….You frequently mention Zen Buddhism in your commentaries and articles and in your replies to questions. I'm wondering how this finds a place in a Catholic website. I can't say it’s unorthodox Christianity, because it’s not Christian at all. Can you not supply Catholic material without reaching for exotic things like Zen? What can it mean to ordinary people? I'm sure you have your reasons, but I'd like to hear you elaborate on them. By the way, I do like your website. It’s because I care about it that I ask. Frances G.
Dear Frances, Thanks for your straight question, and I'm happy to try to respond to it.
I've heard more than one Zen master declare that Zen is not a religion. It arose within Buddhism, but it is not confined within 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. It’s part of every serious religious tradition. To ask which religion it belongs to is like asking which country water comes from. It belongs everywhere. There are now several Zen masters in the world who are Christian – including Catholic priests and Sisters and lay people.
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, while some (not all) Christian sources can be quite diffuse and wordy – more aspirational than practical. When I quote Zen masters and writers it is because they are saying exactly what I as a Catholic want to say, but they are saying it better than I can. They are not saying everything I want to say, but when our interests overlap, their practical approach is clearly better.
Is meditation ‘neutral’, then, from a religious point of view? Yes. Meditation in itself is just meditation, just as water is water. But when a Christian meditates, it is a Christian activity. When a Christian breathes, that is a Christian activity. We make meditation Christian by being Christians. A Buddhist makes it Buddhist by being Buddhist.
A 12th-century Carthusian monk named Guigo expounded a four-step path of prayer: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. Lectio was slow prayerful reading of the Scriptures; meditatio meant turning over in the mind what one had read; oratio meant turning this to conversation with God; and contemplatio meant a silent resting in the presence of God. The usage has changed in modern times: when people speak about ‘meditation’ nowadays they don’t mean what Christians meant traditionally by ‘meditatio’. They mean something much closer to what we meant by ‘contemplatio’. By and large, Christians have gone along with this change in words. There are countless groups of Christians throughout the world now who meet on a weekly basis for what is now called ‘meditation’, and who practise it daily at home. This is one of the truly great developments in our time. It’s a kind of silent revolution: you won't read about it in the papers.
When you join such a group you discover that meditation is not as easy as it might seem. It might seem easy to sit in deep inner silence for half an hour; but soon we realise that the mind is perfectly restless. The major practical challenge is how to quieten it. This is where the practical experience and wisdom of Zen is of immense help. It is not an attempt to substitute one’s Christian spirituality for Buddhist, but rather to pacify the mind so that it can truly be present to God, and not just to its own endless chatter. We need all the help we can get.
A visitor to our retreat centre here in Tallaght remarked recently that she was unhappy to see that some of the pictures on the walls were nature scenes; she would have preferred “something more Catholic”. What is Catholic? The word itself means ‘universal’. Numerous Catholic mystics have stressed that “every creature is a word of God.” St Bonaventure said that creation is God’s first book. Every creature is trying to express God to the best of its ability. Meister Eckhart put it in his characteristically striking way: “Every creature is trying to be Jesus.” Jesus is the full revelation of God in human reality, but every creature is doing its best to reveal God. The sea in that picture in the dining room is a revelation of God! All the trees and plants in those pictures are Catholics, if you want to put it that way. Even the plants in the window-boxes are devout Catholics…! Still, I did a quick check after she left, and I found that of the 109 pictures in the entire centre, just 21 were nature scenes. God's first book is, if anything, under-represented.
I hope these few lines will help to put the Christian interest in Zen in context, Frances. If you want to read further you could pick up Zen Gifts to Christians by Robert Kennedy SJ. He is a Catholic priest and also a Zen master.