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Zen: What Catholics Should Know | Eric Cunningham | December 2, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"The truth of the matter is that you can hardly set Christianity and Zen side by
side and compare them. This would be like trying to compare mathematics and
tennis. And if you are writing a book on tennis which might conceivably be read
by many mathematicians, there is little point in bringing mathematics into the
discussion—best to stick to the tennis."
this typically humorous observation from Zen and the Birds of Appetite  Thomas
Merton (1915-68) points out the difficulty of making tidy comparisons between
Christianity and Zen Buddhism. Merton, the Trappist priest whose writings on
spirituality and modern civilization made him a hero of post-World War II
Catholic culture, was also a serious student of Zen Buddhism.
-- Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Merton's essays were instrumental in raising American awareness of Buddhism
during the fabled "Zen boom" of the 1950s and 1960s. His lifelong affinity for
Asian religions drew him deeply into a variety of eastern faith traditions, and
he probably came as close as a Catholic priest can come to embracing the "way
of Zen." Yet for all his success in making Zen accessible to modern Christians,
Merton also perpetuated a number of assumptions that reinforce the stereotypes
that have long hindered the "east-west" dialogue. Among these were his ready
acceptance of the idea—which echoed the truisms of his friend and Zen
mentor D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)—that Zen was simply beyond the
comprehension of the "western mind." Even though Zen had been introduced to
America in 1893, and by the mid-twentieth century was well on its way to
becoming a household word, it still preserved an aura of exotic "Oriental" inscrutablility.
It is probably safe to say that Zen's continuing fascination for modern people owes
much to the perception that it is simply too mysterious and too paradoxical to
be grasped by the common "linear-thinking" western herd. Merton's essays on
Zen, while brilliant, are nevertheless permeated with the idea that Zen is, at
its core, both incomparable to Christianity, and incomprehensible to the
my career as Japan scholar, I have tried to penetrate the supposed
impenetrability of Zen—not to diminish the beauty of its truly mysterious
paradoxes, but rather to show that there is something that can be
defined, discussed, and compared with other religions. Zen is no more or less
indescribable than any other form of mysticism, whether it be Christian,
Islamic, Buddhist, or Jewish. I am not saying that mystical experience can be
put into words, but there exists, in the historical and doctrinal landscape of
Zen Buddhism, a great many recognizable features that enable the thoughtful
Catholic to take bearings, and create a suitable map of the
terrain–hopefully to the enrichment of his or her own faith.
What I would like to do in this essay is provide an overview of Zen, touching
on its major doctrinal and practical features, in the hopes that Catholic
readers will find something to appreciate, compare, and hopefully investigate
some westerners, the word "Zen" seems to conjure up period-piece movie scenes
of medieval Japan. Grey-robed monks, samurai warriors, temple gardens, and tea
ceremonies all crowd upon the imagination like attractions in some kind
Japanese spiritual theme park. For others, Zen evokes more local images of postwar
popular culture—like NBA legend Phil Jackson enlightening sports fans on
the "Zen way" of coaching, counter-culture philosopher Robert Pirsig ruminating
on the non-duality of good motorcycle maintenance, or Beat novelist Jack
Kerouac riffing about the "Buddha" of the open Road.
For those who have been conditioned by pop culture to see Zen in such diverse,
exotic, and frequently non-religious images, it may come as a surprise to learn
that at its core, Zen denotes something rather specific, highly practical, and
manifestly religious. In its most pared-down meaning, Zen is simply the name of
that particular sect of Buddhism that emphasizes sitting meditation as the
primary means of attaining spiritual enlightenment. Strictly defined, the word
"Zen" is the Japanese rendition of the Chinese word ch'an, which is the Chinese
rendition of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means "meditation." The Zen Buddhist holds
up meditation as the ideal way to enlightenment, not only because it has worked
for two-and-a half-thousand years, but also because it is very means by which
the Buddha himself attained enlightenment.
