God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Part III: Zen Between Metaphysics and Mysticism

Chapter 7: A Mystical Metaphysics


Zen has come to the West to stay, and it brings the treasure it has amassed for more than a thousand years to a world in dire need of spiritual help. But it is a world with its own traditions of the interior life, and so a meeting becomes inevitable between Zen and Christian mysticism. And I have especially in mind that current of Christian mysticism that has been shaped and developed by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

Yet such a meeting, inevitable though it may be, can take place at different levels. On the first level there is a sense of defensiveness and apprehension. On a higher level there is the recognition that we have much in common. Both sides realize they are talking to men and women like themselves, and they look for points of contact and convergence. On a still higher level the discussion focuses on differences, not in the defensive way of the first level, but with a genuine desire to see the truth. This is a difficult level to sustain, for it means a painful probing of ourselves and just what the other person is saying, but it holds the promise of yielding genuine mutual understanding and cooperation.

I have already discussed what Zen enlightenment looks like from the point of view of the metaphysics of St. Thomas. Let us say that this was a step towards describing the inner nature or essence of enlightenment. But the exploration of this inner nature must be completed by an examination of the actual existential state of Zen. Why does Zen pursue other goals than those of the metaphysics of St. Thomas? The intuition of being, and the whole metaphysics of St. Thomas, grew up within Christianity. In fact, while it remains a metaphysics in nature, could it ever have developed outside the embrace of Christianity, outside the existential context of Christianity? If we look at Maritain, it was faith that set the corner posts of his spirit within which his metaphysical understanding flourished. But one of the consequences of this is that metaphysics often remained under the sway of theology, and the intuition of being remained swallowed up in the higher lights of the spirit. The intuition of being was a stage on the road to faith, theology and mystical experience. The metaphysical perception that God exists immediately makes the question of the self-revelation more acute for anyone growing up in a Christian world. The impetus of the intuition of being is spent propelling the spirit into the realm of faith instead of being used to make the intuition itself more conscious. This seems the best explanation for the rarity of explicit testimony about it in the West.

But what of Zen? What would happen to men and women seized by the same thirst and desire for meaning and the Absolute that is in all people which Christians believe is a supernatural calling to divine sonship - but in a setting without explicit revelation? Is it not possible that these longings, both metaphysical and supernatural, would track the spoor of existence in all things, especially within the human subject, and pursue it with a preternatural strength, not to create a metaphysics in the conceptual sense, but to turn this metaphysics into a vehicle to assuage this mystical longing for the Absolute? Then all concepts would appear too weak and ineffectual and ought to be sacrificed for that one goal which is beyond all else, that emptiness which is fullness which they longed to embrace. Then we no longer have a metaphysics in the Thomistic sense, but a mystical metaphysics or a metaphysical mysticism. We have something that is metaphysical in nature but mystical in context.

What do we really mean when we say Zen is mystical in context? It means that all people live in the same world. God's invitation to the life of grace, to sharing in His own life, is extended to all. This grace is actually operative in every life whether the person knows about Christian revelation or not. In actual fact there is no simply natural destiny. No man is called to a purely natural end, and while it is certainly possible and important to distinguish the natural end of man from the supernatural one, in the very world we live in we are called to the life of grace. And this calling is not a simple word, a theory or doctrine. It enters our hearts to make us feel a longing and loneliness that goes beyond the simple exigencies of our nature. So, from a Christian point of view, the Buddhist experience of sickness, old age and death is not only a natural consequence of the nature of man, but it is a sign of the world in need of redemption, a sign of man called to union with the Absolute. Christians cannot look at Zen as a purely natural artifact. It is the creation of men destined to a supernatural end. It is the work of men and women thirsting for salvation and the Absolute. It is the creation of men suffering pain and anguish and the apparent meaninglessness of the world and striving with all their energy to find a solution. This impulse cannot be distinguished from the pain and suffering in the Christian heart. But without the explicit guidance of Christian faith, and therefore bereft of the means faith proposes, it had nowhere to turn but to turn in upon itself. It conceived the most radical act that human nature was capable of. It took hold of our very self, that reality with the highest ontological density in this world. It saw human consciousness as the doorway to the Ultimate, and being unsatisfied with all the words and concepts, all the elaboration of doctrines that could spring from the human spirit, it conceived in a moment of tremendous insight to leave all these words behind and to explore this spirit to its roots. Put in another way, it caught that scent of existence and pursued it at the cost of all particular things. And what was the driving force of such a radical effort but a thirst that went beyond the normal and natural desires of a spirit united with a body and knowing through ideas? Zen, penetrated by mystical desires, took up metaphysics and pushed it, not to its natural culmination, which would be the intuition of being, but beyond, to a preternatural union with esse. If it is natural in the sense that it remains within the boundaries of human reason and looks to human effort to attain to enlightenment, and thus is not the work of grace, this whole process is driven by a thirst identical to that which Christians assuage in mysticism. Thus Zen, in its own way, fulfills the demands of the Gospel in which a man has to lose his life in order to find it, to forsake all things in order to find the pearl of great price or the treasure in the field. In Zen there is a sacrifice of thoughts and ego awareness. The difficult road leading from normal self-awareness to its very sources is a thoroughgoing asceticism of the mind. The ordinary experience in which we experience that we are becomes the doorway in which we enter to discover what that that is.

