Zen and Christianity
When Buddhism went to China, the Chinese couldn’t understand the profundities of the Indian logic. Instead, they turned sutras into wonderful Chinese literature and they began to start quoting beautiful Buddhist phrases as though it was sufficient to quote the phrases as this sort of mysterious and wonderful beauty. This happens in all religions. You start very direct where the things actually mean something. Then with the lapse of time, very often the language becomes old fashioned or it’s a different language and then it all becomes much more mysterious and correspondingly sort of holy. You’re almost more impressed if you don’t know what it means than if you do know what it means. This tended to happen to Buddhism in China. Obviously in China – primarily aesthetic, most beautiful presentation of Buddhism – and what in India had been a purely intellectual presentation of Buddhism; in both cases away from direct experience.
Now, the Zen – I don’t say view, they’re not keen on propounding new views – Zen is a system of practice to bring one from viewpoints to actual standpoints, on which you can actually stand. The contribution it can make to Christianity is to make Christianity alive instead of being either mysterious and beautiful or secular. As an example, and this can be paralleled in China, at the school I was at, at the end of every term, they used to read from Ecclesiastes.
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them… And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low. Also, when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity.
We used to hear these wonderful phrases. “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken” What does it mean? “…Those that look out of the windows shall be darkened.” “All the daughters of musick shall be brought low.” Didn’t seem to matter, that it didn’t mean anything. It sounds beautiful. We feel, ‘It must mean something. I’m not sure what.’ Now, this is a relatively easy one, but people don’t enquire.
Out of a school of 100 boys, nobody ever enquired. If somebody did enquire they found it was a description of old age. “…The light of the sun and the moon darkened”: my sight is failing. “The strong men shall bow themselves”: back is bending. “The keepers of the house shall tremble”: legs beginning to shake. “The grinding shall cease because those that grind are few.” “The daughters of musick shall be brought low.” “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken.” That’s never been really explained.
Zen would say, “Wake up. Don’t listen to these things without understanding. They refer to yourself.” In the East, even now in some countries, actors still traditionally wear masks to perform. There’s an actor. We see he’s taken off the devil mask, and underneath there’s a saint, a bodhisattva. If we look carefully, we see this tool is a mask. Who is it? We can just glimpse who’s putting on the masks.
In Christianity, the ideal has generally been a good man. Not so in Buddhism. There’s a famous poem about the four kinds of men. When the seeds are planted, the thieving sparrows come down and pick up the seed. The man who drives the thieving sparrows from his neighbour’s field, even though they then go on to his own field is the good man. The man who drives the thieving sparrows off his own field, even though they go onto the neighbour’s field is the bad man.
“Sparrows? What sparrows?” is the stupid man. Who finds a means to drive the sparrows from both the fields is the wise man. The ideal of Buddhism is the wise man. Not the good man. A wise man will be good, but he’ll be good wisely. You can say, “Oh no, it’s enough to be good.” No, many very good men have done some things which were hardly good. Cardinal Bellarmine, he was one of the great dignitaries of the church, 1600. He gave away all his wealth to the poor regularly.
Although a cardinal, he lived a life of extreme simplicity and poverty, though he had to dress up for the ceremonies. The most wonderful man, but he was one of the judges that condemned Giordano Bruno to be burned alive with the torture of the gag. He did it from the highest motives. He was undoubtedly a good man, but he was not a wise man in that instance. The Zen teachers would tell us to approach Christianity in the Zen way, by penetrating through the words, not to be a devil.
We must take off our devil masks. I must take off my hatred and greed and spite and jealousy and laziness. I must take off the devil mask. I can become a good man. Then I must take off. Find out what lies behind. There’s something beyond the evil, beyond the goodness. This is hinted at in our own Christian scripture. The Zen teacher will say you must penetrate into your own teaching. Not simply think of it as holy and great like that bodhisattva mask.
If I’m so impressed with these words of Ecclesiastes – ‘How wonderful they are!’ – and the conclusion – vanity of vanities, all is vanity, said the preacher, that meant emptiness, vanity! Emptiness of emptiness, all is emptiness. The Japanese gets a surprise when he reads that in translation. [Japanese language.] Void of the void, all is the void. Pure Buddhist phrase which is something perhaps we should penetrate. Emptiness of emptiness, all is emptiness. Well, is it the sentences we think of, or what?
The idea of Zen is not to give theoretical talks without practise. Just to give you an idea of the way it is actually practised. We could try a little bit on a familiar Christian story. I’ll explain the Zen method of going about it. There’s a famous story, and I’ve never heard anybody yet even notice the riddle in it. At daybreak, he appeared again in the temple, and all the people gathered around him. He had taken his seat and was engaged in teaching them when the doctors of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman detected in adultery.
