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Zen: What Catholics Should Know | Eric Cunningham | December 2, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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"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."

-- Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite
In this typically humorous observation from Zen and the Birds of Appetite [1] 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.

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 Christian.

Throughout 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 further.

The Basics

For 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.

According 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 suffering.

After 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.

Siddartha's 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
2. Suffering is caused by desire
3. The cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering
4. The cessation of desire can be attained by following the "Noble Eightfold Path."
The 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:
1. Right View
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
The 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.

The 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.

We 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

After 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 especially blessed.

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.

As 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 Wisdom" sutras.

The 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.

Ch'an 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

Zen 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.

Modern Zen

After 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.

In 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," [2] 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 [3] 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.


While 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 emptiness.


[1] See Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: Image, 1968)

[2] See William Johnston, editor. The Cloud of Unknowing: and the Book of Privy Counseling (New York: Image, 1996)

[3] 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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