Zen appears, then, as one of the most dramatic attempts to respond to the call of grace using the resources of human nature and a preternatural energy to leave behind all in order to find All. Out of the resources of human nature alone, it cannot break the barrier between nature and grace, but living in a world called to grace, and without any way to articulate this grace as grace, it goes beyond what human nature in itself would conceive. It turns human nature inside out and pursues the obscure experience of existence given in the heart of human awareness to its ultimate conclusion, to the very esse of the soul, which is receiving the divine creative influx. Therefore, it would be a mistake if we think it is possible to extract the Zen out of Zen Buddhism as if to be left with a Zen philosophy or a non-religious Zen. Zen is not religious by nature like Christianity; it is natural and metaphysical. But it is shot through by religious and mystical longings, and in this way becomes a symbol of grace. (1)

Viewing Zen as a mystical metaphysics helps understand some of the difficulties that Christians have in knowing what to compare it with in their own tradition. Unfortunately, for too many Christians metaphysics is something to be avoided. Therefore, discounting metaphysics, they try to compare Zen with Christian mysticism or contemplation. And this is difficult, for contemplation has several different meanings.


From a Christian point of view we can distinguish three kinds of contemplation: a philosophical or metaphysical one, an infused or mystical or supernatural contemplation, and an active or acquired contemplation. If we briefly outline them, then we can compare them with Zen.

First, there is, however little noticed, a philosophical contemplation which is the result of metaphysical insights. If we imagine the intuition of being not only attained, but sustained and developed by conceptual elaboration and a long-term effort to deepen this central insight, then we have some idea of what a philosophical contemplation would be like, and its center will be a contemplation of God by negation, that is, a realization that God is beyond all the essences we can grasp. This kind of philosophical contemplation, allied with a natural love of God, can be a strong and beautiful experience. (2) In it the mind rises from created things and senses the darkness in which God dwells. We raise our minds to God as the source of all existence, for He is existence itself. But this contemplation does not grasp God directly. It is not spiritual vision. It knows by analogy, for it reasons from what exists in creatures to what must exist in God without delivering God to us. Philosophical contemplation is rooted in concepts even while pursuing their ultimate root. It tries to fathom their ultimate implications. If this philosophical contemplation were to be exercised within the context of Christian faith and the life of prayer, it would gain overtones of intimacy because by faith the Christian realizes that the God hidden in this darkness speaks through Jesus Christ. But in itself philosophical contemplation is a work of human reason and the culmination of metaphysics as a human science.

The second kind of contemplation is infused contemplation, or mystical experience. This is the contemplation that belongs properly to the life of faith itself. It is the fruition of the life of faith in this life, and is an actual experience of God dwelling in the soul. This experience takes place through love. This love or supernatural charity becomes the very means by which we experience God. Infused contemplation goes beyond concepts and discursive reasoning. They are swallowed up in the night, but this night is not simply a night of the absence of concepts. It is a night caused by the dawning of the contemplative experience itself which, like the sun, blots out the stars of human concepts with its excessive light. This kind of contemplation is the contemplation that the Christian saints speak about, especially John of the Cross. (3) In it they have the certitude of God's presence, at least when the experience grows sufficiently strong. They are aware that they are not exercising their faculties of intellect, memory and will, but are receiving this experience passively. And while infused contemplation can be accompanied by visions and revelations, it is distinct from them. In fact, John of the Cross is as adamant as any Zen master that these phenomena should be ignored lest they distract the soul. It is love that co-natures the spirit with God, unites it with God, and when the love is strong enough and the circumstances suitable, it overflows into a perceptible experience of God's presence.