to tradition, the historical Buddha (born Siddartha Gautama in the sixth
century B.C.), was a prince of the Shakya clan, which
ruled over a small state in the borderlands of northern India and Nepal. He
grew up surrounded by the luxuries of the court, and was deliberately shielded
by his father from any exposure to death, disease, or decay. Nevertheless, at
the age of twenty-nine, after seeing several old, sick, and dying people in the
environs of the palace, a traumatized Siddartha left his home, his family, and
his princely estate, determined to discover the source and meaning of the suffering
he had witnessed. He became a hermit, hoping that the path of renunciation
would help him understand, and ultimately transcend the problem of human
seven years of fasting and physical hardships, Siddartha did not feel that he
had come any closer to his goal, so he abandoned the ascetic path, choosing
instead the "middle way" between self-indulgence and self-denial. He did not
abandon the practice of meditation, however, but rather intensified it, going
so far as to vow that he would sit in meditation, and not move until he had
learned the way to overcome suffering.
meditation under the fabled "Bodhi tree" was fraught with psychological trials
and spiritual temptations. On the decisive night of his ordeal, he suffered an
especially ferocious assault from the demon Mara, but he prevailed over the
tempter, and with rising of the morning star, Siddartha experienced a flash of
deep spiritual awakening (Buddhahood), the substance of which he articulated in
the "Four Noble Truths."
1. Life is suffering
Noble Eightfold Path moves the Buddha dharma, or doctrine, from the
realm of pure theory into useful practice. This path, the elements of which are
stated below, constitute a method for purifying desire, tempering ambition, and
reforming thought, speech, and conduct:
Suffering is caused by desire
The cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering
The cessation of desire can be attained by following the "Noble Eightfold
last element, Right Concentration, is considered the summation of the first
seven, as it creates the mental conditions that allow the other elements to
flourish. In concrete terms, Right Concentration refers to the practice of
meditation—so we can safely say that meditation, the means by which
Siddartha became Buddha, is also the central practice of the Buddhist faith.
This is precisely what Zen (dhyana) Buddhism teaches.
attentive Catholic will notice similarities between the Buddha's temptations
and Christ's temptation in the desert. Before we rush to equate the two, as
some scholars have done, we need to keep in mind that for the Buddha, the
awakening-after-temptation was the defining event in his spiritual career; for
Christ it was but a preliminary step on the ultimate road to the Cross.
Making this distinction can help us identify an essential difference between
Buddhism and Christianity: the awakening of the mind vs. the salvation of the
soul. While Buddhism is often characterized as a way of renouncing the world and
overcoming its suffering, Christianity is the way of redeeming the world and
expiating its sins. The Buddha offered the world a way to nirvana, which is usually
described as a state of "extinction"—in other words, the final liberation
from an otherwise endless cycle of death and rebirth. In contrast, Christ offers
us a way to Heaven, redeeming the world and all of creation in the process.
Accordingly, as the Buddhist follows the Buddha out of the world, the Christian
takes up his cross and follows Christ to Calvary, to die and be resurrected in
a transformed creation.
can see then, that even if Christ and the Buddha might agree that life in this
world is a pilgrimage of sin and suffering, their responses to this reality are
radically different. Where Christ embraces suffering by acceptance of the Cross,
the Buddha transcends suffering by pointing out its illusory nature, and by
showing that the distinctions between such things as pleasure and pain, life
and death, etc., are ultimately false.
The Zen dharma
attaining enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his days traveling
through northern India, teaching the dharma, and gathering disciples.
