Zen and Christianity

Zen calligraphy – by Thomas Merton 

After writing about Robert Johnson’s experiences of Jungian analysts  it seemed timely to have a Zen/Christian post. Johnson was drawn to Christianity and to Indian religions – not as different belief systems but rather both as doorways into a deeper sense of the divine. Eastern and Western religious tradition speaks with one voice that enlightenment or salvation depends on enough understanding of the challenge to ‘know thyself’ – so the psychological and spiritual are deeply intertwined.

Aelred Graham, the English Benedictine monk, wrote a book in 1963 called Zen Catholicism and it begins with this dedication:

To those

Who with the insight of the East

Set in the great tradition of the West

May even in this painful world

Be happy

Thomas Merton, when he was writing about the difficulty of comparing Zen to Christianity, said that to compare them was like comparing tennis to mathematics, so it’s not about comparing but more about finding that the underlying truths of Zen and Christianity are connected – truths that because of our contemporary social preoccupations we tend to forget. I would suggest that these are the same truths that become uncovered also in-depth psychological analysis. Christ’s purpose was to reveal these truths and the mystery they express. So, the contemplative tradition leads us towards these which are deeper than the particular tradition that surrounds them.

Zen as a way of contemplation has much in common with true Christian prayer – both can be used without reference to doctrine or theology – rather this is about imageless, silent prayer that can unify the person in a radical detachment from all things. As Robert E. Kennedy notes in Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit this might sound rather cold and inhuman, but it is the same as learning to detach oneself in psychoanalysis from parents, family status and so on in order to come to know oneself as separated from and able to still remain a witness to the past. The detachment means we let go of our desire to know and pin things down, but the self is not destroyed rather there is recognition that one is part of the whole. What begins to emerge is what Thomas Merton, Aelred Graham and interestingly the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the true self.

Merton saw that not-knowing about the true self is original sin, he wrote: ‘The tragedy is that our consciousness is totally alienated from this inmost ground of our identity.’ He reminds us that the highest point is not reached in the experience that I know or love God – in other words in a dualistic I-Thou experience but in the experience that God lives in us. Contemplation is less about looking at or following Christ and more about a transformation into Christ.