Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue

Part I: A Pilgrimage Through East-West Dialogue

Chapter 1: Buddhist-Christian Dialogue


Is the Christian life of prayer and contemplation the same as the Zen-Buddhist life of meditation leading to enlightenment? Is there a role that Christian metaphysics could play in such a dialogue? These are questions that inexorably are addressing themselves, whether consciously or not, to the Catholic participants of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and are questions which have tremendous theological ramifications which concern the very identity of Christianity, itself. What I want to do here is to set the stage to begin to answer them by seeing what these Catholic participants have had to say about them.

Two points, however, should be kept in mind. There is much more to Buddhism than the expression it finds in the nondual doctrine of Zen that has so attracted Christians. Buddhism possesses deep devotional currents. Secondly, in our search we are going to take a brief look at what many leading Catholic figures in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue have said about our subject. This will sometimes show them at a disadvantage, for it is not a question that they have often addressed directly, and that impression should be balanced by the realization that there is much more to their work than what we are focusing on here.

The Zen-Christian dialogue is perhaps the most intensive and extensive dialogue that Christians have been carrying out with the East. Nowhere has the impact of East-West dialogue on Christians been greater. Many Christians have taken up the practice of Zen meditation, and some have even become Zen teachers and are spreading this practice of meditation around the whole Christian world. This makes our questions even more pressing.

The Sanbo Kyodan

The Sanbo Kyodan, or the Three Treasures Teaching Association of Kamakura, Japan, was created in 1954 by Yasutani Hakuun Ryoko (1885-1973) who was a student of Harada Daiun Sogaku (1871-1961) both of whom drew on Soto and Rinzai Zen. Yasutani’s successor was Yamada Koun Zenshin (1907-1989). He was succeeded as the head of the Sanbo Kyodan by Kubota Akira (1932- ) and Kubota’s dharma successor Yamada Masamichi (1940 - ) who is Yamada Koun’s son.1

Yamada Koun was particularly open to Catholic priests and sisters, and it is from this lineage that many of the Catholic Zen masters who are at the forefront of the Zen-Christian dialogue have come, directly or indirectly. Among them we can mention Niklaus Brantschen, Pia Gyger, Ruben Habito, Thomas Hand, Patrick Hawk, Willigis Jäger, Robert Kennedy, Hugo Lassalle, Elaine MacInnes, Kathleen Reiley, AMA Samy, Ana Maria Schlütter, and others.2

These students have created centers around the world, and they, in their turn, are training their own students and granting them permission to teach. Therefore, the Zen-Christian dialogue is not only a theoretical question for Catholic theology and spirituality. Zen is entering deeply into the Catholic Church, and it cannot help but raise difficult questions. Our question here is how Zen enlightenment relates to Christian contemplation and metaphysics, and it brings in its wake many other questions. When, for example, the Catholic Zen teachers give a Zen-Christian retreat, are they doing Zen, or Christian prayer? Or do they believe that they are the same? Or when, for example, they are training their own students, are they training them in Zen, or Zen and Christianity, so that as a result their students are rooted in both traditions? If they are training them only in Zen, what does this say about their understanding of the relationship between Zen and Christianity?

Yamada Roshi once asked one of his students who was a Catholic sister, ""What is the relation between Emptiness and God?" Without the least sign of trepidation she answered, "Emptiness is God. God cannot be thought of as other than emptiness.""3 This answer could be taken as a symbol of both the great potential that exists in East-West dialogue, and yet, at the same time the problematical response of Catholics to this dialogue. There is a very profound way in which it can be said that emptiness is God, but this entails the Christians not only saying this from a Zen point of view, but fathoming this statement from a Christian metaphysical point of view. The second statement, "God cannot be thought of as other than emptiness," raises questions not only about the relationship between this Zen insight and the Christian metaphysical tradition, but with how we can understand it in the light of Christian faith and the Christian mysteries, themselves.

David Loy’s Questionnaire

There is, perhaps, no better symbol of the kind of questions we are going to try to address in this chapter, and the difficulty in answering them, than the story of David Loy’s questionnaire on the relationship between Zen and Christian practice. Loy, an American Buddhist living in Japan, and himself a student of Yamada Roshi, as part of his preparation for an article called "A Zen Cloud? Comparing Zen Koan Practice with The Cloud of Unknowing," sent a questionnaire to the Christian students of Yamada which, in 1987, consisted of twelve priests, ten sisters, and one Protestant minister. But, he tells us, "the results were disappointing. Only four responded, plus one non-Christian Zen teacher. Of those, the replies were roughly divided between those who had found it a good introduction to Zen practice and those who found The Cloud opaque and not very satisfying. But everyone emphasized the importance of keeping the two paths separate in order not to confuse them, and the general sentiment was that a path as well developed as Zen has no need for such supplementation. The most interesting result of my inquiries was a division among Christian Zen teachers (most of them in Europe), between those who want to maintain a strong distinction between Zen practice and Christian practice, and those who see them as aiming at the same thing and therefore to be eventually united – which seems to mean using mostly Zen practice with Christian terminology. But evidently The Cloud has not figured in this debate." 4

An Informal Survey

I did my own informal survey when preparing for the initial meeting of the working group of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies of people practicing in both traditions, which my wife and I helped create with the Zen teacher, Susan Postal, and which was held in Boston in 1992. I wrote to Catholics deeply involved in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and asked them what they thought about the relationship between enlightenment and contemplation. Their answers covered a wide spectrum: I can’t see the point of the question; I don’t think it can be answered; They are essentially the same; They are different; The essential difference comes from Christ. And the responses included a penetrating meditation on the I AM in Exodus in relationship to Zen, as well as pointing out Thomas Merton’s ideas on the subject. The actual meeting of the working group turned out to be very dynamic with fascinating stories by people deeply involved in both traditions, but it did not directly deal with this fundamental question about enlightenment and contemplation. What did appear very clearly was how many Buddhists with Christian roots felt wounded by their former connections with Christian churches.

It would be rash to base too much on such small responses, but the division among the Christian Zen teachers ought to stay in the forefront's of our minds as we proceed to look at what various Catholics deeply involved in Zen have to say. If they cannot agree among themselves, then we are faced with serious questions with important ramifications for Christianity. Our efforts to address this issue are going to be something like forcing them to answer Loy’s survey, perhaps almost against their will, since for the most part they don’t deal directly with this issue. However, I think we will find that in final analysis they express themselves strongly in one way or another.

Koun Yamada’s Questions to Christians

We might ask why Koun Yamada was so open to having priests and religious as Zen students. Such openness was certainly not a universal quality among Japanese Zen teachers, but Koun Yamada was a married layman, the administrator of a hospital, married to a doctor, and a student of Yasutani who, in his own way, had broken with the Soto and Rinzai lineages of his time, and criticized them for not focusing on the central importance of attaining kensho, or awakening. But if the key in Yasutani’s mind was the attainment of enlightenment, and this represents a kind of core experience that transcends the various schools of Zen, then perhaps Yamada was in a special privileged place to carry this idea one step further. If the heart of Zen is the experience of enlightenment, could not Christians attain to this experience while remaining Christians and not becoming Buddhists?

Ruben Habito

The fact of having Christians as students and seeing them advance in their Zen practice could not help but raise questions in Koun Yamada’s mind. For a long time he restrained himself from asking these questions lest he confuse his Christian students, but finally, he addressed them to two of his advanced students, Hugo Lassalle and Ruben Habito: "First, why did you not just continue meditational 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? And also a question to Christians who have had the Zen experience through the mu koan: 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 (kongen) of mu. How would you answer a question about the origin of God?"5

Fr. Lassalle answered the first question by explaining that his initial motivation to practice Zen was his desire to enter more deeply into the inner life of the Japanese people, and Zen had enabled him to understand the Christian mystical tradition better.

Ruben Habito’s answers went deeper. The practice of Zen had been preceded by his struggle to find meaning in life, and to face the question of God, both before and after he had joined the Jesuits. This search reached a certain culmination in his first breakthrough in Zen:

"… For me the mu-experience, triggered by my working on the koan of Joshu’s dog, literally shook me inside out, and kept me laughing and even crying for about three days, as I remember. People around me must have thought I was going crazy then. I can only say at this point that the experience enabled me to see the truth, the forcefulness, the real reality of what Paul wanted to express in Galatians 2:20 - "It is no longer I that live, but Christ in me!"

"So to answer Yamada Roshi’s first and second question in the same breath, I came to Zen in the search for my True Self, and the mu-experience was its discovery, the discovery of my total nothingness. And yet this total nothingness is also total everythingness, the discovery of an exhilarating world of the fullness of grace surpassing all expectations, active even before the beginning of the world (Eph. 1:1-11), and one can only exclaim again with Paul, Who can fathom "the breadth and length and height and depth," and Who can "know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge"? (Eph. 3:18-19).

"And if you ask the origin of all this, I can only admit I don’t know. One can only humbly receive, from moment to moment, the fullness of grace."6

It is interesting to note how seamless this integration of Zen is with his prior Christian training, as shown by the natural way in which he has recourse to the Scriptures and the use of the term grace. In the face of such dynamic experience, our question of the relationship between contemplation and enlightenment, still less metaphysics, could easily appear to be the ingrained theological resistance of a Christian mentality dominated by concepts and bereft of experience. Yet, is it possible to see in this passage hints of a unification of Zen and Christianity in which the spiritual practices of both would be identified? Or is there something more nuanced or subtle going on here where it would be possible to say that contemplation and enlightenment are not different, but they are not the same – not one, not two?

In a videotaped interview he describes how he became the first Catholic religious in the circle of Yamada’s students to attain kensho or enlightenment in November, 1971. Reflecting on whether the Christian experience of contemplation is the same as enlightenment, he tells us that in reading the profound insights to be found in the letters of St. Paul, he found that they "pointed to the same dimension

that I somehow felt overwhelmed by in that Zen experience, and so now, reading those passages, became triggers for me to reenter that same experience, and so I boldly say same because for me it is the same."7

It is important to note that the answer that Ruben Habito gives to Yamada, and probably Yamada’s questions, themselves, are cast in the pattern of the classical Zen dialogue. In fact, Habito’s answer to Yamada was in the form of the demonstration of a koan, and that was probably what Yamada was asking for.8 But is it possible to ask these questions from another perspective from the point of view of our pilgrimage through East-West dialogue in order to concretely situate our question?

Why did Christians come to Zen? Did they feel a dissatisfaction with Christianity? It seems that this was often the case, and why wouldn’t it be? The Christian mystical tradition had entered into a long, dark night at the end of the 17th century that it was just beginning to recover from at the time of the Second Vatican Council. And the Christian metaphysical tradition of St. Thomas had been handed on in a rather lifeless, conceptual way rather than in the form of an initiation into the mystery of being. As a consequence even candidates for the priesthood were poorly instructed in it. Instead, they were often force-fed an over-conceptualized philosophy and theology – unfortunately, in the name of Thomas Aquinas – that did little to nourish them philosophically and theologically, and still less spiritually. Further, at a certain critical juncture of the life of prayer, which could be called the dark night of the senses in the wide sense of the term, ordinary discursive forms of prayer begin to fail. This failure makes itself felt in the diminishment of consolation and gratification that prayer used to bring, and practical help in resolving this crisis was lacking. Zen, therefore, represented, and still represents, an attractive choice in the face of these deficiencies in Christian philosophy, theology and spirituality. Zen aims at direct experience, and so is a powerful antidote to overconceptualization.