We have scrutinized the relationship of a metaphysical contemplation founded on the intuition of being to Zen and seen, while it is a vital point of comparison, Zen goes beyond this kind of contemplation by actually achieving some kind of experience of the Absolute. But is it, then, a contemplation similar to the infused contemplation of John of the Cross? No. D.T. Suzuki in a number of places has pointed out how Zen differs from Christian mysticism. Zen does not deal consciously with God or union with Him or the experience of that union. It is not a knowledge through love, but a natural metaphysical knowledge working through a connaturality, to be sure, but a connaturality of emptiness, not union. For this reason it is much easier for a student of Zen to feel at home with the writings of Meister Eckhart than John of the Cross.

The third kind of contemplation that Christians sometimes speak about is called active or acquired contemplation. (4) The life of prayer has two main divisions: the first is active prayer or meditation. This is the use of the senses, imagination, intellect, will and memory to draw close to God. It takes various forms such as formal meditation where a scene is pictured, reasoned about, and leads to affective resolutions. Or simpler forms in which aspirations play a larger role and conceptual activity is diminished. The other main division of the life of prayer is infused contemplation, or the passive mystical experience we have just been discussing. Meditation in the wide sense is the use of the human intellect and will to understand and love God, and though the Christian believes that these activities are elevated by grace, they are also exercised whenever the person desires. They are under human control. Contemplation, on the other hand, is passively received, and the saints always emphasize its gift-like qualities and assert that no one can raise themselves up to contemplation by their own efforts.


It is clear that neither discursive meditation nor infused contemplation is Zen-like. The first makes use of concepts while the second is not something we can do on our own initiative. Both its object and mode of reception are gifts. But what if there were a Christian contemplation that was do-able, that is, neither discursive nor infused? Then such a contemplation would be a potential Christian counterpart to Zen. If we look at the history of Christian spirituality in the West, the most likely candidate for such a role is what is known as active or acquired contemplation. (5) It is an attempt to formulate a new stage in the life of prayer, a new contemplation that could be actively exercised by people moderately advanced in the spiritual life. The rationale behind it is straight-forward. The beginning of the life of prayer employs images and reasoning, and concludes with loving aspirations and affective resolutions. But as beginners become accustomed to employing the natural faculties of imagination, intellect, will and memory, they often reach a point where this kind of active praying brings less internal profit. Then a process of simplification sets in in which they concentrate on those aspects of their prayer which they feel have the greatest life in them. It may be a question of spending more time in making acts of love of God or in the realization that God surpasses all images and concepts, and thus dwells in a darkness we desire to enter to be with Him.

The creators of acquired contemplation turn this natural process of simplification into a contemplation in which a person would rest in God by faith without images and concepts. They would let all discursive activity fall in silence so that this union with God by faith might take over possession of the soul. In short, they wished to exercise as active not-doing so that the very emptiness and night they put themselves in would become filled with the plenitude of God Who is beyond all concepts.

At first glance it seems like we have remarkable parallels to many aspects of Zen, and thus acquired contemplation holds the promise of being a Christian Zen, or a Zen exercise for Christians. Unfortunately, this is not true. And why it is not true will become clear if we briefly look at the history of acquired contemplation. (I have examined this history more at length in St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung).

Acquired contemplation was first developed directly in the aftermath of the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, the two great Carmelite saints who raised mystical experience to a new plateau of self-awareness. St. John, in particular, took special care to describe the beginning of the life of contemplation, the transition between meditation and contemplation, and in doing so he laid down three signs by which a person could know whether it was time to leave the discursive prayer of meditation with its images, thoughts, and aspirations, and enter into infused contemplation. The first sign was an inability to meditate. The second was an evaluation that this inability did not come from distraction, dissipation, lukewarmness or psychological difficulties, and the third and most critical sign was that the beginning of the prayer of infused and passive contemplation was somehow making itself felt even though it could not be conceptualized or grasped discursively, and thus the soul would appear engaged in some strange sort of not-doing. (6)