Near the end of his life—at least according to the Zen tradition—he
assembled his followers, and delivered what has come to be known as "The Flower
Sermon." The Buddha said absolutely nothing in this sermon; he merely sat in
silence and held up a lotus flower for all to see. The gesture confused most of
the elders, but one monk, Mahākāshapa,
apparently understood what the Buddha was doing, for he looked at the flower
and smiled. As he was the only one of the elders who "got it," Mahākāshapa was chosen by the
Buddha to succeed him. For Zen Buddhists, the appointment of Mahākāshapa as the first
patriarch validates what would later become a Zen ideal, i.e., the importance of the
"wordless" transmission of enlightenment. Because the experience of
enlightenment is beyond all speech, all metaphor, and all representation, those
who are able to receive the dharma without having it explained are considered
We might contrast this with the traditional understanding of Jesus as "Logos,"
the Word of God made flesh, and the heavily textual nature of Christian
revelation. While silence is certainly valued in the Christian monastic
tradition, the emphasis on text, liturgy, and interpretation makes Christianity
distinct from the "wordless" ideal of Zen Buddhism.
early as the second century B.C. Buddhism was making its way across Central
Asia into China, transmitted by monks who established religious communities
along the Silk Road. The most illustrious of these missionaries was Bodhidharma
(5-6th century A.D.), an eccentric monk who is honored as the twenty-eight
Buddhist patriarch as well as the first Ch'an patriarch of China. In addition
to teaching his Chinese disciples the practice of "wall-gazing," i.e., sitting meditation, he
also propagated what we now consider to be the core teachings of Zen
doctrine—a collection of scriptures known as the Praj˝āpāramitā or "Perfection of
scriptures of this genre, which include the well-known Heart, Diamond, and Lankāvatāra sutras, all emphasize
the stilling of the mind in order to bring about a kind of interior
transformation. For the seeker, the fruit of this transformation consists of a
complete liberation from attachments, and entrance into a new realm of
consciousness beyond subject-object duality, beyond forms, and beyond the need
to make intellectual distinctions of any kind. Ultimately, says the "Perfection
of Wisdom," all phenomena are illusory; we only apprehend true reality when we
let go of all physical and mental categories, and enter into sunyata, or "the void," wherein
is found tathatha
or "suchness," i.e.,
the indwelling wisdom of the Buddha mind. In essence, these sutras teach us
that we attain true wisdom and freedom when we are able to escape the world of
sensory inputs and mental constructions, and enter that void whose emptiness,
paradoxically, holds the fullness of enlightenment. These ideas still form the
doctrinal core of Zen Buddhism.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan by Japanese pilgrims who traveled abroad to
learn meditation from Chinese masters. The most celebrated of these monks were
Eisai (1141-1215), and Dōgen (1200-1253), who founded the two largest schools of Zen
Buddhism in Japan, the Rinzai and the Sōtō schools respectively.
As these schools developed in Japan over the next several centuries, each
became associated with a particular preferred practice. The Rinzai came to
privilege meditation on the kōan, an illogical riddle designed to push the mind
of the seeker beyond mental categories, leading them to a kind of intellectual
breakdown that led to awakening.
Among the more widely known kōan are "What is the sound of one-hand clapping?"
and "Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?" There are no logical answers to these
questions, as the questions themselves are not logical. It is the process of
wrestling with the question, and seeing the utter futility of the premise that
leads the mind to break free of its every day constraints, and become
enlightened. The Sōtō school for its part
favored the basic practice of simple sitting meditation (zazen) as the primary means
of attaining enlightenment—going so far as to say that simply doing zazen was equivalent to the
attainment of enlightenment
was especially popular among the samurai, Japan's ruling warrior caste,
because, true to its non-dual nature, Zen did not necessarily favor life over
death. It thus offered solace to warriors who, in a time of unceasing conflict,
were always a whisper away from death. Zen arts such as the tea ceremony, gardening,
and ink painting—guided by a clear preference for the rustic, the
irregular, and the faded—belong as much to traditional warrior tastes as
they do Buddhist aesthetics. The natural link between Zen and warrior culture
persisted until the seventeenth century, when Japan's last hegemonic warlord,
Tokugawa Ieyasu, built a new system of government around the ideals of
Neo-Confucianism and reduced Zen to the status of second-tier religion.
1854, the year of Japan's opening to the modern west, Zen Buddhism went through
a resurgence in popularity, due in part to foreign interest in Japanese
culture. In 1893, Zen abbot Shaku Sōen (1860-1919), traveled to the United States to
represent Japan at World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, bringing the dharma to yet another new
continent. Ultimately it was not Sōen, but his student, a lay disciple named D.T.