How can we express the new experience in Christian terms? We can read this question in different ways. One would be to answer it as a koan, as Habito did, and that is probably the way it was meant by Yamada. But there is another way to look at it. We could rephrase the question in terms of what the Christian mystical and metaphysical tradition had to say about the mu experience, or the nature of enlightenment. Unfortunately, it appears that many Christian Zen students, to one degree or another, are unacquainted with or estranged from these mystical and metaphysical traditions. Their overconceptual presentation has caused them to be held in contempt. Christian Zen students, having tasted the new freedom of Zen experience, can hardly be expected to look kindly on these old conceptual prisons, but the result is that they are unable to answer Yamada’s questions in a distinctively Christian way. They are unable to believe that Christian mysticism and metaphysics have the resources to tackle such a difficult issue. Thus, they can tacitly act as if Zen meditation and the Christian life of prayer are the same thing, or they can keep them in separate compartments, but rarely can they find the enthusiasm for dealing with Yamada’s questions from a distinctively Christian point of view.

It is much the same case with Yamada’s third question about the origin of God. A question about the origin and nature of God is central to any Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Later in this same interview Yamada remarks: "Recently one of my disciples, who is a Benedictine nun, presented to me a book written by a German Catholic priest, subtitled Foundations for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. It was written by Hans Waldenfels, S.J., and the title of the English translation is Absolute Nothingness. I was very much impressed with the contents of the book, and it led me to see that what you Christians call God may not be too different from what we are concerned with in Zen. Just the other day I had a meeting with four Catholic priests who have finished the Zen koan training, and during our free discussion I asked them about this, and all of them seemed to agree on the common ground of what you call God and what we are concerned with in Zen. Fr. Lassalle came later, and he also shared the same view."9

In a very profound way it is possible to say that Zen is about God, or more precisely, it is, indeed, a mystical experience of God, and this is saying a great deal, for then it becomes clear why Christians can and have embraced Zen so deeply. It is rather ironic and sad that Christians who thirst for God fail to find God amidst constant talk about God in Christian theology, and constant prayer exercises and go on to find a certain assuagement of that thirst for God in Zen Buddhism which refuses to talk about God. But as important as it is to recognize that Zen enlightenment can be an experience of God from a Christian perspective, this does not lead to the conclusion that Zen meditation is the same as the Christian life of prayer, or that their goals are the same. The same God can be approached from different directions and under different formalities.

Hugo Enomiya Lassalle

Hugo Lassalle (1898-1990) was a German Jesuit who was in Hiroshima at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Later he collected funds to build a cathedral dedicated to world peace, and he was to create a Catholic zendo called Shinmeikutsu, or the Cave of Divine Darkness, west of Tokyo. He was one of the first serious Catholic practitioners of Zen in Japan, and he completed his study under Yamada Roshi after many years, and was given permission to teach.

In his Living in the New Consciousness he writes about the content of enlightenment that it is the "experience of undivided, absolute reality. This reality can be experienced either as personal or impersonal…

"Hardly anyone today would question whether Zen enlightenment and similar experiences in other non-Christian religions are genuine experiences of the Absolute, even though they are impersonal in nature. Were they personal in nature, they would be the same as an experience of God in the Christian sense… Genuine mystical experience resists all attempts at conceptual expression. This means that anyone who attempts to do so will utilize the categories available, although this, by its very nature, can easily lead to misunderstandings.

"In enlightenment, the Buddhist experiences his deepest self as one with absolute existence, and is strengthened as a result in his faith in the nonduality of all existence. The Christian and anyone who believes in a personal God experiences the self not only in himself, but also in his relationship to an absolute personal reality."10

This leaves us a bit with the impression that the underlying experience is the same, but is experienced differently by different people because of their expectations and religious conditioning. But in other places he is more nuanced and states that in both Zen and Christianity "absolute and undivided being is experienced… The distinction resides in the fact that the Zen experience is an apersonal one, while the Christian experience is a personal apprehension of the absolute. The responsive feeling of the recipient is so different that there must also be some essential distinction in the phenomenon, itself."11

He also writes, "… if God did not exist there would be no creatures, but the converse does not hold: In the case that not a single atom of the entire universe existed, God would not on that account be less by a single hair than he now is with the whole universe. Hence the Christian, as long as he retains his belief in God, will not be persuaded to relinquish this view even by an experience of satori. To the contrary, he will live this experience as a being-one with God and thus will rather be strengthened in his faith in God."12 This is a truly Christian sentiment and it would be hard to imagine saying the same thing from a Buddhist perspective.

But we read in his Zen Meditation for Christians that the prayer of supernatural recollection is considered a gratuitous gift of God (gratia gratis data) by Christians, and in Zen we "see that the same breakthrough is much more probable, and practically a certainty for anyone who practices with fervor and perseverance. It is certainly plausible that many Christian mystics were aided by a special grace from God. But that is not proof that there is no way to achieve the necessary breakthrough by purely natural means."13 This statement is quite problematical from the point of view of Christian mysticism. If Fr. Lassalle means by supernatural recollection the beginning of infused contemplation according to Teresa of Avila, it would not be correct to say that this supernatural recollection is a gratia gratis data, that is, a grace freely given but accidental to the substance of the life of prayer, for contemplation is an integral part of this life. Further, and more importantly, if this gift is a supernatural grace in the sense that it is a free gift of sharing in God’s own life in a special way, it cannot be attained by purely natural means, and there is no way to lay siege to heaven to acquire it in the form of some sort of intensive meditation retreat.

It appears that there are two currents in Lassalle’s thought about the relationship between Zen enlightenment and Christian prayer and contemplation, and they are not fully integrated. But if there are some important tensions in his thought that need to be resolved, these tensions, and the questions they represent, seem unfortunately to disappear when we look at some of the other Catholic members of the Sanbo Kyodan.

Willigis Jäger

Willigis Jäger is a Benedictine monk, and another student of Yamada Roshi, who when he returned home to Germany after his training he created a Zen-Christian center at Würzburg. We are left in little doubt about his own views about our questions which we find in his The Way to Contemplation, and the effects his answer will have on Christian doctrine. He looks at the practice of Zen meditation as a form of contemplation akin to what is found in Teresa of Avila: "Some may ask whether this form of contemplation is really prayer. But those who reach it know for sure that they are praying. It is of secondary importance whether these individuals then use familiar religious formulas to express themselves or – as very often happens – use, instead the general knowledge of profound experience."14

He equates Zen’s "awareness of one’s own being" to the "prayer of quiet" and tells us that this awareness, as well as the words of God and Jesus, must be transcended. "In the end there is not even a person."15 Unsurprisingly, he shows a predilection for Meister Eckhart and informs us that "God is one and manifold. This is probably a key to an understanding of the Creation story. Creator and creature are one in essence."16 "… (D)ogmas are simply formulations based on the experiences of profoundly religious human beings. God reveals Himself to them, and their experience finds expressions in myths, rituals and symbols which are culturally conditioned."17 The formulas of faith are like shells that must be broken to reach the kernel inside. "When all is said and done, the issue for believers is not to discover the life of God in the form of an indwelling. Rather, they must realize that they themselves, as they are, are expressions of the divine."18 Mystical experience for Jäger seems identical with Zen awakening, and in the process of reaching it all religions become culturally conditioned gropings towards one summit. This, of course, is a radical transformation of Christianity in which it is reinterpreted in Buddhist categories and its own distinctive love mysticism is seen as a lower stage of Zen enlightenment.

In Contemplation: A Christian Path Jäger wants to understand mystical experience in the light of Ken Wilber’s transpersonal psychology. Wilber describes a prepersonal level, a rational or personal level, and a transpersonal one. The transpersonal, itself, is divided into the subtle – visions and prophesies, for example, – the causal where one experiences union with a personal God, and "the level of pure consciousness, referred to as "the void," "Godhead," "sunyata," "Tathagata," or simply "the ground," "in which" one experiences pure being. At this level, "pure being" is nothing other than that which emerges from it: "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."19

Naturally, Wilber’s schema suits Jäger quite well, but Jäger does not address the underlying question of whether it is actually correct. The identification of the highest states in all religions is assumed, and most of Jäger’s book is a tissue of quotes from Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing, and John of the Cross, all interpreted in the light of this assumption.

Later we are told that Christian dogma is based on an outmoded model of the universe in which "God is the creator of the universe, and the center of the universe is the earth."20 But since the cosmology is wrong, then the dogma must be wrong, as well, and we ought to replace it with a philosophia perennis which is that highest level of insight to be found in both East and West. Once again, the assumption that Christian dogma is intrinsically dependent on the cosmology of the time in which it was written is not really examined, still less demonstrated. What we have, in essence, is a kind of sleight of hand in which Christianity as it has been traditionally understood vanishes, and then reappears, made over into Eastern categories.

In Search for the Meaning of Life: Essays and Reflections on the Mystical Experience Jäger follows the same path we have been tracing. It could certainly be called a mystical path, but it is one cut out of a particular kind of cloth. Peter Heinegg, the translator, calls Jäger a mystical theologian, and tells us that even people well versed in Catholic spirituality might be surprised at what they will find in this collection of lectures. A way of translating that is to say that he realizes that Jäger departs significantly from traditional Christian doctrine and spirituality. And he does. But it doesn’t seem to cause him any hesitation. He will tell us: "In the final analysis, how I formulate my experience of Ultimate Reality depends upon whether my understanding of the self and the world is anthropological or cosmic,"21 which is a sentiment we are going to hear echoed over and over again. For cosmic we should read impersonal, and for anthropological we should read people who still live in the pre-Copernican era and interpret things in terms of a "preeminently personal structure."22 Christians have redogmatized and repersonalized the fundamental mystical experience that all religions are meant to lead to. "But against the background of continual advances in the sciences and especially psychology, this personalistic bias is looking increasingly problematic. Interpretation of Jesus’ life and teaching has not kept pace with scientific findings. Ultimate Reality is transpersonal and beyond the concept of God, cherished by the traditional theistic religions, which lack the cosmic and holistic perspective."23 We need to overcome the "so-called ontological dualism between God and creation…"24 And that is what Jesus did.

Mysticism, both East and West, points to the same reality. "The wave is the sea, but then again, it is not the sea."25 This is what Christian mysticism is when it "has not been pressed through the sieve of dogmatic theology…"26 This one mysticism is what we find in Eckhart’s godhead, or Teresa’s interior castle, or Zen’s essential nature. "They all come from the same experience of Being, but because of the differences of time, culture, education, and religious allegiance, they articulated the experience quite differently."27 But what does this kind of nondualist imperialism do to Christianity? It eliminates its distinctive nature. Let me be clear about this. Used in this way, Zen awakening, which could be a wonderful gift for Christians, becomes destructive to Christianity.