Making her stand out in the middle, they said to him, “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery, and the law of Moses that is laid down that such women are to be stoned, what do you say about it?” They put the question as a test, hoping to frame a charge against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they continued to press their question, he sat up straight, and said, “That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone.”
Then once again, he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard what he said, one by one, they went away. The eldest first, and Jesus was left alone with the woman still standing there. Jesus again sat up, and said to the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Jesus replied, “No more do I. You may go. Do not sin again.” This is a very well-known story. What did he write? They put the questions to the test. “Moses has laid down such women are to be stoned.” Jesus bent down, bent down. He was sitting, bent down, and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they continued to press their question, he sat up straight and said, “That one of you who is sinless shall throw the first stone.”
Then once again, he bent down and wrote on the ground. They went away, the eldest first. Now, here’s a riddle. There are suggestions that have been made. Some people say he just doodled on the ground to show that he was completely uninterested in their accusation. Some people more sensibly say he wrote the actual text from Deuteronomy saying, “The witness shall throw the first stone.” There’s another text saying, “The witness shall be a man of upright character,” but he bent down twice.
He bent down, wrote. Then they pressed him, and he sat up, said, “He who is sinless shall throw the first stone,” then he bent down again and wrote. Now, if you’d like to try this, sit in the meditation posture and I’ll read it sentence by sentence with a pause. As each sentence is read, vividly picture the scene and identify ourselves with the character. Identify one’s self with the doctors of the law and the Pharisees. They were undoubtedly good men, very strict. Then identify yourself with the woman caught because she had been caught. Then Jesus bends down and writes.
Then they press him and he sits up, then he says these words. Now, in the same way, there’ll be about half a minute or minute between each, if you’d like to try. At daybreak, he appeared again in the temple and all the people gathered around him. He had taken his seat and was engaged in teaching them when the doctors of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman detected in adultery, making her stand out in the middle.
They said to him, “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. In the law, Moses has laid down that such women are to be stoned. What do you say about it?” They put this question as a test, hoping to frame a charge against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dust on the ground. When they continued to press their question, he sat up straight and said, “That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone.”
Then once again, he bent down and wrote on the ground.
One by one, they went away, the eldest first, and Jesus was left alone with the woman still standing there. Jesus again sat up and said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Jesus replied, “No more do I. You may go. Do not sin again.”
In a Zen training situation, one would have to produce an answer. What did he write? The teacher has a big stick, and if the pupil hasn’t tried, the teacher can use that stick. There’s a definite answer which explains everything. Bent down, they pressed the question, he bent down. They continued to ask, he sat up and looked, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” He bent down and wrote again. They went out one by one, the eldest first. All these points must be explained by the answer.
Well, this is an example of a Zen koan. They do this with the Zen Sutras. They apply it in the case of a Christian pupil, and they don’t ask the pupil who comes whether he’s a Christian or a Buddhist or anything. If he’s a Christian and it comes out that he’s a Christian, then they can use one of these cases, one of these stories. This is a relatively easy one.
There are hints in the teachings in the gospel of something which is beyond and behind the words. Jesus says, “The light of the body is the eye, and if thine eye be single, then is thy body full of light. But if the eye that is within thee is darkness, how great is that dark?” What an extraordinary thing to say, “The light of the body is the eye. If thine eye be single…?” This is a literal translation from the original Greek. Single.
They have translated it now in the modern English Bible, “If thine eye be sound,” if your eye is sound, but that’s not what the original says. “If thine eye be single.” This is referring to something, and the Zen teacher will say, “This is something in us. We must find that.” Jesus says again in two phrases, which have never been explained, “Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life. Few there are that find it.” What does it mean? ‘Oh, well, it means nothing, I expect. Sort of… yes, that’s right – it means it’s quite difficult to be a good man – probably.’ Straight is the gate, narrow is the way. In another place, he’ll say, “Struggle to enter by the narrow door.” The word is very strong, a struggle. It’s connected with the word agony. Strive in agony to enter the narrow door. Why narrow? Again, he’s referring to something. Now, the same point comes up in different ways. For instance, he says to a man who is rather satisfied with his own conduct, he’s kept the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus says, “One thing you lack. Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and follow me.” The man went away sorrowing, for he had great possessions. Jesus didn’t ask all his disciples to do that, but he did ask for that enquirer to do it. Then he said to his disciples, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples say that they’re astonished, it says, and they said, “Then who can be saved?”
What an extraordinary thing to say? They should have said, “Well, we’ve given up everything to follow you. We’re poor. Jolly good. Difficult for the rich to enter, but we’ve become poor. We’ve voluntarily become poor. Excellent news.” No, they said, “Then who can be saved?” What does it mean? Jesus makes it even more difficult. He says, “What is impossible for man, is possible for God.”