Suzuki (1870-1966), who became the most influential Zen "missionary" of the
twentieth century. In a career that spanned seven decades, Suzuki presented Zen
to the west as a kind of spiritual antidote to the various toxins of modern
materialism. Thanks to his vast scholarship and remarkable personality, Suzuki
was able to introduce Zen teachings to an impressive number of western
thinkers, including Carl Jung, Ehrich Fromm, and of course, Thomas
Merton—and he lived long enough to see Zen become accepted into the
mainstream of modern western culture.
recent decades Zen has come to look more like a middle-class self-help therapy
than a religious practice, but its long history shows us that it is a real
religion with a real theology—a religion containing a great deal of
wisdom for Catholics to ponder. It is worth noting that as early as the days of
St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the first Christian missionary to Japan, Catholic
priests have shown an abiding fascination for Zen spirituality, and have ranked
among the most insightful Zen scholars in history. The reason for this is
clear: Zen is a genuine path to transcendence, and its mystics over the
centuries have revealed as much about the nature of the spiritual world as have
such visionaries as St. John of the Cross or St. Theresa of Avila. It would not
be unreasonable to compare the "void" of Zen with the Christian "cloud of unknowing,"  nor would it be wrong to suppose that the great contemplatives of the Church would
find much to admire in the "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras. We need look no
further than fifteenth-century mystic Nicholas of Cusa's coincidentia
oppositorum  for similar descriptions of non-duality in Catholic theology—to say
nothing of paradoxical utterances that describe God in terms of "nothingness."
With regard to the mystical experience, there is a remarkable degree of
"experiential overlap" between the two traditions, which makes them, if not
kindred religions, then at least not mutually alienating—but that may be
as far as we can reasonably go.
we can compare
Christianity and Zen, we cannot equate them, nor can we replace Christianity
with Zen. As much as there is to admire in its spirituality, Zen, like all
expressions of the Buddhist tradition, seems to possess for the Christian the
quality of an unfinished thing—it gives us correct answers to slightly
flawed questions. For example, it is one thing to recognize that life is filled
with suffering, another thing to understand the purpose of that suffering. It
is one thing to see reality as an illusion, another thing to recognize that
even behind what appears to be an illusion, there shines the loving intention
of creative God who fashions all things, permanent and impermanent. It is one
thing to seek Unity behind dualisms, another thing to realize that without some
separation between Things, there is no space for love to flow between them.
The faithful Catholic should approach Zen Buddhism with a sense of reverent
curiosity and a willingness to be enriched, but should always do so with the
faith that beyond the apparent void, there waits a God ready to fill the
 See Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds
of Appetite (New York:
 See William Johnston, editor. The
Cloud of Unknowing: and the Book of Privy Counseling (New York: Image, 1996)
 Or, "the reconciliation of opposites."
Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) believed that all dualities and apparent
contradictions were ultimately resolved in the Divine.
Related Ignatius Insight Essays and Articles:
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Buddhist Dreams and Spiritualist Schemes | An Interview with Dr. John B. Buescher
China, Catholicism, and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard
Introduction to Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life | Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J.
The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Spirituality | Mark Brumley
The Trinity and the Nature of Love | Fr. Christopher Rengers
The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Dr. Eric Cunningham has been at Gonzaga since 2003. A specialist in modern Japanese history, Dr. Cunningham also teaches courses in world and East Asian history. He earned his BA in History from the University of
Colorado in 1984, an MA in East Asian Languages and Literatures from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a PhD, History, also from the University of Oregon in 2004. Dr. Cunningham's other areas of scholarly interest include
intellectual history, popular culture, psychedelia, postmodernism, literary critical theory, Zen Buddhism, and eschatology. His previous Ignatius Insight article,
Is Gonzaga still a Jesuit, Catholic university? The
ruminations of a bewildered witness", was posted in March 2011.
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