In the West, God and man are essentially separate, we are told. In the East, however, they are of the same essence. If we look at God as a Father who watches over us and of whom we ask for things, we remain "mere beggars."28 Jäger believes that he is expounding an esoteric school of nondual mysticism. Theology for the most part remains locked up in its archaic ideas. God must be seen as "the totality of everything that exists."29 "God reveals himself as mind and matter"30 and can only be really grasped in transcendent experience. "Part of the tragedy of theistic religions is that they overstress history. The truth of a religion, however, lies concealed in its symbols, images, and myths."31

The difference that matters between religions can be defined, according to Jäger, in terms of esotericism vs. exotericism. Esotericism is oriented towards inner experience, while exotericism is "based exclusively on scriptures, dogmas, ritual, or symbolism."32 But the only value in these things is that they point to the one, universal mystical experience, or ultimate reality. Many Christians remain in an infantile state of oral or meditative prayer. They need to learn a more grownup form of contemplative prayer, and "contemplation is something one can be trained to do."33 And this, I imagine, is what Jäger sees as what he is doing when he gives a retreat. And he is entirely comfortable in interpreting John of the Cross in the light of this nondual mystical experience that we can be trained to do.

But what is particularly disturbing in all this is his deep separation, even alienation, from traditional Christian faith. "What would happen," he asks, "if we could prove historically that Jesus’ bones had been recovered? Would Christianity then be just a bad joke?"34 He interprets the resurrection in the way we would expect. It has nothing to do with whether Jesus rose or not. "It is an experience that we can have: that our deepest essence is divine, and hence cannot die."35 Therefore, "If the bones of Jesus were to be found today and it could be proven that he had rotted in his grave, my faith in Jesus would not change in the least."36 But, of course, we need to ask just what kind of faith in Jesus does he have, and what is sad about all this is that he really doesn’t think that he has lost anything.

Elaine MacInnes

Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic nun, went to Japan in 1961 as a missionary, and eight years later became a disciple of Yamada Koun Roshi. In 1976 she set up a Zen center in the Philippines. In her book, Light Sitting in Light: A Christian’s Experience in Zen, we have another valuable opportunity to see our fundamental question appear through the sincere comments of a Zen-Christian practitioner. She tells us, for example, that she has found "Eastern and Western meditation practices to be quite different, and I use both daily."37 Later she highlights this difference by saying that Christianity creates a relationship to the transcendental God, "a relationship that implies "the other."38

But what is the relationship between them? "I used to feel the word ‘communion’ was apt in describing Zen prayer, but now I feel perhaps ‘participation’ is closer to what’s happening, where one’s whole being is unimpededly as it were, infused with the Divine.

"However, when I entered the convent in 1953, it was almost impossible to find a teacher for guidance in contemplation. At best, one is told that mystical prayer is God’s gift and one can only ask for it. I was fortunate enough to find a book which kept me on the path. I had to come to the Orient to learn that there are teachers in this Way and there is a practice, which will lead to mystical experience, although the experience itself is ‘a gift from beyond’ as Dogen Zenji implied."39

We are left with the impression that relational prayer is to be completed by contemplative prayer, and it is here where the East excels. Yamada Roshi, for example, wanted his Catholic students "to give the Church a shot in the arm, as far as contemplative prayer in concerned."40 She asks whether Zen meditation is really prayer, and why would Christians need it since they have all different kinds of prayer? And she answers, "My Zen spirituality has been grounded in a specific experience which has led me to appreciate ‘Unknowable’ and ‘Unnameable’ as appropriate synonyms for the intimate God of my childhood."41

But this still leaves unresolved the basic question of the relationship between these two ways of approaching God. And we can wonder what Buddhists might make of such an explanation, and especially what they would make out of her phrase "Zen prayer." What she seems to be saying is that Christians know discursive ways of praying, but for the deeper ways of silent contemplative prayer it was necessary for her to go to the Orient in order to find a teacher. Christians, too, have this tradition of contemplative prayer, she tells us, and it can be found in John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Tauler and many others.42 And she will associate the breathing of the air of John of the Cross, by which he tries to describe the heights of transforming union, with the emphasis on breathing in Zen meditation.43 And it came natural for her when summing up her Zen training, to quote Dogen: "I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, and rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars."44 And then to immediately cite a passage that she felt was parallel to it from John of the Cross: "My beloved is the mountains and lonely wooded valleys…"45 And when someone asked her, "Did any of the Christian mystics have a kensho, do you think?" she answered, "The articulation of some of our mystics leads me to think they had that same experience – John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart and Tauler, for example. I often tell Christians that a Buddhist taught me what John of the Cross means by his frequent use of nada, the Spanish word for ‘nothing’."46

How do we reconcile, then, Sister Elaine’s statement that there is a difference between meditation East and West, and the comments we have just seen? Perhaps the only way to do that is to identify Christian contemplation and Zen enlightenment, and have them represent the upper reaches of the life of prayer, while Christian prayer, or relational prayer, represents the lower slopes of the mountain.

Patrick Hawk

Patrick Hawk is a Redemptorist priest and a Zen master in the lineage of Robert Aitkin and Willigis Jäger. In "The Pathless Path," a brief article that appeared in The Catholic World in May-June 1989, he describes his early spirituality as following the way of devotion and piety, which way eventually came to a dead-end. "Then one cannot practice as one did before. It is a bewildering time. There is no more consolation; all is dry and seemingly unprofitable."47 This sounds much like St. John of the Cross’ dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term in which the gratification that often comes at the beginning of the life of prayer through spiritual practices fades away. Gradually he found his way out of this impasse by means of Zen. "Somehow Christianity and Zen did not seem to be two ways to me. A pathless path beyond the forms and words of each tradition emerged from within."48 He studied with Willigis Jäger and tells us: "This was a year of intense practice both of Christian contemplation and Zen."

But given his previous remarks and Jäger’s own comments it would not be unfair to ask whether both of them considered Christian contemplation and Zen enlightenment to be the same thing. Later, Fr. Hawk will say, "Training in Contemplation or Zen is done face-to-face. One does the practice year after year, face to face with one’s teacher hundreds of times year after year. One personalizes the insight gained through practice in daily life year after year. How does one become a master of Contemplation or Zen?"49 Does this "or" refer to two different things, or two names for the same thing? The latter choice is not a bad bet, but whether this is explicit with Patrick Hawk is another matter: "How to live in the tension of East and West is similar to how a person lives with the tension of having two arms. With practice one becomes ambidextrous. It is just a matter of doing. Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing and it is done."50 But not letting your right hand know what your left hand is doing does not further a dialogue about our central question about whether Christian contemplation is the same as Zen enlightenment, and what relationship it might have with Christian metaphysics.

Chwen Jiuan Agnes Lee and Thomas Hand

Chwen Jiuan Agnes Lee, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, and the American Jesuit, Thomas Hand, who spent 29 years in Japan and was part of the circle of Catholic Zen students around Yamada Roshi, collaborated in writing A Taste of Water: Christianity Through Taoist-Buddhist Eyes.

And this subtitle is a rather exact description of what this book is about: "We want to be very clear about what we have attempted to do. From our own study and experience we have tried to look at Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian path through Taoist/Buddhist eyes… One point to be emphasized is that we realize perfectly well that some of our formulations about God, Jesus and human life do differ from conventional Christian teaching, including that of the Catholic Church. We have consistently presented these interpretations not as our fixed positions, but as what we feel the great Taoist and Buddhist masters might say from their enlightened viewpoint. We offer them not as dogmas, but only as options as to how the original Christian teachings may well be interpreted and understood under the impact of contact with the light of eastern philosophies of life. Both of us, as Catholics, are quite happy to ultimately follow the directives of the church community."51

Fair enough. But the authors go on to make it clear that their own personal perspectives coincide with that of the great Taoist and Buddhist masters. They ask themselves: "Is there such a thing as a fixed, unchanging tradition or culture or religious consciousness? What does it really mean to be faithful and loyal to tradition?" And they answer: "These questions force us to turn to inner experience as the only foundation for advancement and expansion of consciousness."52 And they take as their patron Henri Le Saux, Abhishiktananda, who they feel has done from the advaitan, or nondual, point of view what they would like to do from a Taoist and Buddhist one. Let’s see what kind of language this perspective gives rise to. While we make clear distinctions, for example, between creatures and God, the human and the divine, nature and grace, and so forth, we need to realize that: "the real God is different from all such categorization. In the final experience of God there is no question of separation, distinction or relationship."53

The experience of Ignatius of Loyola as he walked along the banks of the Cardoner River ought to be understood as an experience of enlightenment. "Certainly St. Ignatius of Loyola here joined innumerable men and women of both east and west in the one, simple, basic reality-experience. He has no words like emptiness, sunyata, thusness, or tao with which to express the event… More and more we feel that through the impact of far eastern enlightenment, Judeo-Christians can find within their own heritage these very same insights."54

Once the perspective is taken in which nonduality is seen as the highest spiritual goal, then conceiving God as a person is seen as an attachment to a human way of understanding God. "Remember that personal always means relational, and relation always means separation. The east says that although it is a helpful approach, personal relationship with God is not the reality we call transpersonal oneness."55 Then it is only one small step to reinterpreting the doctrine of the Trinity where the word persons is taken "not as indicating three distinct and subsistent relations, but simple convenient, existential terms to express the inexpressible."56 Once this is done, then we find that there are many insights in the East that can be labeled trinitarian in this sense.

Inspired by Ken Wilber, they find that an evolutionary view of consciousness fits in with this eastern perspective. The traditional Christian understanding of paradise and original sin needs to be revised so that we can now, with Wilber, see "that this paradise was not that of fully realized human beings, but rather a very primitive, infant-like state of awareness which knew nothing of the complexity and fears of modern consciousness."57 In this way a new understanding of these Christian doctrines emerges: "for centuries the Christian interpretation has to some degree confused this pre-personal security and bliss with that transpersonal union which human nature is oriented toward. The fall from Eden is not really a fall but a rising to a higher level of individuated consciousness!"58

Our traditional understanding of Jesus also has to undergo a similar transformation. "Simply put, we would like to say that salvation is not so much a matter of redemption, as enlightenment."59 Moses in the Old Testament brought the Jewish people to a personal God, but here there is "still subject-object dualism and always at least a subtle distinction between creature and creator. Jesus, too, maintains this worshipping awareness when he teaches his disciples to pray, "Our Father in heaven." But in the end Jesus himself moves beyond all subject-object dualism. Both his soul and the personal God are dissolved in the void he entered through his radical disidentification, his kenosis."60

We need to "discover the original inner experience of Jesus and his disciples."61 But what is this experience but enlightenment, itself? Everything else, "scriptures, dogmas, sacraments, liturgies, etc. – are only skillful means to this end."62 What Christianity has had up until now are "credal formulas carefully worked out mainly during the first five centuries of church history" which are "basically western expressions of the Christ experience."63 What we really need, however, are insights from the East to help us rediscover this original inner experience of Jesus. But, of course, just what would be left of traditional Christianity if we did this?