“It is easier,” says Jesus, “for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Why? “An eye be single.” “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” “Straight is the gate and narrow is the way.” “To enter through the eye of a needle.” All over the world from Buddhism in the Far East, to the Christians in the Far West, they use this, or we do this and it becomes automatic [place the hands together]. In a Japanese shrine, when you make your offering, you stand in front and ring the chord for the bell sounds to attract the attention of the god of the shrine. Then you join hands together, clap, bow, then make your offering. Quite soon it comes automatic. [humming] You just do it every weekend. Then one day, you’re in real trouble. You ring the bell, and you [clap your hands together] make your offering and bow. Then, because you’re in real trouble, then you make a real prayer – [clap] and then you go. Perhaps your prayer isn’t answered. Or if it’s not answered materially, you feel a peace. That not answering – that “No” was an answer and you feel an inner peace. After that, you always do it twice. [claps]
After a bit, [humming] it’s just automatic again. Then one day, you’re in real trouble. You’re doing your two automatic ones, then the third one you really need. After that, you always do it three times and they become automatic. You know what they do now? They get the offering, they wrap it in a bit of paper, they put nine bows on it, and they chuck it in here. All these things become automatic because we feel there’s nothing more.
You do this, that’s all. Those who study these things say there’s a hidden meaning in this posture [holding the hands together centrally]. It refers to something. There’s some something hidden. Well, now these are hints at a particular practice. There are hints at the practice, in the Far Eastern tradition, and in many other traditions all over the world. Just as an example – you’ve heard some of these hints, perhaps you’ve already got an idea – I’ll ask my friend, Curtis to explain this practice, and then if you like, we can just try it together after hearing this.
Curtis: Dr. Shastri used to recommend a particular practice which was helpful once one had established it in meditation practice at home. You could do it during the day, but it had to be established in the peace and quiet of one’s meditation practice first. When one had established that practice, during the day when one used it, you’d find that activities that one was engaged in, instead of just being for whatever purpose they were intended, say working in an office or whatever, that you could actually use them for spiritual progress.
There was an element in the task that would help one along the spiritual way if one was trying to use this particular practice. He described it very simply as visualising a centre line of light down the middle of the body. It wasn’t something that was a pure visualization because it was actually there, but it would take time for the mind to calm down to recognize its existence. What he said was just, first of all, to sit peacefully in an upright posture with both feet flat on the ground and to try to keep the head and the neck in line with the back and to take the finger, touching it to the forehead, just draw it down the centre of the body, down over the heart region, down to just below the navel. Imagine a thin line of light where that impression was left. You feel an after sensation after running your finger down. He said that practising this for about 10 minutes each day in the meditation time, same time each day, would set up an awareness, which when it was established could be aroused during the day’s activities. Then tasks which were boring or rather laborious, the sort of things that one didn’t need to do a lot of intellectual thinking about. Answering telephones, for example, is very difficult, or making decisions. The visualisation seems to get disturbed but if one’s putting letters into envelopes or copy typing or whatever the case may be, something fairly straightforward that you can transform that rather laborious task into something which has a spiritual meaning and a spiritual progression to it.
I don’t know if you’d like to try just for three or four minutes. He said that everybody who did this practice faithfully would actually get the same experience. It wasn’t just something that one was hypnotising oneself into, but it was a positive actual experience which the mind could resort to harmonise and direct it towards the centre. It’s a very powerful practice he used to recommend.
So, just to sit upright and press the finger just between the eyebrows. Draw the finger down the centre of the body over the nose, the mouth, down past the heart region, to just below the navel. Imagine a thin line of light within the body, down the centre of the body and just breathe slowly and deeply and focus on that line. I’ll say OM to start and finish.
Trevor: If we practise something like this, and then when we’re reading the scriptures, we can begin to understand. The eyes look, “if thine eye be single”, “strive to enter through the narrow door.” “Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life.” Bringing the consciousness of the left side of the body and the right side of the body [to the centre]. We can begin to understand some of these hints but simply intellectually to understand them means that they will become masks, beautiful, holy masks unless the practice is pursued so that it becomes alive.
Well, this was an example that’s given, although it’s not in accordance with the Zen traditions to give answers. However, we’re not in a Zen class so it’s alright to give us a hint but this is only an intellectual answer. Now, if we read the gospels carefully, we’ll notice—and it says as much – he taught in parables. The word parable is not a particularly good one. The original, the Aramaic from which they think it comes means a riddle. Christ sometimes reproaches his disciples, not saying how sinful you are, but how dull you are.
