A singing bowl from Nepal given me by a
Buddhist colleague when I completed an
interim ministry at MCC San Francisco.
I am struggling to write about a book I first mentioned two weeks ago, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, a 1970 book by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama. There are so many stories and insights that I would like to list for you, as I did with the remarkable Cloud of Unknowing. But I feel called to do something more: to somehow translate Zen into progressive Christian experience.
This effort recalls my college class on Asian Religions, taught by Professor Miyuki, a Japanese Buddhist. I was quite proud of my midterm paper for the class, but was dismayed that my professor deigned to give it only a “C.” Having read more about Zen training since, I realize this was the slap in the face that a Zen master might give a disciple, to awaken something in me.
But at the time, my rational, dualistic and discriminating side got the better of me and I met with the professor to explain that everything I had written came from the texts for the class. In accented English, he told me in words that “should” have been my complaint, “You just don’t understand.” In other words, I just didn’t get it.
As the Zen Master Enkan said to a scholar monk of the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures), “Your knowledge is not of any use, is it? It is like a small lamp under the shining sun. It seems to have no light.” As Shibayama explains, “In the face of real experience concepts are like flakes of snow fallen on a burning fire.” He describes words as “just the conceptual shadows of the facts.” As a writer, this is another blow from a Zen master!
So, for my final paper, I simply told a story, drawing from the intuitive, creative side of my brain rather than the rational, academic side. I don’t remember the story, but I remember that my guide in the story, who was also myself, was a little girl. Professor Miyuki loved it, and gave me an “A,” and I think an “A” in the course as well.
Zen tries to recover the satori, or Enlightenment, experience, believing that Buddhist scholars “tended to place too much importance on the metaphysical or philosophical interpretations of the sutras.” Zen Master Sekito and his disciples were blocked along a mountain path by vines and creepers. The monk ahead turned to Sekito asking for his sword to clear the way, and the Master handed it to him blade first.
“Stop the nonsense! Let me have the hilt!” the monk demanded. Sekito’s reply was sharper than the edge of the knife. He said, “What is the use of the hilt?” The monk could not utter a word in reply. We are apt to stick to the hilt which is of secondary importance, and miss the Truth altogether (p 26-27).
This story made me think of how often we Christians “stick to the hilt,” the Bible, our theology, and miss Truth altogether. Scottish theologian P.T. Forsythe held that, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.” Spiritual practices open us up to Truth, even in scriptures. As Thomas Merton wrote in Contemplative Prayer, “God’s presence cannot be verified as we would verify a laboratory experiment. Yet it can be spiritually realized as long as we do not insist on verifying it. As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.”
Shibayama suggests, “Zen does not remain simply the core of Buddhism, but it works to deepen and revive any religion or philosophy. For instance, there can be a Christian Zen…”
For four or five years I served as spiritual leader of Midtown Spiritual Community here in Atlanta, a spiritually eclectic group, and their mission statement expressed a desire to have a direct experience of the divine. During the contemplative retreat I co-led a few weeks ago, participants told us they preferred our experiential emphasis on spiritual exercises over academic presentations.
When I served as interim pastor of MCC San Francisco, I occasionally sat with their Buddhist group, following the spiritual exercise of zazen. Shibayama explains that, in Japanese, “za means to sit cross-legged, zen, to calmly concentrate one’s mind.”
He says we are to directly realize that “All beings are primarily Buddhas,” and by this he does not mean simply humans or even all creatures, but all entities, from atoms to galaxies. He tells us that there is another saying in Zen, “If one sits for ten minutes, he is a ten-minute Buddha.”
Immediately my heart flew to the “ah-hah” that if Christians could sit still in contemplation for ten minutes, and realize our own incarnations of Christ, we could be ten-minute Christs! It would give a whole new meaning to the Resurrection and to the triumphal return of Christ to this world—beliefs that are often doubted by progressive Christians.
But, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, we wouldn’t be doing this for ourselves alone. Buddhism teaches the practice of six virtues: generosity, observing precepts and other good deeds, patience and forbearance, zeal, meditation, and true wisdom. Generosity and good deeds are sometimes singled out. And generosity and good deeds are what singled out the first followers of Jesus and attracted others to our faith.
I’m sure what I’ve written here has stepped on a few toes in Zen Buddhism as well as in progressive Christianity, as I am a faulty and limited blogger. I apologize. But just as Zen wanted to enliven Buddhism, so I think a Zen way of practicing our faith could enliven Christianity.
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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.