After the writings of St. John and St. Teresa appeared, people seriously engaged in the life of prayer felt compelled to ask themselves: "Am I a contemplative?" And when they experienced a simplification of the discursive beginning of prayer it was natural for them to try to understand their predicament in the light of his teaching. They faced a real and serious problem. They were devoted to the life of prayer, and now their ability to pray was disappearing. What were they going to do? So when St. John said the first sign was the inability to pray, they took heart. Then they looked at the second sign which said this disability did not come from their own imperfections or from psychological causes. Here they examined their lives and could honestly say they could think of no obstacle that they had put in the way. They were devout and sincere. Nor could they see themselves as under the influence of any sort of psychological disease. Thus, they felt the second sign was confirmed. As for the third sign, which in St. John was the actual beginning of the experience of passive contemplation, this was not present. If it had been, then these formulators of acquired contemplation would have had no need to formulate it at all. They simply would have experienced a growing presence of infused contemplation, and that would have more than contented them. No. It was precisely because they did not experience the contemplation that St. Teresa and St. John talked about that they had the need to create another kind. They went back to St. John's writings and read them through the tinted glasses of their own needs. In the subtle and delicate descriptions of how contemplation tries to enter the spirit and is hindered because the person praying knows no other way to conduct himself except by the use of his faculties, in these descriptions the creators of acquired contemplation discovered something that was not there at all. St. John spoke in great detail of the need to leave behind all the products of discursive reason, for none of them could be the proximate means of union with God. He talked of the need of detachment from the senses, from the imagination, from the various kinds of understanding, as well as from the acts of the will and memory. But he always did so from the perspective that the new contemplative experience was dawning and would be hindered by the exercise of discursive activity. The creators of acquired contemplation took these descriptions and turned them into active means of attaining contemplation. They would stop all discursive activity and be left with naked faith. They would strip away all the human activity, and in doing so, attain to the contemplative experience.

Thus the scene is set for one of the more fascinating experiments in the history of the spiritual life. Would acquired contemplation actually serve as a proximate preparation for infused contemplation? And if we examine these attempts at creating a new stage in the life of prayer, is it possible to see a Christian counterpart to Zen experience?

Although acquired contemplation sprang up in the wake of St. John's writings and soon declared him as its father, St. John knew nothing of such a contemplation. It cannot be found in his writings. He knew of no middle way between meditation and infused contemplation. Its most notable practitioners appear not to have been successful in using it as a bridge to infused contemplation, but instead, gradually began to attach to this active contemplation the very qualities St. John attributed to the infused. They inadvertently made themselves into "contemplatives" by transforming, even deforming, the nature of contemplation. They imagined that intuition could be separate and free from all discursive activity and be maintained as a spiritual sight that could fix itself on God, and in the more extreme cases, could stay fixed on Him as long as the intent or desire for this union remained. Faith was no longer working in and through the natural faculties. Rather, in order to purify it, they stripped all this natural working away. But without the special activation of a supernatural mode of operating, this faith was deprived of both natural and supernatural ways of working. With an intuitive gaze of faith they lifted their minds and hearts to God, but failed to see how discursive and individual acts were necessary to nourish this intuition. The result was that the more they tried to live by naked faith without discursive activity, without concepts, images and aspirations, the more they entered a void. On the psychological level this interior attitude formed a vacuum that excited the unconscious which tried to fill it with images and affects. And the more purely "spiritual" this attitude was, the more it called forth counter-balancing sensual disturbances. Acquired contemplation through the course of the 17th century became more clearly delineated and more untenable psychologically, and was more intimately connected with the Quietism that culminated in the excesses of Miguel Molinos.

Acquired contemplation, then, failed to lead to the mystical life, and not only that, in its extreme form it led to a distrust of mysticism by way of reaction that we still experience. Even when it did not follow its interior logic to the end, it fostered a lack of psychological realism and created a smoke screen that has helped prevent a practical reevaluation of contemplation in the life of prayer. There is no doubt that the simplification of prayer represents a major milestone and problem in the life of prayer. But to imagine it can be met by a contemplative "activity" is to use the word contemplation in two vastly different ways. For St. John all the activity we can freely exercise belongs under the generic heading of meditation. Contemplation takes place in a passive way. Today we still maintain the ambiguous language of acquired contemplation, and this prevents us from seeing the real contemplative crisis that Christians face. Just how often does contemplation in the sense St. John describes it appear? We are certainly interested in contemplation, but how much do we really know about it by experience? If the life of prayer has an inner tendency to simplify itself, does this mean that this is a call to contemplation, or simply a call to simplified activity? In short, a renewal of the spiritual life will demand a careful scrutiny of the role contemplation should play and the prerequisite for this examination is a clarification of vocabulary.

