep, secret contemplatives. John of the Cross talks about if the ray of light goes through the window into the room, and it encounters no dust, you can’t see it. I picture some of these Zen people, or these Tibetan Buddhists with no dust, so who is to say what rays of divine light are going through there and are not perceptible – and as John says – even to the person receiving them. Now we are getting to things we don’t know, and I’m not going to judge, but if it’s possible for me to really appreciate and practice zazen, I think it should be equally possible for a Zen Buddhist to be a Catholic or a Christian and not come in conflict with the essence of their Zen practice. The Hindu and Buddhist traditions certainly see themselves very differently from each other, but from our distant perspective I sort of see them as part of the same spiritual family. There’s the question of what Bede Griffiths is trying to do, and Wayne Teasdale, who are Christian sannyasis practicing the Hindu and the Catholic contemplative paths at the same time.

Thomas Merton was exploring this bridge and you wonder where he would have gotten to. From my point of view, if there’s a road that leads to God, why shouldn’t we go down it? If God gives it to us, let’s go down it because we certainly need as many roads as we can get. Lots of times we can be doing something, and it’s so dark and dry, and we would really like to exert some mental muscle, so this is not a bad way to do it.

For the Christian, if they are careful and make some of the distinctions, then it can really be an enriching experience. On the other hand, because their Zen experience outstrips their Christian experience, they get to the point where they take their Christianity and they reinterpret it in Zen categories, and when you do that you no longer have Christianity. You have something else and Christianity is gobbled up.

At the same time, when we are doing Zen and we are integrating it into the Christian journey, we have to be careful about the sensibilities of the Zen Buddhist. He doesn’t see it that way. On a practical order I think a lot of these issues can be resolved. Susan doesn’t have a lot of Buddhist companions having the same kind of ignition of the heart. I think we can answer it a little bit in the Hindu-Christian dialogue in India. There are Christians who are trying to get over the bridge. Sometimes there are more Christians trying to build abridge that way than Hindus trying to build a bridge this way. Some of the reasons are the experiences they had with Christian British colonialism, and where Hinduism will embrace all sorts of qualities so they are not going to worry about another incarnation of God. There are plenty of them, so it won’t bother them to include Jesus, too.

Some of our people leave the Church looking for some spiritual sustenance because they are not getting it here. They go to Zen and find sustenance there. I think that happens a lot. But on a deeper level, we need them. They need us. On a deeper spiritual level can you imagine what would happen if a Zen Buddhist became a Catholic contemplative, and started a Zen Buddhist Catholic contemplative rite in the Church? That would be pretty far out, and would probably do a heck of a lot more for the Church in Asia than some of our efforts up until now. Can you imagine what it would do to Christian spirituality if we understood what the Tibetan Buddhists have experience for those centuries? They sat up in the caves and in the monasteries, and spent themselves trying to learn about the human psyche and the void and all these other things. That’s why what happened to Philip is so significant, not for Philip as ego Philip, but because it’s a way of saying these realities could come into our own tradition, and we would be so wealthy if we understood all these things. Take all the riches we are hearing about and assimilating them in their proper way. That’s a big chore, but a worthwhile one.

Final point. We are hearing all these things, and all these possibilities and intuitions, and yet we have to go home and get up in the morning. It’s like planting seeds. A lot of seeds have been thrown around, and each of us is at some particular point of our own individual journey. Let’s keep on going, and if one of the seeds starts to sprout, then the week was worth it. It may be that if we get in a fix we can turn to something out of Jung or out of the East or out of our new sense of the earth, and be enriched and be able to continue our own Christian journey. I really wish you well on your own journeys. Thank you.


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