In a videotaped interview Fr. Hand recounts how he went down the hill from the Jesuit Language House in Kamakura to the zendo of Koun Yamada in November, 1967, to become the first priest to sit there. He went on to introduce other religious to this group, like Kathleen Reiley, and later Ruben Habito. In this interview, since he is not taking up a more formal Taoist-Buddhist perspective, he frames what he sees as the principal unresolved problems in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue without formulating answers to them.64

Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy grew up in the Irish Catholic world of Brooklyn, New York, joined the Jesuits and was ordained in Tokyo in 1965. In the upheavals of the Second Vatican Council he tells us his own religious certitudes were swept away and "most painfully, I lost my way in prayer. The precious words and images and the stately liturgy that sustained me for so long suddenly froze on my lips and in my heart. What a grace that was, though I didn’t know it then."65 This sounds much like the experience of Patrick Hawk. He eventually took up Zen practice with Yamada Roshi and finished his training under Tetsugen Glassman in New York. "Since my installation as a Zen teacher in New York in December 1991, I have been asked by Zen practitioners if I had lost my Catholic faith and didn’t know it, or if I had lost it and didn’t have the courage to admit it. As far as anyone can answer a question like that, I never have thought of myself as anything but Catholic and I certainly never have thought of myself as a Buddhist. What I lost was a Catholic culture that has now all but disappeared from the American scene. I learned painfully that faith is never to be identified with the cultural forms of any given age, and especially so when that cultural form is taken for granted and deeply loved. While this simple truth may be obvious to the reader, in my experience it was a truth burned into my soul.

"What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away again by authority or by changing theological fashion."66

He notes that when the Dalai Lama spoke at the John Main seminar in London in 1994 on Christianity, he "resisted all suggestion that Buddhism and Christianity are different languages for the same essential beliefs and said that the two faiths are so different that those who call themselves "Buddhist-Christians" are trying "to put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body." Behind the enlightening teaching and wise caution of the Dalai Lama, I heard again the words of Yamada Roshi to me: "I am not trying to make you a Buddhist, but to empty you in imitation of your Lord Jesus Christ."67

What would Fr. Kennedy say in response to our questions? There is a rich Christian mystical tradition that "parallels Zen meditation."68 "Zen reminds us, as do Eckhart, Merton, and many other contemplatives, that the highest point of our Christian mysticism is reached not in the experience that I know God or that I love God – not in any I-Thou experience – but in the experience that God lives in us.

"It is most especially in this immanent aspect of contemplative prayer that Zen can confirm and assist the contemplative. Zen gives us a method to put contemplation into practice. The Zen training sesshin does not allow the student to analyze or theorize about prayer. Instead it plunges him at the outset into the contemplative act in which there is no subject or object. The koan mu in not an object of meditation. Rather, by becoming mu in unthinking concentration, the retreatant is no longer aware of an "I" standing against a "Thou." He is aware only of mu. Comparing Christianity and Zen mysticism on this point Yamada Roshi gave us a Christian Japanese translation of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The phrase "Jesus emptied himself" reads "Jesus became mu." The roshi urged us to become not good Buddhists but good Christians, to become mu in imitation of Christ. A Zen sesshin, directed by an accomplished master, can help the Christian to achieve precisely this goal."69

It must be noted that a transcendence of an I-Thou relationship is problematical even at the deepest levels of Christian mysticism. A John of the Cross or other great Christian mystics, however far they may have traveled by way of via negativa, did not find it necessary to leave the I-Thou relationship aside, and to say that Zen gives us a method to put contemplation into practice, or that the sesshin does not allow the student to theorize about prayer, appears to have already transformed Christian mysticism into Buddhist categories under the guise of freeing it from its limitations. It is already assumed that zazen is prayer, and is contemplation in action, when that is not clear from the Christian point of view at all. Nor is it clear that the kenosis of the Letter to the Phillipians is the emptying that Zen promises.

In Zen Gifts to Christians Kennedy follows the path of his earlier book. It is mostly a rather lyric appreciation of Zen and what it could do for Christianity, and he rarely deals with the more pointed issues of East-West dialogue that flow beneath the surface of what he is saying. Nor, it might be noted, does he speak about Christian gifts to Zen Buddhists.

He addresses, for example, the issue of the relationship between the creator and creatures, but smoothes away the differences between a Buddhist nonduality, and what could be called a Christian one.70 When it is a question of emptiness, he asks: "How can the Zen "view" of emptiness – the presence of co-arising "beings" whose selfhood has been hollowed out – ever be a gift for Christians who have been taught to believe in an immutable divine essence?"71 And he answers: "From so many faiths we come together to sit and meditate in the zendo, not to solve a philosophical problem but to experience the emptiness of all our ideas about God and no God, self and no self. Together we enter into the presence of mystery and mutual service."72 He immediately qualifies this answer, and adds: "However, by no means am I saying this is the only way to practice interfaith dialogue. Indeed some interfaith dialogue takes place precisely to confront philosophical problems."73 But this is something that he clearly does not want to concern himself with. And while it is true that we may all experience the emptiness of our ideas in zazen, we are still confronted, whether on the meditation cushion or off of it, with whether the experience that Zen leads to is identical to what the life of Christian prayer and contemplation is meant to lead to.

He writes later: "Zen teaches that the absolute simply is unknowable and cannot be known or described through reason. For this reason Zen categorically rejects the various essentialist philosophies that are based on reason and that flourish in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist cultures."74 And even if we try to balance this by saying, "Zen is not disparaging human reason or philosophical thinking,"75 we are left with the same kind of question we just saw. If we take the negative Zen view of concepts as normative, where does that leave Christianity and its long-held belief that concepts, whatever their limitations, can say something about the divine mysteries themselves?

The real issue here is not whether Zen has great gifts to give Christianity. It does. But these Zen gifts are wrapped up in a particular way, and need to be unwrapped before they can be truly understood and used in a Christian context.

Roger Corless

Maria Reis Habito

In an incisive but unpublished essay called, "Dual Practice With Form and Without Form: The Doctrinal Consequences," Roger Corless speaks of dual practice, or practice across traditions, by which he means the authentic practice in two traditions where the same person functions as two independent practitioners. From this perspective he criticizes the dual practice of Catholics in the Sanbo Kyodan School of Zen, and suggests that they extract satori, or kensho, from the fullness of Buddhist theory and practice and regard it as the essence of a supposed universal mysticism. To illustrate this process of extraction he looks at a paper, itself unpublished, on Hugo Enomiya Lassalle given by Maria Reis Habito at the 1987 meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies where she writes: "Satori as the experience of the absolute occurs in the West as well as in the East, and its interpretation depends on the respective religious background."

Corless comments: "There is assumed to be a common, universal, trans-historical, non-doctrinal, intuitively attained Urgnosis which is documented as having been experienced identically by some Roman Catholics and by some East Asian Mahayanists, especially those identified as belonging to a Ch’an or Zen lineage, and this is, we are implicitly assured, also the heart of the experience of other Christians, other Buddhists, and, indeed, all spiritually aware humans in all times and places. When expressed in language, however, this experience degrades into talk of doctrinally limited categories such as Dharmadhatu, Trinity, Tao, Brahman, etc."

While Corless’ concern is the failure to have a genuinely dual practice, his remarks shed light on our own preoccupation with the fundamental relationship between enlightenment and contemplation, and metaphysical experience. To the degree that the Catholic members of the Sanbo Kyodan believe that there is a common core doctrine to be found in both Buddhism and Christianity, to that degree they will tend to identify enlightenment with contemplation, and as a secondary effect of that identification, the doctrinal formulations of Christianity will, themselves, become quite secondary if not irrelevant. But it would certainly be premature to ascribe to someone like Maria Reis Habito this kind of facile identification of contemplation with enlightenment for I have heard her speak in a moving way of her own Christian life. She grew up in a deeply Catholic family, and she recounts that once, when she was practicing Zen meditation, and pondering the difficulty in believing that God was love, she had a deep experience of that love flooding the zendo and all the people in it.76

This brings us to an important point. In certain cases we have been seeing Catholics whose theological formuations about the relationship between enlightenment and the Christian life could be judged deficient, but as important as this theological level is, it cannot be equated with the inner life of these people. God works in mysterious ways in the depths of our hearts, and we can barely glimpse what is happening there in ourselves, still less in other people.

It is worth commenting for a moment on the phrase dual practice which, itself, causes difficulties similar to our fundamental questions. When it was used at the first meeting of the ongoing working group of practitioners in both traditions at the Boston meeting of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies, several people objected strongly to it because they felt that their practice was one thing and not two. But is this not another way of indicating an answer to our question? In a similar way, to use the phrase dual practice could easily be an indication of an inclination to answer the question in the opposite way. Even the similar phrase "practice across traditions" is not without its problems, for it can indicate a practice that somehow transcends the tradition it is rooted in. "Dual practice" in the sense that Roger Corless uses it, in which he practices his Christianity on alternate days with his Tibetan Buddhism, and is a rather dramatic symbol of his openness to our fundamental questions and could be taken as an answer to our question, i.e., the practice is dual because Zen meditation and the life of prayer are two different things.77 All this illustrates once again how beneath the surface of the current Buddhist-Christian dialogue powerful currents exist generated by our basic issues.

A Closer Look at the Sanbo Kyodan

One of the best accounts of the Sanbo Kyodan is Robert Sharf’s "Sanbokyodan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions."78 Sharf had read Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen as a teenager, and, like many other people, found it a pleasant contrast to the more theoretical Zen, like that of D.T. Suzuki, that was known in the West before this book’s appearance. The heart of the book is the teaching of Yasutani and accounts of his interviews with his students, as well as their descriptions of their kensho, or enlightenment, experiences.

Through the work of Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Maezumi Taizan and others, the teaching of the Sanbo Kyodan has played a major role in shaping American Zen, which stands in contrast to its somewhat marginal status in Japan. Both Harada and Yasutani, al though formed in traditional Rinzai and Soto Zen, broke with it and radically criticized these traditions as having become overly institutionalized and letting the intuitive fires of kensho become extinguished. They, in contrast, created a school directly oriented to the attainment of enlightenment, especially though the mu koan. All the rest of Buddhism, that is, Buddhism as a religion with its scriptures, religious ceremonies, cultural forms, doctrines like reincarnation, and the role of study, was given secondary status. The whole enterprise was made to hinge on the attainment of enlightenment through intensive Zen retreats, or sesshins, in which the students were urged to do their utmost to achieve this breakthrough, and many did. And with it came new status within the organization.

Zen masters traditionally have warned against an over conceptual approach to Zen, but as Sharf puts it: "… there is a world of difference between issuing such warnings in a monastic environment where ritual and doctrinal study are de rigueur, and issuing such warnings to laypersons with little or no competence in such areas. In short, the Sanbokyodan has taken the antinomian and iconoclastic rhetoric of Zen literally, doing away with much of the disciplined ceremonial, liturgical, and intellectual culture of the monastery in favor of the single-minded emphasis on zazen and a simplified form of koan study."79 The Sanbo Kyodan became a training school of koan study aimed at enlightenment. One student went so far as to call it a "kensho machine." "The published testimonials of sect members vividly attest to the fact that ardent practice can lead to kensho in the space of a year, a month, or even a single sesshin. Indeed, it was the rule, rather than the exception, to find one or two students experiencing their first kensho during each sesshin conducted by Yasutani and Yamada."80 Once the first breakthrough had been made, progress in dealing with 600 or 700 subsequent koans often went quickly, even at the pace of one koan per interview with the master, and the whole koan course could be done in six years.81 Another way to put this might be to say that the students were intensively schooled in how to attain enlightenment and then how to express this attainment in the unique "language" of koans.

