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Bernhard Grom SJ

Christian Zen?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2007, P. 361 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Church educational institutions hear time and again the reproach they offered too many Zen courses, covered up all differences between Christianity and Buddhism and promoted a pantheistic spirituality of all-unity. In contrast to this the people concerned assert that there has been a "Christian Zen" for a long time and that "it is (to be) seen as an important area of apostolic work that Christian seekers who get an experience on the Zen way feel experience understanding and kindness by the church life as a whole and in their church also see a possibility to contribute their insights and wishes" (Johannes Kopp).

Since in the sixties Hugo Makibi Enomiya Lassalle SJ (1898-1990) attempted to prove the similarity between Zen experience and Christian mysticism and trained European Christians in Zen meditation, some misunderstandings were eliminated and bridges built; but up to this day Christians as well as Buddhists ask whether one can remove Zen exercises from their Mahayana Buddhist origin and background and integrate them into a Christian spirituality. Well, Zen is not only taught following different directions and main focuses, with its emphasis on the practical exercise and the intention to leave behind all differentiating thinking and imagining, it can also only with difficulty be interpreted and appreciated from the Christian faith. Nevertheless the clarifying dialogue should absolutely be continued, just with regard to those who from Zen expect something spiritual and not only a psycho-hygienic help to let loose and to diminish stress. For them Zen can make possible a training of body and spirit that in such a methodical, educational way, within the Christian tradition is probably only found in the Everlasting Jesus Prayer. A Christian should of course know that s/he - by the many hours of attentive sitting and breathing and all Koan exercises (to overcome the conceptual thinking) - cannot make available God's attention, but can only make himself (more and) more ready to perceive it, and that according to Christian understanding the community with God is not bound to the rather rare mystical experiences of unity.

To those who are spiritually interested the Zen way can open an attentiveness with body and soul as well as an experience of presence that lies beyond the objective reality, that leaves behind individual thoughts, conceptions and feelings and perceives only the open width of an All-One and in it becomes oblivious of itself. This can enable them to correct anthropomorphic conceptions of a God who sits enthroned like a superman in the universe and only demands and judges, and to sense God's all embracing reality.



But a Christian should not think by Zen or some other way of meditation one was able to immediately experience God's reality, and this experience was "beyond all cognitive conceptions " (Willigis Jäger OSB) - "trans-rational "and "trans-religious ", because (it was) above the allegedly so narrow "dogmas" of the religions. This would be a naive intuitionism. When he who practises (Zen) feels united with everything, this is probably based on dedifferentiation of thinking trained for a long time. And when he in this mystical experience of unity can no longer differentiate between the own Ego and the divine reality, this is probably to be explained by the extreme absorption of attention, in which one is only aware of what one is just getting engrossed, but no longer of one's Ego with its limits. Hence the experienced unity is first of all subjective conditioned by a changed state of awareness.

Whether the experienced unity can be interpreted in a monistic way as experience of an intrinsic non-twoness ("I am you - you are me") or in a theistic way as union of the created human person with the wholly different You of God the Creator ("I am in you - you are in me"), is to be thought over in the normal waking state of consciousness. And this - personal as well as inter-religious - considering with arguments and counterarguments should not be dismissed as "dualistic" way of thinking incapable of cognition. For there is no pure religious experience not mediated by cognition from which one can proceed: Our conceptions of man and of the transcendent each time influence the expectation with which we enter meditation, and thus determine the meditation experience. He who practises always becomes engrossed in what he assumes and believes. That's why to the eastern Zen way also the Sutra study belongs and a clear conception of what the Absolute not is: There is a meditation without objects, doing without particular considerations, but not without contents.

The matter into which a faithful Christian becomes engrossed, is determined not only by the faith in Creation, but also by the faith in God's special self-revelation in Jesus, for which reason s/he will regard the testimony of the Bible as relevant "Sutra study". Offers that in this sense communicate a "Christian Zen" - some people connect them with the daily Eucharist - certainly deserve support on the part of the church. One should not hinder but promote the integration of Zen into the Christian spirituality. With the use, however, of the gift of differentiation and also not exclusively but in a variety of spiritual offers, which reach from Christian meditation over Bible circles up to Retreats in everyday life and so do justice to individual interests and needs of spiritually demanding Christians. Already Hugo M. Enomiya Lassalle said a Christian could by the Jesus Prayer linked to the breath rhythm probably "attain everything Zen has to offer and in some respects even more." This probably applies also to other ways.


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