If you look in the text you find he taught in parables. There are parables in the Old Testament, but Jesus was the first teacher to use them systematically as a method of instruction. If you read them carefully, the woman had 10 pieces of silver. Those pieces of silver weren’t worth very much. She’s poor and she drops one, and it rolls into a crack somewhere on the floor. She drops everything else and searches for it. When she finds it, she’s got her 10 pieces again. She’s so happy and she throws a party, rejoicing with the neighbours. The party would have cost much more than the little pieces of silver. There’s something hidden in that story. If we were taking Zen interviews we should have to produce an answer. What is it that’s hidden in that very, very simple story? I’ll present you with one more which is on the subject itself. It’s in Mark which is supposed to be the oldest gospel. He said, “You do not understand this parable? How then are you to understand any parable? To those, everything comes by way of parables.” That’s to say by way of riddles. Now, we should listen very carefully to these words. Everything comes to them by way of parables, “I teach by way of parables, so that,” as the scripture says, “they may look and look, but see nothing. They may hear and hear, but understand nothing. Otherwise, they might turn to God, and be forgiven.” “To those everything comes by way of parables, so that,” as scripture says, “they may look and look, but see nothing. They may hear and hear, but understand nothing. Otherwise, they might turn to God, and be forgiven.” This is that riddle presented by the teacher of riddles. He taught in riddles so that they might look and look and see nothing. They might hear and hear and understand nothing. Otherwise, they might turn to God, and be forgiven.
I’ll put up one or two more pictures. Can you see the picture? It’s an Eastern boat, and they are propelled by this oar at the back, and you do it like a fish moves its tail. You move the oar, and slowly and painfully, the boat moves forward. It’s a tremendous job. There’s a skill to it, but it’s an awful job. You hoist the sail. There’s a Buddha figure on the sail. If you hoist the sail of meditation, you’ll begin to receive an impulse. You’ll come into line with the cosmic purpose, which will begin to move the boat forward. Then this will be used for steering. Before this, we propel our lives as best we can by our own painful efforts, but through meditation and prayer and right action, the mast is hoisted, the sail, and then a wind begins to carry our life forward.
Now, if we could just hold this for now. It’s a picture of a monk in meditation. You can see, within the figure of the monk, there’s this shining bodhisattva figure. This is a representation by a Buddhist artist of St. Paul’s statement, “Not I, but Christ in me.” Something comes alive and manifests within the human. “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” This is from the Buddhist tradition but we can recognise visibly it doesn’t mean to seek to be a good man simply and to feel one is doing the will of Christ. There’s still two, and St. Paul says, “Not I, but Christ in me.” This is given in modern terms of a mountaineer who has climbed the hill of meditation of samadhi practice. He’s sitting, enjoying the rising sun. He can see the whole landscape from which he’s come. He can see the clouds, and he knows roughly when it’s going to rain, which the people on the ground don’t know, because they can only see what’s immediately above them. He can see the shortest way to get from here to here, from above.
People on the ground can’t see that. They can only see what’s immediately around. In these meditations, samadhi states, he has visions and inspiration because he can see a much wider range. There is a higher peak behind him, but he has got to this peak, and he has a wide range. While he remains on top of the hill, enjoying the sunrise and the vision, he’s not helping the people of the world. So, he comes down, and he becomes, again, a humble cleric but now he knows the course of the wind to see from above how the clouds move, and he knows the shortest distance to go along the waterways. He knows how to catch the wind quite accurately now and how to steer the boat. The process is to go into meditation, again and again, higher and higher, until there’s a vision. Greater or less, with that vision, he can come down again and receive some inspiration and come into touch with the cosmic lines on which the world is moving.
Instead of acting against them by his own efforts, or not making use of them, he can hoist this sail and catch a little hint of inspiration and power from the cosmic source. Well, these are Zen pictures. They can be a stimulus, but the picture also can become just a beautiful mask. Unless we go much deeper, they can become like beautiful parables, beautiful pictures, sonorous sounds, wonderful services in the cathedrals, great music, incense, brocades and everything. In some of the Japanese temples as here, they have wonderful gold embroidered brocade robes for the priests.
One head monk I knew very well, he used to take the service every two or three days at about half past three in the morning. A lot of people would come. I remember him as he came back from the temple in these wonderful robes, he passed me. He made no acknowledgement at all, because they don’t. Later on, when I saw him, he said, “You know, I wear those robes for two hours, but they’re not mine. They belong to the temple, and tomorrow somebody else will be wearing them. I’ve conducted the service as I’m asked to do, [then] take them off.” He said, “Now I’m sitting here in my room,” in his room, in his faded cheap robe. He said, “Now I’m myself.” He said, “The things of the world are like that. Think of success you may get, think of failures you may get, disappointments, desires, and aversions, they’re all like borrowed robes. They’re not you at all. Periodically, take them all off, go and sit in your room, and be yourself.”
Well, thank you for your attention.