Stuart Lachs in his online article, "Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen,"82 covers some of the same ground as Robert Sharf, but does so from the point of view of how the emphasis on enlightenment may have caused a certain abstraction in American Zen from the moral dimension of Buddhism.

But we have to ask what effect this departure from traditional monastic Zen has had on the Sanbo Kyodan’s Catholic students. Actually, I think these departures and innovations of the Sanbo Kyodan school suited them quite well. They would have had difficulties if they were required to participate in Buddhist religious ceremonies, like the taking of the lay precepts. But their instinctive sympathy went much deeper. Catholic priests and religious in the late 1960s and early 70s were on the rebound from an over-institutionalized Church and an over-conceptualized philosophy and theology. They, like many of their counterparts in the West, craved a more experiential approach to spirituality which, for the most part, they had not found in their Christian spiritual traditions. Therefore, the emphatic statements of the leaders of the Sanbo Kyodan that Zen was not a religion, but a deep and direct experience of reality beyond the words and ceremonies and doctrines of the different Buddhist traditions could only resonate with them because it opened the door to their own participation in Zen practice.

But this whole core doctrine idea found in the Sanbo Kyodan acts like a two-edged sword. While it opens the door for Christian participants, it also tends to carry with it a distinctive view of Christianity in which Christianity, itself, is another embodiment of this same core doctrine that is found in Zen. "Sanbokyodan leaders would not place Christianity and Zen on an equal footing; as mentioned above, they claim rather that Zen is the experiential truth lying behind all religious traditions, Christianity included."83 Or as Sharf also indicates a little later, following the work of Gavin D’Costa, "Christianity is ultimately explained in terms of Zen."84 Yamada Koun, himself, put the matter this way: "Almost all Buddhist sects can be called religions. Zazen, however, is quite different in this respect. Quite simply, it is the core of all Buddhist sects. As you know, there are many sects in Buddhism, but the core or essence of them all is the experience called satori or self-realization. The theories and philosophies of all the sects are but the clothing covering the core. These outer wrappings are of various shapes and colors, but what is inside remains the same. And the core, this experience, is not adorned with any thought or philosophy. It is merely a fact, an experienced fact, in the same way that the taste of tea is a fact. A cup of tea has no thought, no idea, no philosophy. It tastes the same to Buddhists as it does to Christians. There is no difference at all."85

It would be easy for the Catholic students of Yamada to move, even perhaps unconsciously, from the initial position which says that Zen is an intuitive experience of the essence of Buddhism, and therefore they can practice it as Christians, to the next position which says that what is experienced in Zen is also the essence of Christianity. Then Christianity would, indeed, be interpreted in Buddhist categories, and there would be what could be called a koanization, or kenshoization, of Christianity.

It is worthwhile exploring Buddhist-Christian dialogue beyond the circle of the Sanbo Kyodan, for it will give us a better idea of the problems involved and some indications of ways to resolve them.

Thomas Merton

"John of the Cross, who never left 16th century Spain, experienced satori," so writes Christopher Nugent at the beginning of his essay, "Satori in St. John of the Cross" in which he hopes to illuminate the remarks of John Wu, who in 1937, in his book Beyond East and West wrote: "…When I read… John of the Cross: "to possess nothing; to be all things, be willing to be nothing" – I understood… and added a word on the margin: "Taoistic"." John Wu’s good friend, Thomas Merton, is also quoted as being in agreement with this bold assertion about John of the Cross. "Frankly, I would say that Zen is nothing but John of the Cross without the Christian vocabulary."86 But as enjoyable as this essay is from a literary point of view, it does not convince us of its principal point. It takes more than St. John’s nada, nada, nada and emptiness, for beyond certain similarities of language the real issue is what this nothingness gives birth to. For John of the Cross it is the means by which we are transformed by love into God. This language of nothingness is at its deepest level the language of love and an interpersonal mysticism. As far as Thomas Merton’s assertion here, we will have to look at that in more detail.

Merton’s "Zen is nothing but John of the Cross" was not something that he pondered and then carefully wrote down. Rather, it came at the beginning of a talk he gave to a group of contemplative sisters when he directed a retreat for them at his Abbey of Gethsemani. These talks were transcribed and published in 1992 as The Springs of Contemplation, and were sometimes given while he sat with the sisters on the bank of a pond or lake. So what we have here is not a carefully weighed judgment on Merton’s part, but more of a spontaneous remark made to a sympathetic audience he felt at ease with, and perhaps would not have minded dazzling a bit.

The whole passage reads: "I’m going to talk about Zen for a while. I’ve brought with me a book by a German-Japanese Jesuit, Heinrich Dumoulin. I know at least three Japanese Jesuits who are quite interested in Zen. This is a worthwhile book, not the last word by any means, but good. This man has actually been in a Zen monastery and gone through the training. Now instead of the Spiritual Exercises, he gives his fellow Jesuits Zen retreats. They’re as close to Saint John of the Cross as anything can be. Frankly, I would say that Zen is nothing but John of the Cross without the Christian theology. As far as the psychological aspect is concerned, that is, the complete emptying of self, it’s the same thing and the same approach.."87

We need to take these words in the same off-hand and casual way that he uses later in the same talk: "Fromm got interested in Zen through his contact with Suzuki, whom he knew quite well. I knew Suzuki, too. At first, we had a long written dialogue. Then we met. In a certain sense, he is my Zen master; he authenticated my understanding of Zen so that I could speak about it with a certain confidence."88

Merton was more nuanced in his written works. He distinguished, for example, between natural and supernatural mystical experience. He wrote to Aldous Huxley in 1958: "I would call aesthetic and natural an experience which would be an intuitive "tasting" of the inner spirituality of our own being… or an intuition of being as such arrived at through an intuitive awareness of our innermost reality." In contrast, "a fully mystical experience has in its very essence some note of a direct spiritual contact of two liberties, a kind of a flash or spark which ignites an intuition of all that has been said above, plus something much more which I can only describe as "personal," in which God is known not as an "object" or as "Him up there" or "Him in everything" nor as "the All" but as – the biblical expression – I AM, or simply AM. But what I mean is that this is not the kind of intuition that smacks of anything procurable because it is a presence of a Person and depends on the liberty of that Person."89 He ends this long letter: "May I add that I am interested in yoga and above all in Zen, which I find to be the finest example of a teaching leading to the highest natural perfection of man’s contemplative liberty."90

In a 1965 letter to Philip Griggs, a member of the Rama Krishna Mission in California, Merton lays out some basic Christian principles that should shape interreligious dialogue from a Christian point of view. A fervent sadhu could be closer to God than a superficial Christian. At the same time, this does not prevent a Christian from believing that the Church possesses a more perfect doctrine and sacramental system.91

Merton goes on to point to one of the key principles of any dialogue between Hindu Vedanta and Christianity: "It cannot be said that a Christian (or at least a Catholic) believes that man is divine by nature. If he did the whole point of Christian teaching would be lost. The Christian belief is, let me state it clearly and without ambiguity, that man is divine not by nature but by grace, that is to say that his union with God is not an ontological union in one nature, but a personal nature in love…"92

But in 1968, shortly before his death, we have Merton saying, as we have just seen, "Frankly, I would say that Zen is nothing but John of the Cross without the Christian vocabulary." Does this mean that Merton suddenly changed his mind about the principles that he thought governed East-West dialogue? That is not very likely. In an uncompleted manuscript called, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, which Merton may have planned to revise after his Asian journey, and which the Merton Legacy Trust would only allow to be published as a series of articles, he writes: "Satori allows us to observe "the natural working of the inner self"."93 "For us, there is an infinite metaphysical gulf between the being of God and the being of the soul, between the "I" of the Almighty and our own inner "I". Yet paradoxically our inmost "I" exists in God and God dwells in it. But it is nevertheless necessary to distinguish between the experience of one’s own inmost being and the awareness that God has revealed Himself to us in and through our inner self. We must know that the mirror is distinct from the image reflected in it. The difference rests on theological faith."94

Further, in his 1968 Zen and the Birds of Appetite he comments that D.T. Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist is, in fact, a comparison between Meister Eckhart and Zen. This kind of comparison has remained popular in Zen circles over the intervening years, but Merton continues, "to take Meister Eckhart as representative of Christian mysticism is hazardous."95 He is certainly not denying the very Zen-like qualities to be found in Eckhart, but only indicating that Eckhart can hardly be taken as an entirely unambiguous exponent of the Christian mystical tradition. He goes on to indicate his reservations, as well, about a certain kind of thought which takes for granted that all religions meet at the top: "This has never been demonstrated with any kind of rigor…"96 Later he says, "The basic insights of Buddhism are philosophical and metaphysical," and continues, "Obviously the best way to open a serious dialogue between Christian and Buddhist thought would be to discuss something of the nature of Buddhist enlightenment and to see whether some analogy to it could be found in Christian thought."97 While there is some merit in comparing Buddhist enlightenment to Christian mysticism and ethics, the most promising meeting-point, in his mind, is metaphysics. This preference for metaphysics is perhaps a reflection, in part, of Merton’s intimate knowledge of the Thomist metaphysical tradition, especially as represented by Jacques Maritain. They had corresponded and become friends after the publication of Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and several of their letters deal with Maritain’s ideas on natural mysticism, or mysticism of the Self, by which he tries to understand enlightenment from a Christian metaphysical point of view, and which we will look at later.

Merton, then, who was well-read in the best of the traditional Thomist philosophy and theology, was well aware that it was possible to speak of both a natural and a supernatural contemplation, and he did so. Supernatural contemplation was the same as the infused contemplation of the Christian mystical tradition, while one of the major forms of natural contemplation was a metaphysical intuition. And when he began to dialogue with Zen, he associated this metaphysical intuition with Zen enlightenment. He writes: "… all the reality that exists, and all the goodness of everything that exists and is good, can be spiritually tasted and enjoyed in a single metaphysical intuition of being…"98

If there are two kinds of contemplation, there can be two distinct kinds of knowledge of God. In one, "God is known as "present in the metaphysical depths of everything that is," but he is not known "in His infinite transcendence"."99

As Merton entered more deeply in East-West dialogue, he saw the value of applying these fundamental distinctions. As Thomas King puts it in his Merton, Mystic at the Heart of America, "The metaphysical intuition provides a better basis for a dialogue with Eastern monks than a contemplation entirely centered on the Judeo-Christian revelation." And King cites Merton to the effect that "… the supernatural Kerygma and the metaphysical intuition of the ground of being are far from being incompatible. One may be said to prepare the way for the other. They can well complement each other, and for this reason Zen is perfectly compatible with Christian belief and indeed with Christian mysticism, if we understand Zen in its pure state, as metaphysical intuition."100 The night before Merton died in Bangkok, he said: "Zen and Christianity are the future."101 But it does not look like he saw that future in terms of a realization that both Christianity and Buddhism are saying the same thing in different terms.

