From West to East and Back in a New Way
Letter # 1
In 1968 San Francisco was a bustling marketplace of spirituality with many different groups: Ramakrisna, Meher Baba, Russian Orthodox, Sufi... and Japanese Zen.
After getting out of the U.S. Navy and being in a state of almost constant emotional stress - not helped by years of reading philosophy - I went to San Francisco to study Zen.
From the first moment I entered the San Francisco Zen Center's old Bush Street zendo I knew I was home. The deep spiritual atmosphere of stillness and utter sincerity was alive in the dark halls of this old building.
In the next days I met the most decent, whole, peaceful, and compassionate people I have ever encountered: Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Master, and Dainin Katagiri, Zen teacher.
Over these many years I have continued the daily meditation they taught me called zazen. But fully committing myself to any- thing else Buddhist was always a problem. Something deep within me never felt at home in a Buddhist context. Many of the sutras and teachings were not comforting or encouraging to me. I kept coming back to Christianity, particularly the Russian Orthodox tradition.
So now more than ever I feel drawn to try to walk daily in my heart the way Christ did, choosing over and over again to let go of self-interest and just respond to all beings from the deep heart's core, a place beyond human speculation and effort. Dare I say what resides in this "place?" But from it one tastes freedom, peace, great compassion and tenderness, wisdom, and even bliss. Suffering still exists, but one explores it from new angles.
I am looking for a Christian prayer connection to support this new movement toward a more silent type of Christian meditation.
Letter #2: 1 was baptized and confirmed in a mainline Protestant denomination, but had a conversion experience as a teenager which let me into a more conservative evangelical denomination. I had intended to become a minister, but after starting college found that I could no longer believe in most traditional Christian doctrines and eventually became an atheist. This spiritual crisis was my own "dark night of the soul," and I came to feel that Western religion in general and Christianity in particular had absolutely nothing to offer. I began to study Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, and one night in a state of extreme anxiety had an experience in which everything suddenly "made sense" - not in a rational and intellectual way, but in a spiritual and intuitive way. Influenced no doubt by what I had been reading, I associated all intellectual paradoxes I had been anxious about with Buddhist koans and the mystical experience which followed with Buddhist enlightenment.
Eventually I had the opportunity to come to Japan and I spent three years actively studying Zen and practicing meditation at a Buddhist temple near my house. During this period I think I was able to make a lot of progress spiritually and increasingly felt that spirituality had more to do with direct experience than with doctrines, creeds, or ideas. Yet as my practice continued I came to feel that I was concentrating too much on my own inner experience and not enough on love and compassion for others. I had also become familiar enough with Buddhism to see that, just like Christianity, it had certain shortcomings, at least in the way it was actually practiced. Buddhism seemed strong on inner spiritual development, but weak on social concern, whereas Christianity seemed the reverse. After three years I left the Buddhist temple and have since been active on social and political issues, particularly in the environmental movement.
Even though I remain deeply appreciative of what Buddhism has taught me, I am now trying to find a way to return to my Christian roots. I am aware that this is partly a cultural phenomenon for me. Having lived in Japan for fourteen years, Eastern religions no longer strike me as exotic, and I have come to appreciate certain strengths in the Western tradition which I had previously overlooked. I spent a great deal of time reading back through the history of Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was nothing I had learned from Buddhism that I could not find parallels for in the Christian tradition. It's a stereotype to say that the East has a monopoly on intuitive insights while the West is all rationalism and empiricism. I was also helped immensely by reading William Johnston's books on Christian Zen and Western mysticism, and have had the opportunity to talk with him personally since he also lives here in Tokyo.
I am aware, as your newsletter mentions, that the contemplative tradition has "fared poorly" in the West, and was equally disturbed to learn from my readings in church history that mysticism has been not just neglected, but often actively suppressed by institutional churches (of various denominations). Most churches continue to insist on conformity to certain religious doctrines, external forms of ecclesiastical authority, and/or a literal interpretation of scripture, all of which I find problematic. My own experience has been to rely on the inner leading of the spirit (which manifests itself in outward deeds of love), but most churches still seem caught up in externalities. As a result I have not yet really been able to find a church where I truly feel at home. It is still impossible for me to believe in many traditional doctrines, but I think I have found something far more important - a spirituality based on direct experience and a personal encounter with the divine.
