Why Zen? Talks at Grey Heron Zen

Why Zen?

Zen arose within Buddhism, but it is not confined to Buddhism.  The word ‘zen’ means meditation, and meditation is for people of any and every religious persuasion.  Meditation is part of Christian tradition too, of course, as it is part of every serious religious tradition.  To ask which religion it belongs to is like asking which country water comes from.  It belongs everywhere.  So why bother at all with Zen if meditation is part of Christian tradition?  The reason is that Zen is utterly clear and rigorous and practical about it, providing a structure that at once supports and challenges one’s efforts.  There are now several Zen masters in the world who are Christian – including Catholic priests and Sisters and lay people, and in a special place of prominence for our group, our own Fr Robert Kennedy SJ.  His books, Zen Gifts to Christians and Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit are accessible and immensely helpful.  

Zen may sound ‘alien’ to some, an illegal immigrant sneaking into the Church.  But just think: most of the sciences that we take for granted – mathematics, logic, astronomy, philosophy, medicine, etc. – originated in ancient pagan Greece.  Nobody has a problem with this; it doesn’t bother people that most of the basic thoughts in their minds are shaped by Aristotle and Plato.  Likewise, Christians who practise Zen are not taking leave of their faith, but attempting to deepen it by using the sharpness and precision of Zen practice to cut through egocentric habits of thought that prevent entry into depth. 

In Zen and the Birds of Appetite Thomas Merton (+1968) wrote, ‘We in the West, living in a tradition of stubborn ego-centred practicality and geared entirely for the use and manipulation of everything, always pass from one thing to another, from cause to effect, from the first to the next and to the last and then back to the first.  Everything always points to something else, and hence we never stop anywhere because we cannot….  Nothing is allowed just to be and to mean itself: everything has to signify something else.  Zen is especially designed to frustrate the mind that thinks in such terms.’

To allow everything ‘to be and to mean itself’ is to enter into depth, to contemplate.  This is not a journey – ‘passing from one thing to another’ – but rather a cessation of movement.  Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century Dominican,  described his ‘way’ as ‘a pathless path’ – a phrase that instantly recalls Zen.  ‘To study the Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self!’ wrote Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century founder of the Soto Zen school.   ‘Begin with yourself, and abandon yourself,” said Meister Eckhart, though he had certainly never heard of Dogen or Zen.  It is easy to make too much of such coincidences of expression, but for a growing number of people Eckhart is a providential bridge to Zen: Zen writings don’t appear so strange after you have been with Eckhart for a long time; and Eckhart doesn’t seem strange to people familiar with Zen.  Back across the bridge can flow all the practical wisdom and experience of Zen, to enrich the practice of the Christian life, to remind Christians of things they had forgotten, and to restore them to the full depth of what they are. 

In today’s complex world many people have some knowledge and experience of different spiritual paths, and Christians are challenged to connect these to the great tradition. It was the genius of St. Dominic to make connections rather than disconnections. In this Centre, in our modest way, we try to be a meeting place where strangers meet and learn from one another and become friends. “My feet are planted in the ground of faith, but my arms are wide open.”

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