Donald Mitchell, Robert Jonas, James Grob

Donald Mitchell’s Spirituality and Emptiness broadens the discussion that had sprung up around Masao Abe’s comparison of Buddhist emptiness with Christian kenosis, or emptying. He does so by including more of the Kyoto School of Buddhist philosophical reflection to which Abe belonged, and looking at the issue not only theologically, but from the point of view of Christian spirituality.

What is particularly important and interesting for the theme we have been pursuing here is the nuanced way in which he avoids reducing Christian mystical experience to Zen experience. Members of the Kyoto School like Nishitani and Abe feel "that Absolute Nothingness entails the total emptying of any far-side reality apart from the near side of our world."102 For them there can be no dualism between God and creatures. But Mitchell feels that Christianity should not be treated this way. The far-side reality of God cannot be collapsed into the near side reality of creatures. To do so is to "lose the richness of the Christian vision of God" and "empty out Christian hope of eternal life in the heart of this trinitarian mystery." 103 God cannot be identified with the forms of creation. "…the radical dependence of creation on God is not matched with a radical dependence of God on creation which would be called for by the Buddhist logic that identifies Emptiness and forms."104

The same issue can be looked at from the perspective of mystical experience. "Is the Void something that is "prior" to God? Is it an Absolute Nothingness out of which even God arises?"105 Mitchell realizes that Christians who practice Zen might be tempted to answer these questions affirmatively, but he believes that it is incorrect to do so: "… a Christian mystic finds that through the grace of Christ indwelling within, he or she is given a "spiritual eye," as it were, to see into the mystery of the Void. And he or she finds therein a far-side dimension that is not absolutely identified with the near side of creation, and is not formless and impersonal."106

In short, while not at all denying the importance and reality of the Zen experience, or what is being called here, "the near side of mystical experience," our perspective cannot be limited to this. "If, on the other hand, one turns one’s attention into the heart of the Void, then that Void becomes, unlike Buddhist Absolute Nothingness, an onto-theological category of experience. And if that attention is graced in a particular way by God, one can discover therein that the Void has a personal trinitarian far-side dimension."107 Mitchell concludes: "…the Buddhist experience of Absolute Nothingness is an experience of God, of God as the kenotic ground of existence. But this Emptiness is not prior to God, it is the depth of the kenotic dynamic of the triune and personal God that is the other side…"108

In a videotaped interview he tells us contemplation is not something we can produce, but ultimately something God grants, and he goes on to describe how the Zen experience can bring someone to a deep sense of God's presence in and through the world, and Christian contemplation moves through that experience so that we realize that there is another side, that there is a transcendent dimension. Zen gives us an indication of the silent mystical horizon as it is played out in the interrelatedness of life, and the infinite is encountered in this experience so that it looks like that is it. But through the grace of God one realizes that that infinite opens up on the other side into the life we will share with God when we die, that paradise we call the Trinity. The Zen experience is absolutely authentic, and the Christian contemplative experience does not contradict it, but complements it.109

Robert Jonas, director of the Empty Bell Retreat Center dedicated to Buddhist-Christian dialogue, has come to a similar conclusion. Both Buddhists and Christians can come in silence to a precious moment of pure presence. But for Christians, there is another one there, a holy one, so Christians will say that Jesus lives in us. There is always an interpersonal dimension in the spiritual practice, an inner voice, a sense of inner presence that leads one to make contact with an other in an ultimate way. The ground of what is ultimately so is relational. Then when I stand up from prayer, I am still in the presence of that relational sense. It is a relational universe.110

James Grob, a Christian contemplative deeply versed in Eastern forms of meditation, after graphically describing both his Christian and Eastern experiences, arrives at an analogous perspective. He once saw himself being created and held into existence by Christ, by the Word, which was like a fountain flowing into him. His human self appeared as a thin membrane supported by the flowing out of the fountain, and he could see himself as a distinct creature. Suddenly the entire context was transformed as if by an immense electrical charge, and the membrane was participating in and part of, totally by gift, the entirety of what God is.111

What is fascinating about these Christian contemplative accounts is that in actual experience there is no conflict between enlightenment and contemplation, and there is certainly no feeling given from these people of any hostility, or even bias, against enlightenment, but rather, they show a deep openness to it that is born of experience. But it is an experience that has been transformed from within by the interpersonal mystery of God's love. From a Christian perspective, therefore, there is no need either to deny the authenticity and great beauty of enlightenment, or to try to transform Christian contemplation into another experience of it.

Heinrich Dumoulin

Attempts to take a look at Zen from a Christian metaphysical point of view have not been completely lacking. Heinrich Dumoulin (1905-1995), the Jesuit historian of Zen Buddhism, for example, in his A History of Zen Buddhism, devotes a section to natural mysticism by which he means: "an immediate religious experience of reality or a psychic contact with the absolute being, and distinguishes Zen from the supernatural mysticism of grace as well as from the manifold phenomena of magic in the history of religion."112 He goes on a little later: "The mystical experience which, as in the case of Zen, occurs outside the intimate I-thou communion of the soul with its Maker, belongs by contrast to natural mysticism, a concept generally recognized today by Christian theologians."113 And he touches on the work of Mager, August Brunner, Gardet and Merton. At the heart of natural mysticism the soul "becomes aware, at the foundation of its own spiritual substance, of God’s eternal creative spirit."114 But this enlightenment experience, while it has a spiritual and absolute character, is understood in a monist way. "If, therefore, Zen presents itself as a kind of natural mysticism, it must be emphasized that the pantheistic strain in its teaching stems, not from experience, but from the philosophy of the Zen mystics. Experience itself can only permit the consciousness of contact between the spiritual self and the realm of the Absolute, and thus it is basically open to the theistic possibility. Indeed, one finds among the Zen mystics an oscillation between a faith which reaches out to a transcendent Other and the absolutizing of the ego believed to be identical with the All. In intimate contact with adherents of Zen, one finds inescapably a certain contradiction in the religious attitude of many a zealous Zen disciple."115 Interestingly enough, this section on natural mysticism seems to have disappeared from his expanded Zen Buddhism: A History. Perhaps the dropping of the section was the result of Dumoulin’s growing understanding of Zen, and the decline of the traditional neo-scholastic philosophy at the time of the Second Vatican Council which went together with a re-evaluation of the traditional use of the terms natural and supernatural, and the rise of a new awareness of God’s universal salvific will. These are issues we will look at in more detail a little later.

If we have been seeing examples of how Christians have adopted Zen Buddhism, Dumoulin in this new edition provides us with some very interesting historical examples of Buddhists who embraced Christianity with equal enthusiasm. It tells us, for example, of the Japanese tea masters of the 16th century who were Christians like Takayama Ukon, who was part of Rikyu’s tea circle,1116 and the Zen master Kesshu who became a Christian.117

Hans Waldenfels

Much the same distinction between Zen and Christian mysticism that we have been seeing is made by Hans Waldenfels in his Absolute Nothingness: "In Pseudo-Dionysius, identification or union with God is for man to enter the Godhead by getting rid of what is man – a process called theosis, i.e., deification. This position of Pseudo-Dionysius became the basis of subsequent Christian mysticism. It may not be wrong to say that for him, the Godhead in which one is united is the "Emptiness" of the indefinable One. The words "nothing, nothing, nothing" fill the pages of The Dark Night of the Soul, written by St. John of the Cross. For him nothingness meant "sweeping away of images and thoughts of God to meet Him in the darkness and obscurity of pure faith which is above all concepts"."

But Waldenfels goes on: "Despite the great similarity between Zen and Christian mysticism we should not overlook an essential difference between them. In the above quoted passage, Pseudo-Dionysius calls that which is beyond all affirmation and all negation by the term "Him." Many Christian mystics call God "Thou." In Zen, however, what is beyond all affirmation and all negation – that is, Ultimate Reality – should not be "Him" or "Thou" but "Self" or one’s "True Self." I am not concerned here with verbal expressions, but the reality behind the words. If Ultimate Reality, while being taken as Nothingness or Emptiness, should be called "Him" or "Thou," it is, from the Zen point of view, no longer ultimate."118

Ichiro Okumura

Ichiro Okumura in his "Zen and Christianity – Memories of My Conversion," tells us that as a young student at Tokyo University he was a German major, and through this means gained some idea of Christianity, but he was enamored of Zen and despised Catholicism as a distorted fairy tale and actively struggled against it. "After an oppressive darkness of almost three years, a sharp light seemed to sear my brain, as if I had somehow been struck by lightning. Immediately, it became clear to me that what was distorted was not the Bible, but my own mind! My strong resistance to "Incarnation", which I consid ered to be the basic doctrine of Christianity, and my desire to demythologize the Bible had changed into an insatiable thirst for the true im age of Christ. I had been captured by Christ in my very struggle against him. It was the summer of my twenty-sixth year."119

He became a Carmelite and later looked at Zen from the point of view of Christian spirituality and John of the Cross. His conversion gave him a distinctive perspective on this Zen-Christian dialogue. "But my experience in my youth, when I was seized by Christ in my very struggle against Him, led me to feel a quiet but firm resistance at the "Zen-Christian Colloquium", when the other participants were tempted to agree that "all religions are in fact reducible to one".

"I still feel great pleasure when I come in contact with brave Zen Masters and good books on Zen, savoring as I do the breadth of the Zen mind and a sort of relief from some of the stiltedness of Western thinking prevalent in Christian theology. But I must say that I can find in Christ alone the deep human mystery that cannot be reached through any other religion, including Zen-Buddhism. Perhaps this will seem to our non-Christian friends to be only my own prejudice!"120

Kakichi Kadowaki

The Jesuit Kakichi Kadowaki, in a 1966 article called, "Ways of Knowing: a Buddhist-Thomist Dialogue," argues for the astute conclusion that there is "a genuine analogy between the Buddhist theory of knowing and the Thomistic notion of connatural knowledge."121 Later, in his Zen and the Bible, he explores reading both the Bible and koans with what he calls the whole body, and compares St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises with a Zen sesshin. It was at a sesshin at Fr. Lassalle’s zendo Shinmeikutsu that he met a man whom he calls Mr. S, who told him with great earnestness that many Catholics come there for sesshins, and he thought that their zeal indicated "that they have at last found in Zen something which they had given up hope of finding anywhere else." But beyond that, Mr. S felt that there was "something deep in the soul of Catholics that harmonizes perfectly with Zen meditation, and that something too deep to fathom came out of this."122

Kadowaki feels that Zen and Christianity "differ in a fine point regarding their ultimate aims, but that in regard to their overall frame work and structure they are very similar."123 But this was something he wanted to leave for further examination. He also feels that a new scriptural hermeneutic could come out of approaching the Bible in the spirit of Zen.

A Buddhist-Christian Dialogue at Naropa Institute

If our question often emerges from the writings of the people most involved in Zen-Christian dialogue from a Christian point of view, it also constantly struggles to surface whenever there are intensive conversations between Buddhists and Christians.