But what has this to do with Zen? First of all, how can Christians compare contemplation with Zen if the word remains vague or even equivocal? And how can we compare the contemplative experience to Zen enlightenment if we have no experience?

The problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that living the Christian life does not depend on the experience of contemplation. It demands faith and love, and these can give us a sense of what their flowering in contemplation would be like, and how this experience would differ from Zen enlightenment. Nonetheless, we face a serious problem in recovering the sense of contemplation found in the Carmelite founders and understanding it adequately, and adding to it our own age's psychological resources.

But let's go on to the second part of the experiment of acquired contemplation. Did some of its creators in voiding all conceptual thought stumble on a Zen-like state? A fully adequate answer would demand a careful scrutiny of the works of men like Thomas of Jesus, Antonio Rojas, Juan Falconi and so forth, but my initial impression is that they did not. They might not have even stopped all discursive activity, for did they not maintain an attitude of interior expectancy, an inner turning of the mind and heart which reached in the darkness for the experience of contemplation? They had neither the guidance of a master nor the support of a community to fortify them. Instead, in the worst of cases, they suffered the onslaught from the unconscious, the feeling that the devil was in possession of the lower regions of the soul and made war on the life of prayer carried on in the soul's center. And in the best of cases, if this void had yielded for a moment its secret, would they have been able to understand it? Or would these flashes of Zen have been caught up in the framework of Christian theology and have left us a hybrid of the mysticism of the void in Christian dress?

But if acquired contemplation did not come to Zen - it would probably be easier to look to Meister Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics for traces, or The Cloud of Unknowing - can Zen come to our aid in the creation of a genuine acquired contemplation? Could the stopping of all discursive activity become an actual step beyond meditation and a preparation for contemplation? This is part of a broader issue about the use of Zen in the life of prayer.

There is no doubt that the spirit of Zen can strengthen the life of prayer much like it can aid the cultivation of the intuition of being. Its sense of quiet, nature, interior discipline and devoted communal effort are all valuable aids in the life of prayer. And if Zen could fortify our metaphysical sense, then this, too, would have favorable repercussions.

But what of Zen as Zen enlightenment? It is not the intuition of being, nor is it infused contemplation. Can it be a genuine acquired "contemplation", a more radical elimination of all conceptual thought? If this process of negation were directly aimed at infused contemplation, it would fall into the same errors that acquired contemplation did. The void of all concepts can be the connatural means to enlightenment, for the esse of the soul is present in the soul, for it is the soul. It can be uncovered, as it were, for it is the natural bedrock of the spirit. But God as an object of union in love is not present in the same way. This union is a gift that exceeds all the natural exigencies of the soul. The elimination of concepts will not inevitably bring it to light. There is no natural technique, however radical, that will bring us to divine union.

This still leaves the possibility that Zen could be used as part of the active ascetical preparation which helps fit the soul for the reception of divine union, or it could conceivably be employed to quiet the spirit when the faint beginnings of union come and the temptation remains to employ discursive activity.

St. John writes of the active preparation to enter the night of sense, that one should seek:

"not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing." (7)


"In order to arrive at possessing everything,

Desire to possess nothing.

In order to arrive at being everything,

Desire to be nothing.

In order to arrive at knowing everything,

Desire to know nothing." (8)

And in a certain way Zen could be an aid in pursuing this nothing, despite the differences between the nothing of Zen and the nada or nothing of St. John. But such a use of Zen would transform Zen, for it would be animated by a desire for divine union which transcends the desire for enlightenment. This brings us to the larger question of the inner possibilities that exist as the meeting of Zen and Christianity proceeds.


  1. The relationship between Zen and Christianity evokes the theological horizon of the distinctions between nature and grace in which the same distinctions between the essential and the existential can be applied.
  2. See Maritain's "Pas de savoir sans intuitivité" in Approches, p. 413.
  3. See a short summary of the beginning of the contemplative life in St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung, Chapter 3, by Arraj.
  4. Ibid., Chapter 5.
  5. Ibid., Chapters 3, 4 and 5.
  6. Ibid., p. 68ff.
  7. St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, p. 70.
  8. Ibid., p. 72.



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