Zen and Christianity 2

Zen calligraphy – by Thomas Merton

‘Jesus emptied himself’ – in Zen one might say that Jesus became no-self. This emptying is allowing the presence of the Kingdom of God, which is not about I love God or I know God, but rather the experience that God lives in each one of us.  This is where one is not looking at Christ, or following Christ, but a reduction in the sense of self and the superficial ego so to be replaced by the fullness of Christ.

How hard it is to experience this when Christian worship is so full of words. The words can resonate deeply, but there needs to be silence around that for the effect and experience to be within us. Thomas Merton in his paper ‘A Christian looks at Zen’ acknowledges that in some ways Zen makes a direct attack on formalism regarding conventional religiosity as a hindrance to mature spiritual development. Zen is deliberately cryptic and disconcerting – it seems to jolt us out of familiar thought routines and devout imaginings. This means that perhaps inevitably it feels as if Zen is confronting the Christian, partly because it fits no convenient category.

Alternatively, one can see how Zen can lead the Christian deeper into the unknowability of God. Robert Kennedy presents a conversation that might take place between a Christian and a Zen teacher:

Christian: Sensei, I hear you are skilled in meditation. I am interested in meditation and wonder if we could talk about it sometime?

Zen teacher: Of course! Let us sit and meditate together.

Christian: That would be wonderful. When can we do this?

Zen Teacher: Right now! Let’s begin.

Christian: Right now? But where?

Zen Teacher: Right here! On this cushion.

Christian: here? For how long?

Zen Teacher: All day, let’s begin.

Christian: Here? Now? All day? On this cushion?

Zen Teacher: Of course, you said you were interested.

Christian: Well, yes, but I hadn’t planned to do it just now. I thought we could talk about it and I could hear about your experience.

Zen Teacher: Let’s begin. Do it! Do it now!

The master is telling us to be ready, alert and willing and to act immediately.

Merton explains the Christian’s Western response which is to focus on the explanation, which is accidental, and which Zen often regards as completely trivial and often misleading, while the Zen focus is on the experience itself. The focus is on developing a certain type of consciousness beyond verbal deceptions and emotional experience. But the true heart of Christianity is also about the actual living experience of unity with Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. The difference in Christianity is, as Merton writes, inseparable from the mystery of Christ and the collective life of the Church as the Body of Christ.