Still, I think there needs to be a complete rethinking of traditional theology from a mystical, rather than a dogmatic, point of view. There seems to be a real tension, for example, between an adherence to the traditional theological formulations of the ecumenical councils and the apophatic tradition in mystical theology which holds that no human statements about God can ever be regarded as entirely true. There are also problems, I feel, when following ecclesiastical authority, or the Bible is placed on a higher plane than following the Holy Spirit. Mystics have always been in conflict with institutional religion, but hopefully we are past the time when genuinely creative work in mystical theology is regarded as heresy and mystics are burned at the stake!
Comment: These heart-felt letters pose important and difficult questions. In both we see the great benefits that were derived from Buddhist meditation at a time when the Western Christian churches were, for the most part, remiss in teaching about the Christian mystical tradition. This turn to the East has been repeated over and over again in our times, and the zendos of America have many former and even practicing Christians.
But these letters point to a less common phenomenon, or at least it has been less common up until now: a desire to return in some way to Christianity. This is a sign, I hope, of a new level of maturity in the East-West dialogue. Christianity has its own vital inner traditions which are meant to lead to union with God. The East-West dialogue need not be a oneway street when it comes to interior practice, nor do we have to assume that both traditions are talking about the same thing in different words. Unfortunately, a sense of adventure that comes from actively following an interior path has been absent too often in the Christian churches, and this poses a grave problem for those who are trying in some way to return to Christianity. Where are they to go? Do we tell them to sit in the pews of churches where Christians often sit silently enduring instead of finding the help they need in order to go along their way? Yet, can they find a genuine return to Christianity without some kind of solid connection to a living Christian community?
Is this to say, as one letter asks, that there is a tension not only between the Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation, and the human failure to safeguard that tradition in the churches, but also a deeper one between the mystical way and dogma? I don't think that this is so even though theology has often become overacademic and been so long divorced from spirituality. In light of the failure of the Christian churches to cherish their spiritual traditions, it is now becoming popular to point the finger at dogma as one of the culprits. But the real problem is not dogma properly understood, but dogma which is passed on in a mechanical fashion as some kind of end in itself which must be accepted, but not thought about. This misunderstanding of dogma rests, in turn, on a misunderstanding of both faith and theology. Faith has been too often treated as something that is opposed to understanding, and we are left with the feeling that Christians dare not think. That is nonsense. We should say, rather, with St. Augustine, "Love the intellect greatly!" Theology is meant to be a vigorous use of the intellect. In the context of the Forum, for example, we need to use our minds to the utmost to reflect on our interior journeys and help lay the foundations for a renewed Christian spirituality.
But this use of the intellect is not meant to degenerate into sterile debates. The mind in theology ought to be guided and nourished by faith which, in turn, is guided and nourished by love so that the outcome will be a reflection on the Christian mysteries that will inspire and nourish us in our interior lives because it will give us a glimpse about what the inner journey is all about and where it is heading.
Faith is not meant to stop at words about the divine mysteries, but rather, it rests, as St. Thomas says, in the mysteries themselves. If the heart of theology is faith, then it, too, must do the same thing, and when we take up such a perspective much of the tension between the dogmatic and the mystical begins to melt away. The rest will disappear if we realize that dogma, taken in the highest sense, is the privileged self-reflection of the Church, itself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trying to fathom the mystery of Christ. Then dogmas are rightly seen as windows through which we can catch a glimpse of the divine mystery, a mystery that is living in our hearts and is the goal of the Christian inner journey. The very mystery of the indwelling of the Trinity that we approach within is the same mystery that we are meant to draw close to without through dogma and theological reflections upon it.