At a Zen-Christian meeting at Naropa Institute, recounted in Speaking of Silence, a person listening to the panel of Christians and Buddhists asked: "When I listen to both the Buddhists and the Christians, I hear that basically there is no difference."124 Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Camaldolese monk, answered, "…in my mind there cannot be conceived of two ways that are lived out more differently than Buddhism and Christianity… But they come from the same experience and by very different routes, lead to the same experience."125

In another exchange, Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, whose purpose is to renew the Christian mystical tradition, asked: "..when one has shed this ego-centeredness with its aggression and selfish self-seeking, is there not still an identity left, which may actually be very good?" The Tibetan monk Trungpa Rinpoche responded: "Well, I think now we have reached the key point. Egolessness means that there is no ego – at all."

Fr. Keating: "That’s what I thought it meant…"

Trungpa Rinpoche: "Union with God cannot take place when there is any form of ego. Any whatsoever. In order to be one with God, one has to become formless. Then you will see God."

Fr. Keating: "This is the point I was trying to make for Christians by quoting the agonizing words of Christ on the cross. He cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) It seems that his sense of personal relationship with God, as God’s son, had disappeared. Many interpreters say that this was only a temporary experience. But I am inclined to think, in light of the Buddhist description of no-self, that he was passing into a stage beyond the personal self, however holy and beautiful that self had been. That final stage would then also have to be defined as the primary Christian ex perience. Christ has called us Christians not just so that so that we will accept him as savior, but so that we will follow the same process that brought him to his final stage of consciousness."126

Certainly as we become sensitized to our question, we can see the ambiguity running through these kinds of exchanges. Is the no ego that Trungpa Rinpoche talking about actually a no ego in the Christian metaphysical or mystical sense? Certainly Christian spirituality knows a great deal about the loss of self, but can we really identify that loss of self with what Buddhists are talking about? Can Fr. Keating’s reflections really be squared with our traditional understanding of the Christian mysteries?

The Ground We Share

In another dialogue between Robert Aitken, a Zen master in the tradition of Yasutani, and Brother David Steindl-Rast, recounted in The Ground We Share, Aitken asked whether Brother David believed in Aldous Huxley’s perennial experience underlying the great religious traditions. Brother David responded: "Although some people I highly respect hold that the religious traditions can’t be traced back to one universal experience, my conviction that they can has grown over the years."127 Later Aitken Roshi says: "A Buddhist cannot take metaphysics seriously because he or she knows that the truth of metaphysics is only as true as the truth of no metaphysics, while Christians, I think, tend to take metaphysics seriously. In other words, a Christian can never say there’s no such thing as Christ."128 And Brother David responds: "I’m convinced, since both traditions come from the same experiential awareness, that it must be possible for me to find this point expressed somewhere in Christianity."129 And he goes on to find an example of the negation of Christ in the idea that the cosmic Christ "will hand over the kingdom to the Father, and God, who is the silence out of which the Word came in the beginning, will be all in all. At that point, the Word returns to the Silence."130 I will leave it to the reader to determine how convincing this parallel is.

One more exchange comes close to expressing an answer to our question. Aitken Roshi: "…When Brother Peter, novice master at Our Lady of Guadalupe described his meditation to me, it sounded exactly the same as shikantaza. In fact, it is exactly the same." Brother David responds: "And that’s not an individual case. For centuries, the Church has had what we call Prayer of Silence or Prayer of Union. It’s widely practiced, especially these days. Existentially and experientially, as you rightly say, it’s the apophatic, experiential aspect of Christianity."131 Here Christian mystical experience is being identified with shikantaza or Zen’s silent sitting.

But even with these rather forthright statements, neither dialogue partner seems fully comfortable with an out and out identification between Zen and Christianity. They both realize that there is a personal dimension in Christianity that does not exist in the same way in Zen. Brother David, for example, will say: "This sense of a personal relatedness with the Ultimate is expressed in Christian terminology calling the Silence, the altogether Other, father or mother or friend or spouse or lover."132 And Aitken Roshi: "…in Christianity there’s a much warmer, personal feeling of relationship to the Ultimate than in Buddhism… The other side of the coin is the more metaphysical side – the cool side, if you will – which has been strongly developed in Buddhism and not so strongly in Christianity."133

David Hackett

This same kind of exchange, complete with the same kind of ambiguities and uncertainties, can be found in the letters of David Hackett to Thomas Keating. They were written when Hackett was a young man visiting Japan and other parts of Asia in the early 1970s. Hackett went to visit Hirata Roshi, for example, who was not enthusiastic about what he saw happening in the Zen-Christian dialogue. "Rather than deepen Christian faith, the Roshi argued, zazen may well threaten it. He was especially worried about Christian monks doing zazen and went so far as to call Father Lassalle’s Zen retreat house a "great adventure" in a negative sense." When Hackett recounted this to Heinrich Dumoulin, Dumoulin was both surprised and amused because Hirata was a friend of his, and though he respected what Hirata had to say, he thought it somewhat naïve: "Christians are now doing zazen and getting results that do not threaten but rather deepen their faith."

When Hackett visited Fr. Oshida, a Dominican who had a com munity in rural Japan that practiced zazen, Fr. Oshida thought that there were Christians who "have gone too far into Zen, so that there is a sterile feel to them. They are highly disciplined and no doubt well along on their paths, yet this closed focus on Zen – while not denying Christianity – makes them seem less joyful."134

Hackett wrote to Phra Khantipalo, an Englishman who was a Hinayana Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, and who was decidedly negative about Buddhist-Christian dialogue. "You mentioned about meditation – and I have met both with Dom Aelred and Father Merton in this connection. However, it does not seem to have been realized by these good teachers that components of one religion cannot be borrowed and grafted onto another."135 And talking about the Buddhist practice of cutting off all views, he goes on to say: "… it would mean for a Roman Catholic ceasing to believe in God, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and so on, all the dogmas on which that religion is founded… I cannot see many Christians being prepared to go so far, for if they do they can no longer be Christians."136

Later Hackett, a Catholic convert, was considering joining the Trappists and discussed his life of prayer with one of the monks: "I told Raphael that zazen was my prayer life. I did go to daily Mass and read the Gospels but practiced no other forms of prayer. Raphael asked what I did to reach God in the time between meditations. To this I admitted that I had rarely spoken to God in prayer. Rather I have trusted my meditation efforts to bring me closer to him than words might allow."137 Hackett understands Brother Raphael to be telling him he still has need of discursive forms of prayer. "Still I argued vehemently with Raphael. Why should I engage in discursive prayer if I can readily leap this initial stage and enter into the intimacy of zazen? Talking to God and doing such things as the rosary now seem so silly if I can have a far deeper experience through meditation. In a stunning reply, Raphael noted that discursive prayer must be part of the contemplative process."138

This exchange stands in contrast to an earlier passage where Hackett writes: "My hunch is that Christianity and zazen should work together much like positive and negative theology. They are like a two-stage rocket. Zen meditation is not the same as silent prayer, the infused contemplation of Christianity, if it is not driven to its heights by Christian positive theology. Christians who deny this and place extra emphasis on their zazen at the expense of scripture study and discursive prayer are perhaps not well-grounded in an open-ended positive theology or are in rebellion against a too thorough indoctrination in a narrow-minded positive theology. I imagine that it is possible for people in either instance to lose their Christian roots."139

The real issue is not how discursive forms of Christian prayer are necessary preparations for the more contemplative prayer that is done in zazen, but rather, whether zazen really should be called contemplative prayer at all, as Hackett points out. Further, infused contemplation as it has been understood in the Christian mystical tradition, is not the result of intensive meditation efforts like Zen sesshins, but rather, is a free and loving gift from God.

Modern Attempts to Renew the Christian Contemplative Life

For the most part we have been encountering Catholics who have taken up Eastern forms of meditation and brought them back to often predominately Christian audiences. But there is another dimension to this story. Some of the people deeply involved in modern attempts to renew the Christian contemplative life have been strongly influenced by Eastern forms of meditation.

Centering Prayer

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the monks of the Trappist monastery of St. Joseph in Spencer, Massachusetts, whose abbot then was Thomas Keating, were seeing young people, often Christians, who had a thirst for a deeper spiritual life that was not being satisfied within the Christian churches. And so they looked to the East. The monks, themselves, had a Zen meditation master give retreats at the Abbey, and we have seen Thomas Keating dialoguing at Naropa, exchanging letters with David Hackett, and he wrote a laudatory preface to Bernadette Roberts’ problematical attempt to extend the Christian mystical path in the direction of nonduality in her book, The Experience of No-Self, an attempt we will look at later. Keating, together with Basil Pennington, who was seriously interested in transcendental meditation, and William Messenger who had an interest in The Cloud of Unknowing, collaborated in developing what they called centering prayer, which was an attempt to reconnect with the Christian mystical tradition of not out the Cloud, but John Cassian and the desert fathers, the Cistercian tradition of prayer, as well as John of the Cross. Centering prayer, itself, was quite straight-forward. A prayer word was chosen which symbolized an inner receptivity to God’s presence and action, and the word was repeated whenever the person praying found him or herself distracted from this receptivity, and waiting upon God. Eventually centering prayer retreats developed that seemed reminiscent of Zen sesshins, or intensive Zen meditation retreats in which someone would practice centering prayer four to six hours a day.

While centering prayer is an attempt to renew the Christian mystical tradition, it is legitimate to ask not only how well it reconnects with that tradition, but more to the point here, what role Eastern forms of meditation have played in how contemplation is understood.

Keating, for example, in his response to a question about centering prayer: "Sometimes there are no thoughts. There is only my self-awareness. I don’t know whether to let go of it or be aware of it," writes: "That is a crucial question. If you are aware of no thoughts, you are aware of something and that is a thought. If at that point you can lose the awareness that you are aware of no thoughts, you will move into pure consciousness. In that state there is no consciousness of self. When your ordinary faculties come back together again, there may be a sense of peaceful delight, a good sign that you were not asleep. It is important to realize that the place to which we are going is one in which the knower, the knowing, and that which is known are all one. Awareness alone remains. The one who is aware disappears along with whatever was the object of consciousness. This is what divine union is. There is no reflection of self. The experience is temporary, but it orients you toward the contemplative state. So long as you feel united with God, it cannot be full union."140

Does this represent the authentic Christian mystical tradition? Or are we seeing a transformation in the understanding of Christian contemplation that would make it equivalent to enlightenment?141

John Main

Another modern attempt to renew the Christian contemplative life was carried out by the Benedictine monk, John Main. In his form of Christian meditation a person chooses a prayer word, and faithfully uses that word like a Christian mantra. But where did this practice come from? John Main, before he became a monk, met a Hindu guru called Swami Satyananda who taught him to use a mantra, and explained to him that in this way he could come to awareness of the Spirit of the universe that dwells in our hearts.

His Benedictine novice master told him not to use this form of meditation, but later he felt he discovered, like the advocates of centering prayer, that this practice was to be found in John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing. This led him to develop a Christian mantra-type meditation.

