There’s so many religious/spiritual traditions, so much variety, so many ways of taking that journey! If you are so inclined, it is like the proverbial kid in the candy store—everything looks so inviting. But most serious spiritual teachers will tell you to get rooted in one particular tradition, to be a serious practitioner of one way. What you really don’t want is to dabble in several traditions, taste here, taste there, and so on. Also, what you really don’t want are these “self-constructed” traditions (typically “New Agers”) where you take elements from the different spiritual traditions and lump them together as you see fit, taking of course only those elements which you like. The results usually range from the superficial to the simply weird.
However, when a person is thoroughly rooted in one spiritual tradition, it is not only legitimate but a genuine positive development of growth to explore other spiritual traditions and see what one can learn from them, especially as they enhance the possibilities of your own tradition, or to see these possibilites in your own tradition with fresh eyes. There are of course also the special vocations that are called to explore very deeply another tradition without losing that “anchor hold” of their own tradition, to live on the boundary as it were between the two. The obvious two names in this regard are of course Merton and Abhishiktananda, just as a starter.
For Christians who are not contemplatives in the general sense of that term, in other words whose Christianity is one of “external discipleship” even as it involves prayer, etc., Zen Buddhism seems a very alien thing. For those, however, who have ventured onto a contemplative path, Zen can hold some serious attractions and possibilities. It seems less daunting than the obviously more complex Tibetan Buddhism. It has a tendency to “clear the ground,” “clean the path.” Or just like a gust of fresh wind into a stale closed-up room, it suddenly reinvigorates you.
The most important thing about approaching Zen is not to begin with metaphysical words or concepts like “God” or “self” or “reality,”etc. And that goes for any such statement about Zen by any Buddhist or any Christian or anybody! Look at Zen directly. First look at what is right in front of your nose. Then look at who is looking at what is in front of that nose! That is the right spirit in which to begin to get an insight into Zen. Look directly at the stories and sayings of Zen. They contain the “whole thing” and you will sense that as you listen to their words. And you will be intrigued by this and drawn to a deeper place. (Or it may mean nothing to you and then you will go on your way in peace!)
A monk asked Ts’ui-wei about the meaning of Buddhism. Ts’ui-wei answered:
“Wait until there is no one around, and I will tell you.” Some time later the monk
approached Ts’ui-wei again, saying, “There is nobody here now. Please answer
me.” Ts’ui-wei led him out into the garden and went over to the bamboo grove,
saying nothing. Still the monk did not understand, so at last Ts’ui-wei said,
“Here is a tall bamboo; there is a short one!”
Zen saying: No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.
Zen saying: No seed ever sees the flower.
(Comment: Can’t resist reminding you what Jesus said about the grain of wheat having to fall into the ground and die, etc. Christians have a tendency to want to “have their cake and eat it too”!)
Talking about Zen all the time is like
looking for fish tracks in a dry riverbed.
My magical power and miraculous gift:
Drawing water and chopping wood.
Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
Story about Hakuin, one of the great Zen Masters who lived in 18th Century Japan and is credited with being the “Father of Modern Rinzai Zen”:
In a small hut, Hakuin lived a quiet life devoted to monastic purity.
When the young unmarried daughter of the village grocer
became pregnant, she named Hakuin as the father. Her outraged
parents went to Hakuin and charged him with the deed.
Hakuin simply said, “Is that so?”
When the child was born, once again the parents came to Hakuin.
They handed him the baby and demanded he take responsibility
for raising it. Hakuin said, “Is that so?” and took the baby in his arms.
Dutifully he began to look after the infant.
A year later, the young woman could bear it no longer. She confessed
that the real father was a young man who worked in the
nearby fishmarket. The parents went to Hakuin once more,
this time making deep apologies, and asked him to return the child.
Hakuin said only, “Is that so?” and gave the baby back to them.
(Comment: Truly Hakuin was closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than most followers of Jesus!)
Some wise observations by a modern American Zen student:
” Most people who come to the Zen Center don’t think a Cadillac will do it,
but they think that enlightenment will. Now they’ve got a new cookie, a new
“if only.” “If only I could understand what realization is all about, I would
be happy.” “If only I could have at least a little enlightenment experience,
I would be happy.” Coming into a practice like Zen, we bring our usual
notions that we are going to get somewhere–become enlightened–and get all
the cookies that have eluded us in the past.
Our whole life consists of this little subject looking outside itself for an object.
But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for
something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too.
So you have something limited looking for something limited and you just end up
with more of the same folly that has made you miserable.”
Charlotte Joko Beck
(Comment: Indeed, and this would hold true in many ways for those who come to Christian monastic life also.)
Zen saying: If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top.
A real Zen flavor to this saying by Thoreau:
A gun gives you the body, not the bird.
From a history of Zen in the 20th Century by Heinrich Dumoulin:
“Paramount for Zen praxis is the warning, often repeated to pupils, not to seek extraordinary experiences, combined with encouragement of the most intense effort. This paradoxical combination is rooted in Buddhist tradition. Since its earliest days, Buddhism has urged prudence in dealing with supersensible mental gifts. In Zen the serene and patient attitude toward unusual experiences is based on the conviction that enlightenment is not the fruit of one’s own endeavor but the apprehension of the True Self or one’s original nature—in religious terms the Buddha-nature—that reveals itself when the moment has come, the moment of maturation that withdraws itself from the power of the practitioner. Impatient expectation is a hindrance. The attitude known as taigo-Zen (Zen that expects enlightenment) is generally rejected in Zen.”
From French Jesuit Yves Raguin:
“Being a child of the Father, I learned from Christ to be simply attentive to my inner mystery, knowing that I cannot see my face as God’s child, unless the Father enlightens me by his own Spirit. The practice of Zen meditation taught me to stay in pure attentiveness before my inner mystery…. In fact it is the practice of Zen which helped me to understand that the final step is not to follow Christ or to imitate him, but to be animated by him because he lives in us.”
This is very good, and it can lead us in several fruitful directions, but what I will simply emphasize now is the insufficiency of “discipleship” or “imitation”—they are authentic way-stations as it were, but not an end in themselves, and certainly not the deepest place one is called to. Unfortunately too many very good Christians get stuck there. All that Pauline language about Christ “in me”—I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me—kind of slides right on by as if it were only metaphorical or merely words or just some image suggesting some degree of closeness. No the Risen Christ is our inmost reality, and whatever helps us recognize that and realize that is truly welcome.
In light of the above, consider this:
” Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they
noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately
scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was
stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion
fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung. The
other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the
scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?”
“Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”
Here Buddhism and Christianity meet, in silence, at a very, very deep level.
Let us conclude with some modern Zen humor:
Q: What does a Zen monk say to
a hot dog stand vendor? (Tofu dogs of course!)
A: Make me one with everything.
Q: What does the vendor say when the monk
asks for change for his twenty-dollar bill?
A: Change comes from within.
Ok, ok, so they’re not THAT funny!