Zen and Christianity 3



Thomas Merton Zen Calligraphy 

I very much like Dom Aelred Graham’s thinking on the ego and what he calls ego-awareness. It’s clear that we need our ego to function, and so the idea of letting go of the ego is more about self-preoccupation. Graham says the irony is we need the ego, but it also torments us. He writes that the more we watch ourselves and directly strive to get rid of egocentric thoughts, the trouble increases – asceticism doesn’t work, and even prayer and devotion cannot relieve us of what is naturally an integral part of the human condition.

‘But we can with God’s grace (and here, in substance, though not in modes of expression, Catholicism and Zen agree), make sense of our self-preoccupation, live with it, and eventually find beatitude through it’.

Whilst Zen makes much of letting things be, Graham reminds us that for that to be fruitful an inner task has to be undertaken. This task essentially is to become aware, not merely in terms of ego-consciousness, but by the awakening of the true self, and to respond in attitude and action to this awareness. Eastern and Western religious tradition speaks with one voice: enlightenment or salvation depends on answering adequately the challenge: “know thyself”.

Here he is speaking of satori (sudden moment of enlightenment) rather than psychological insight – though that can certainly help. He explains that the experience is about the nonduality between the true self and the conscious ego, the “I” and the “me”. This is the awareness of being as such: “that art thou”. D. T. Suzuki explained it like this: “When I raise my hand thus, there is Zen; but when I assert that I have raised my hand, Zen is no longer there”. In other words, “Those who say do not know; those who know do not say.” They don’t say it because it is unsayable.

Thomas Merton sees it as Zen communicating an awareness that is potentially already there, but that is not conscious of itself. It is not then a revelation, but rather realization or consciousness. It is not news from the Father who send His Son into this world, but rather an awareness of our own being here and now in the midst of the world. Merton then sees that Zen is perfectly compatible with Christian belief, and with Christian mysticism.

The difficulty is that the language around Zen is a reversal of logic and can be seen as almost an anti-language. It aims to blast out our preconceptions. The Zen stories aim to teach the disciple not to take a fact to be a sign of something else and be misled.

Merton quoting from Suzuki provides an example:

A monk is wanting to know the wisdom of Zen and the Great or Absolute Wisdom- Mahaprajna.

The Master answers without concern:

The snow is falling fast and all is enveloped in mist”.

The monk remains silent.

The master asks: “Do you understand?”

“No, Master I do not.”

Thereupon the Master composed a verse for him:


It is neither taking in nor giving up.

If one understands it not,

The wind is cold, the snow is falling.


The monk is trying to understand when in fact he ought to look – … stop thinking start looking says Merton.