It is fair to ask, however, in what way this Eastern background has influenced how Christian contemplation is conceived. Is it enough, for example, to have a Christian intent in practicing this kind of mantra prayer, to turn it into a Christian contemplation? Or does the very method used tend to direct the meditation towards the goal of enlightenment? Is an assumption being made that these two goals are the same? In this particular case answering these questions is made more complex by the fact that Swami Satyananda had attended Roman Catholic schools, and had considered becoming a Christian, and so we might be dealing with a more theistic kind of Hinduism than the advaitan Vedanta we have been seeing.142

Vipassana Meditation and John of the Cross

Mary Jo Meadow and the Discalced Carmelite Kevin Culligan find that "the actual experienced practice" of John of the Cross’ Christian contemplation and the Theravadan Buddhist Vipassana meditation are "amazingly alike."143 In "Congruent Spiritual Paths" they proceed to draw out these similarities. The Buddhist insight that mental and material phenomena are void of self, or ego, is equated with John of the Cross’ first sign that is meant to mark the transition from meditation to contemplation, that is, that one cannot meditate like before. There are, indeed, certain similarities to be found here, as will become more evident when we look at the question of the loss of the affective ego, but in John of the Cross this inability to use the faculties in the best of circumstances is meant to lead to the experience of infused contemplation, which is an experience of union with God. Unfortunately, our authors do not ever really compare this kind of contem plation with Eastern enlightenment, but instead leave us with the impression that these two spiritual paths lead to the same goal.

Springs Steele in an article called "Christian Insight Meditation: A Test Case on Interreligious Spirituality"144 shows how Meadow and Culligan in their Purifying the Heart continue to identify "the endpoint of Theravadan Buddhist vipassana meditation (nibbana) and the endpoint or ultimate goal of John’s spirituality (union with God, spiritual marriage),"145 and look at the vipassana method as "ultimately neutral and thus transferable to any spiritual tradition,"146 and comments: "the ultimate consequence of the position that vipassana meditation is a non-tradition-dependent method leading to the ultimate religious end of all spiritual traditions is to render all such traditions irrelevant. If such is in fact the case, why bother trying to assimilate vipassana to John of the Cross anyway?"147

Hans Küng

The dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions demands that we ask difficult questions. They cannot be avoided, and we cannot avoid formulating these questions under the mistaken guise that to do so is somehow undiplomatic or against the spirit of true dialogue. Hans Küng in his Christianity and World Religions does not let his deep commitment to dialogue stand in his way of raising some pointed issues. He cites Winston King: "There is, in fact, an unacknowledged but functionally real "implicit self" of decidedly significant proportions right in the center of the Theravada not-self, which gives this doctrine its redeeming and enlightening meaning…"148 Küng points out that not all Buddhists have held extreme interpretations of the no-self doctrine, and "emptiness" has received a variety of interpretations.

A case can be made, as well, for giving a positive meaning to "nothingness." Küng asks: "Would it not be less misleading to say that the absolute is also absolute being, or Being Itself, that "empti ness" is also "fullness," "shunyata" is also "pleroma"?149 Later he writes, "Would it then be wholly impermissible to conclude that what Christians call "God" is present, under very different names, in Bud- dhism, insofar as Buddhists do not refuse on principle, to admit any positive statements?"150 And he goes further and points out that the distinctive character of the monotheistic religions is that God is a "partner who grounds and embraces human interpersonality."151 "Where others only heard an endless silence, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures tell of a people being addressed and claimed by its God. Where others experienced unechoing space and the void, this people was allowed to discover for itself and others that the Absolute can be heard and spoken to, that it is a mysteriously communicative and responsive Thou."152

Our questions have now taken a concrete form, and in doing so answers begin to emerge. Yet so extensive is the Buddhist-Christian dialogue that our wanderings have only taken us through a part of it. We could have looked, for example, at the work of the Irish Jesuit, William Johnston, whose long sojourn in Japan has given us a stream of books on Christian mysticism, as well as its interface with Zen Buddhism like his Mystical Theology, Letters to Contemplatives, "All and Nothing: St. John of the Cross and the Christian-Buddhist Dialogue," etc., or the work of AMA Samy, the Indian Jesuit born in Burma, whose Why did Bodhidharma Come to the West?: On the Transmission of Zen to the West which has been published in German and Dutch, but not yet in English. But we have gained enough of a sense of this dialogue, and so let's continue this process by looking at the Hindu-Christian dialogue.


1. Cf. T. Matthew Ciolek web pages.
2. Cf. Habito, Rueben, "In Memoriam: A Tribute to Yamada Koun Roshi."
3. Loy, David. "A Zen Cloud?" p. 57.
4. Ibid., p. 58-59.
5. Habito, Ruben. Total Liberation: Zen Spirituality and the Social Dimension. p. 87.
6. Ibid., p. 88-89.
7. Habito, Ruben. Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. Cf. his presentations in the three videos called Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: 1992, 1996 and 2000.
8. Ibid.
9. Habito, Ruben, Total Liberation, p. 89-90.
10. Lassalle, Hugo Enomiya. Living in the New Consciousness. p. 121-122.
11. As cited in Dumoulin, Zen in the Twentieth Century, p. 136-137.
12. Ibid., p. 137.
13. Lassalle, Hugo Enomiya. Zen Meditation for Christians. p. 44.
14. Jäger, Willigis. The Way to Contemplation. p. 24.
15. Ibid., p. 25.
16. Ibid., p. 38.
17. Ibid., p. 67.
18. Ibid., p. 70.
19. Jäger, Willigis, Contemplation: A Christian Path. p. 3.
20. Ibid., p. 92.
21. Jäger, Willigis. Search for the Meaning of Life, p. 5.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid., p. 6.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid., p. 14.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid., p. 32.
28. Ibid., p. 43.
29. Ibid., p. 57.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid., p. 62.
32. Ibid., p. 73.
33. Ibid., p. 84.
34. Ibid., p. 240.
35. Ibid., p. 241.
36. Ibid.
37. MacInnes, Elaine. Light Sitting in Light: A Christian’s Experience in Zen., p. xiii.
38. Ibid., p. 25.
39. Ibid., p. 15.
40. Ibid., p. 41.
41. Ibid., p. 77.
42. Ibid., p. 15.
43. Ibid., p. 24.
44. Ibid., p. 105.
45. Ibid.
46. Ibid., p. 113.
47. Hawk, Patrick, "The Pathless Path," p. 129.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid., p. 131.
50. Ibid.
51. Chwen Jiuan Agnes Lee and Thomas Hand, A Taste of Water: Christianity Through Taoist-Buddhist Eyes, p. 2-3.
52. Ibid., p. 3.
53. Ibid., p. 12.
54. Ibid., p. 41-42.
55. Ibid., p. 54.
56. Ibid., p. 63.
57. Ibid., p. 72.
58. Ibid., p. 74.
59. Ibid., p. 86.
60. Ibid., p. 98.
61. Ibid., p. 149.
62. Ibid., p. 148-149.
63. Ibid., p. 149.
64. Hand, Thomas. Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. Cf. the presentations of both Thomas Hand and Chwen Jiuan Agnes Lee in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Boston 1992.
65. Kennedy, Robert E. Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life, p. 11. Cf. also his presentation in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Boston 1992.
66. Ibid., p. 13.
67. Ibid., p. 16.
68. Ibid., p. 39.
69. Ibid., p. 36-37.
70. Ibid., p. 68-71.
71. Ibid., p. 86.
72. Ibid., p. 86-87.
73. Ibid., p. 87.
74. Ibid., p. 95.
75. Ibid.
76. Habito, Maria Reis. Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Tacoma, 2000.
77. Corless, Roger. Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue.
78. Sharf, Robert. "Sanbokyodan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions."
79. Ibid., p. 427-428.
80. Ibid., p. 436.
81. Ibid., p. 437.
82. Lachs, Stuart. "Coming Down From the Zen Clouds."
83. Sharf, Robert. "Sanbokyodan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions," p. 440.
84. Ibid.
85. Yamada, Koun. "Zazen and Christianity. "
86. Nugent, Christopher. (May 1993) "Satori in St. John of the Cross."
87. Merton, Thomas. Springs of Contemplation, p. 177.
88. Ibid, p. 183.
89. The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, p. 438.
90. Ibid., p. 439.
91. Ibid., p. 438-439.
92. Ibid., p. 439.
93. Merton, Thomas. "The Inner Experience. Notes on Contemplation" in three parts, in Cistercian Studies, p. 7.
94. Ibid., p. 9-10.
95. Merton, Thomas. (1968) Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 42.
96. Ibid., p. 43.
97. Ibid., p. 80.
98. King, Thomas. Merton, Mystic at the Heart of America, p. 42.
99. Ibid.
100. Ibid., p. 44.
101. Ibid., p. 45.
102. Mitchell, Donald. Spirituality and Emptiness, p. 61.
103. Ibid., p. 62.
104. Ibid., p. 66.
105. Ibid., p. 24.
106. Ibid., p. 25.
107. Ibid.
108. Ibid., p. 26.
109. Mitchell, Donald. Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue..
110. Jonas, Robert. Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. Cf. his presentation in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Action: Tacoma 2000.
111. Grob, James. Blossoms of Silence.
112. Dumoulin, Heinrich. A History of Zen Buddhism, p. 282.
113. Ibid., p. 284.
114. Ibid., p. 287.
115. Ibid., p. 288.
116. Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 2, p. 244.
117. Ibid., p. 245.
118. Waldenfels, Hans. Absolute Nothingness: Foundations for a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, p. 141.
119. Okumura, Ichiro. "Zen and Christianity: Memories of My Conversion", p. 98.
120. Ibid., p. 100. Cf. Okumura's Awakening to Prayer.
121. Kadowaki, Kakichi, S.J. "Ways of Knowing: A Buddhist-Thomist Dialogue," pp. 574-595.
122. Kadowaki, Kakichi, S.J. Zen and the Bible: A Priest’s Experience, p. 9.
123. Ibid., p. 89.
124. Walker, Susan, editor. Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way, p. 147.
125. Ibid., p. 148.
126. Ibid., p. 168-169.
127. Aitken, Robert and David Steindl-Rast. The Ground We share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian, p. 3-4.
128. Ibid., p. 20.
129. Ibid.
130. Ibid.
131. Ibid., p. 23-24.
132. Ibid., p. 36.
133. Ibid., p. 37.
134. Hackett, David. G. The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Abbot, p. 74.
135. Ibid., p. 105.
136. Ibid., p. 105-106.
137. Ibid., p. 151-152.
138. Ibid., p. 152.
139. Ibid., p. 91.
140. Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 73-74.
141. See the discussion in From St. John of the Cross to Us, pp. 205-211, and also the web discussion on centering prayer at
142. See the web discussion on John Main's Christian meditation at
143. Meadow, Mary Jo. "Congruent Spiritual Paths" p. 181.
144. Steele, Springs. "Christian Insight Meditation: A Test Case on Interreligious Spirituality," pp. 217-229.
145. Ibid., p. 219.
146. Ibid., p. 226.
147. Ibid.
148. Küng, Hans. Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, p. 383.
149. Ibid., p. 389.
150. Ibid., p. 392.
151. Ibid., p. 398.
152. Ibid.



Chapter 2