Christianity and Zen: already and not yet

There cannot be enough books like Zen for Christians, and not only because there cannot be enough sincere spiritual journeys. Kim Boykin’s book is an approachable instruction manual for a form of meditation unfamiliar to many of her fellow Christians. Her clear descriptions of Christian and Zen beliefs as well as her honest appraisal of her own faith and practice make Zen for Christians a welcome participant in the interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Zen.

Kim Boykin found herself prepared to write the book because of her particular journey, which took her from “Southern California agnostic” to Zen to Christian and finally to Christian who practices Zen, a person whom Boykin compares to a mathematician who plays tennis.

Boykin wrote her book for Christians who may be interested in Zen practice, but are concerned that Zen may somehow contradict Christian beliefs. Zen is a blend of a particular form of Buddhism – one that emphasizes “meditation and direct realization” – and an ancient form of Chinese Taoism. Boykin summarizes Zen’s teachings, which she points out have to do almost exclusively with meditation and ethical conduct. Because Zen’s teachings say almost nothing about God (or gods), and do not amount to doctrines, Christians should feel free to practice Zen, she says. Comparing Christianity and Zen, then, is like comparing math and tennis.

Boykin approaches both traditions, as well as her own Christian life and Zen practice, with respect and gentle humor. If one shared her disposition and joy, one would be more likely to learn from unfamiliar traditions, which, as she points out, can “be a way of illuminating a familiar one.” Boykin finds her Christianity enhanced by her Zen practice and understanding.

Indeed, at times Boykin seems to be describing Christianity in unfamiliar terms instead of comparing Christianity with an outside tradition. One of her five chapters, “Already and Not Yet,” sets out the salubrious tension in Zen between our inherent buddhahood and our need for enlightenment. A close reading of most of the New Testament’s epistles would expose a similar tension in Christian teaching.

The Christian Bible describes its adherents as being at once dead and alive, saints and sinners, already saved and in the process of being saved. (These paradoxes may account in part for Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth.”) Just as a Zen practitioner’s search for enlightenment may be compared to his search for the very ox he is riding on, a Christian’s work is to become what he is already – a daughter of God, with Jesus’ nature already inside of her.

A Christian starts with the famous mustard seed of faith, but the seed has all of the spiritual DNA she will ever need. A Christian therefore does not “become” anything. Instead, like good soil, her life is redirected to supplying the right conditions for the growth of the seed she discovers inside of her. The writer of Hebrews uses a different analogy with stark irrationality: “Labor to enter into that rest.”

Koans – the brief anecdotes full of the paradoxical language Zen is famous for – would help Christians with this version of their own “already and not yet.” So, of course, would Christianity’s own strong mystical tradition, long neglected in the West. Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, argues that Paul was Christianity’s first mystic, since he laid the foundation of our being “in Christ,” a phrase Paul uses repeatedly in his letters. Paul’s understanding is certainly the basis of Christian mysticism, which in turn may be described as the experience of being “in Christ.”

When Paul tells his fellow Christians how to act, he doesn’t leave them with, “Stop doing bad stuff.” He sums up his exhortations with, “Dismantle the false self. Let Christ in you grow up!” (My paraphrase.)

Relatedly, Boykin describes the Zen practitioner’s paradoxical relationship to the Sixteen Principles of Zen. A Christian will see in it parallels to the paradoxical view the Bible takes of its own law. First, Boykin on the Sixteen Principles:

For a fully realized buddha, wise and compassionate action would be natural and spontaneous. For the rest of us, wise and compassionate action may come naturally at times, but at other times it won’t, so the tradition has handed down some guidelines to follow for living wisely and compassionately.

Now the Bible on its own law:

…law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious… [1 Timothy 1:9]

…the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ… [Galatians 3:24]

To the extent that I am not a fully realized son of God, I had better follow the law!

Zen for Christians may simplify differences between the two traditions – the simplification helps me! – but it does not minimize the differences. On the other hand, the book does not find that the differences are enough to prevent a Christian from adopting a Zen practice.

Boykin has good advice for Christians who find former Christians in Zen centers. Since they may have left an expression of Christianity that has cut itself off from mystery, mysticism, or personal fulfillment, an apology would be in order.

Boykin’s descriptions of Zen practice are as sharp and as scrubbed as a Zen practitioner’s mind after doing zazen (sitting meditation). She intersperses her chapters with clear descriptions of various Zen practice, including sitting, walking, and following the breath. She describes Zen’s healthy approach to stray thoughts during meditation:

There’s no need to repress thoughts or ignore them. There’s no need to judge them or scold them. Simply notice the thoughts. Be aware of them. And if you find yourself repressing, ignoring, judging, or scolding your thoughts, there’s no need to repress, ignore, judge, or scold that. Simply notice it and return your attention to the breathing or the walking. Whatever arises, notice it and return your attention to the physical sensations of the present moment. [p. 74-75]

Although most traditions of Christian meditation do not focus on the present moment per se, Zen’s gentle style of “notice and report” works well with Christian meditation, and parallels lots of good advice from Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and others on how to handle stray thoughts.

It is also important to point out that Zen does not advocate eliminating thought. Indeed, it advocates an awareness of thoughts as it also aids one’s mental return to the present. In this respect, Zen’s approach may remind the Christian of Thomas Keating’s centering prayer, which is used to prepare the heart for the gift of contemplation. In Open Mind, Open Heart, Keating advocates the use of a “sacred word” to redirect the wandering mind’s attention to ever-deepening levels of a simple thought.

After reading Zen for Christians, it will be difficult for me to read the Gospels without hearing Jesus’ “Roshi” (old Zen master) style of relating truths in parables and in “dark sayings.” At one point Jesus takes a break from it, and his relieved disciples exclaim, “Now you are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech.” [John 16:29] Jesus seems more comfortable speaking in the style of Zen’s koans than in the expository style heard from most pulpits today.