White Robed Monks of St. Benedict

Zazen and Christianity

The following article is a transcription of a talk given by Yamada Roshi on May 9, 1975 at San-un Zendo in Kamakura, Japan. This article is a copy of the transcription appearing in Maria Kannon Zen Center Newsletter, Volumne 4, Number 2; Winter, 1995; page 5. The address for the Maria Kannon Zen Center is P.O. Box 270494; Dallas TX 75227-0494.

I am often asked by Christians, especially Catholics, whether they can practice zazen, and still preserve the beliefs of Christianity. To that question, I usually answer that Zen is not a religion, in the same sense that Christianity is a religion. Therefore, there is no reason why Christianity and zazen cannot co-exist.

Almost all Buddhist sects can be called religions. Zazen, however, is quite different in this respect. Quite simply, it is the core of all Buddhist sects. As you know, there are many sects in Buddhism, but the core or essence of them all is the experience called satori or self-realization. The theories and philosophies of all the sects are but the clothing covering the core. These outer wrappings are of various shapes and colors, but what is inside remains the same. And the core, this experience, is not adorned with any thought or philosophy. It is merely a fact, an experienced fact, in the same way that the taste of tea is a fact. A cup of tea has no thought, no idea, no philosophy. It tastes the same to Buddhists as it does to Christians. There is no difference at all.

You may ask what makes this experience happen. Well, quite simply, it is when certain conditions are present to the consciousness of a human being, and a reaction occurs. This reaction we call the Zen experience. The reaction of this experience is always the same, regardless of the beliefs we may hold or the color of our skin. It could be compared to playing billiards. When we hit the balls with the same amount of power and in the same direction, all the balls roll along the same course and at the same angles, regardless of their color.

Now you may ask, what are the conditions that bring our consciousness to the experience. It is to concentrate without mind in one-pointedness, and to forget ourselves in it. The one-pointedness is achieved sometimes in breath-counting, sometimes in what we call "following the breath," sometimes just sitting, and sometimes working on koans. You will notice that all these ways point inwardly. It is a very interesting fact, but when we concentrate on an object outside ourselves, for example, as in archery where we aim at a target, no matter how strong the concentration may be, we cannot attain the Zen experience. So in Zen practice, when we want to attain satori, we have to be absorbed inwardly.

Here you must remember, that the experience attained by zazen practice is not a thought or a philosophy or a religion, but merely a fact, a happening. And strange as it may seem, the experience of that fact has the power to free us from the agonies of the pains of the world. It emancipates us from the anxiety of all worldly sufferings. No one knows why that experience has such wonderful power, but it does. This is the most important point, and it's the most difficult to try to explain.

In the Zen experience, a certain unity happens, subject and object become one, and we some to realize our own self-nature. This self-nature cannot be seen, it cannot be touched, it cannot be heard. Because of these characteristics, we refer to it as "empty" (in Japanese, ku) but its activities are infinite. So, we say the Zen experience is the realization of the empty-infinite of our self-nature or our essential-nature, as it is often called.

When this happens, the fact is accompanied by a great peace of mind. At that moment, we feel as though the heavy burdens we have been carrying in our heart or on our shoulders, indeed all over our body and soul, suddenly disappear as if thrown away. The joy and happiness at that time is beyond all words. And there are no philosophies or theologies attached to it.

Should such a fact be called a religion? I don't think so. It is called satori, or self-realization, or enlightenment. Catholics are attaining the satori experience here in this zendo. I feel that in the future they should do research into the meaning or the origin of the fact of satori from the Christian's point of view. (This should be the work of Catholics and not mine.)

Having discovered this new world, the Zen student must learn that it is essentially one with the phenomenal world we all know so well. In my teaching I often use a fraction as an illustration to show that all things have two aspects, but are essentially one. In the fraction, the numerator is anything in the phenomenal world, a dog, a cat, a finger or a flower, or Mary or Jiro. The denominator is the world of the empty-infinite which we call the essential world. Since the horizontal 8 expresses infinity in mathematics, I use it encircled by a zero as the denominator. The fraction is a way of expressing two aspects as one.

Regarding the relation between Christianity and Zen, I think it can be thought of as two highways, going in separate paths, but crossing at an interchange. The two roads may seem quite apart, but where they cross is common ground. Now, if we take Zen as a religion, Christianity and Zen do seem to be quite different. But their teachings have as their interchange a common area which belongs to both. That is the area of religious experience. I'm sure that a lot of words and phrases in the Bible can never be uttered outside a true religious experience. That it seems to me, is not irrelevant to the satori experience in Zen.

Now, it is of utmost important for beginners in Zen to comprehend its aims clearly. What we are going to attain by doing zazen? There are three categories:

  1. Developing concentration of the mind.
  2. Satori-awakening, enlightenment.
  3. Personalization of satori.
The first, to develop concentration is of utmost importance in establishing and maintaining a successful in this world. The ability to concentrate calms the surface of our consciousness. This is most necessary in making correct decisions, and for receiving external impressions and information the right way. Also, when the mind is deeply absorbed, it does not easily yield to the influence of external circumstances. And, moreover, when we want to actualize ideas which arise in our heart, or when we want to accomplish some work or business, a strong concentration of mind is indispensable.

The second, satori, is the most important to a Mahayana Zen Buddhist. Dogen Zenji, the great Zen master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, has clearly stated that without enlightenment there is no Zen. This satori does not happen necessarily by mere concentration. This is especially true, if the mind is brought to one-pointedness in the objective world. And even if this is achieved inwardly our life problem, the problem of life and death, cannot be solved fundamentally by concentration. It can only be resolved by enlightenment and the personalization of that experience. So if we want to free ourselves from the anxiety of the sufferings of life through zazen, a satori experience should be our main purpose for practicing zazen. Dogen Zenji has told us that we should pray for the help of Buddhas and Patriarchs. The resembles Christianity' prayers of intercession.

The third aim of zazen, the personalization or embodiment of satori, comes as a matter of course only after having attained satori. To attain this experience of enlightenment is not very difficult. For some people, only one sesshin is necessary. But to accomplish out ultimate personality is very difficult indeed, and requires an extremely long period of time. The experience itself is only the entrance. The completion is to personalize what we came to realize in the experience. After washing away all the ecstasy and glitter in the experience, the truly great Zen person is not distinguishable in outward appearance. (S/he) is a (human being) who has experienced deep enlightenment and consequently extinguished all illusions, (delusions, and allusions), but is still not different externally from an ordinary human being. Through satori and zazen, you should not become a strange person, not an eccentric or an esoteric person. You should become a normal person, a real person, and as far as possible, a perfect human being. I think the truly great Christian is not much different!

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