06 April 2009

Zen Christian

Kevin Thew Forrester was recently elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan on February 21, but is also a Buddhist practitioner in the Soto School of Zen Buddhism and practices at the Lake Superior Zendo. Some claim that this is somehow at odds with being Christian or Episcopal. I can't speak for Episcopal folk but as someone who is intimately familiar with Zen and Soto Zen in particular I don't see Christianity and Zen as being at odds with each other. But they can complement each other.

We're not talking Tibetan Buddhism here. That most Catholic of all Buddhist sects. In Zen, Buddha is not revered as a god nor is he asked to intercede with god. He's a teacher. Revered and honored. But nothing more.

Anthony de Mello (Jesuit), Meister Eckhart (Dominican) (surely not knowing it as zen but just as surely it was) and Thomas Merton (Trappist) and many other devoted Christians have explored the Zen path. It is a contemplative path that takes its practitioner to a place where one confronts two mysteries: the Self and the unnameable and ultimately unknowable essence of the universe; a/k/a the Trinity.

Is there a bigger, unnameable, unknowable or more mysterious thing than the Triune God? If Zen practice helps one to experience the Triune God, then what's the problem? Zen is not the problem. In fact there is no problem. Christ made sure of that. Zen is not the worship of Buddha but the search for self.

As Thomas Merton said:

"What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous."

As Meister Eckhart said:

"He who would be serene and pure needs but one thing, detachment."

"To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God."

"There exists only the present instant... a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only now."

As Anthony de Mello said:

"Obedience keeps the rules. Loves knows when to break them."

Truly, a Soto Zen Master could not have said it better.



J. Workman said...

Since I am required to vote on this consecration, may I ask you a few questions?

I take it "Roshi" in your blog title indicates that you are a Zen Master.

Bishop-elect Thew Forrester (KTF below) has posted on the diocese website the following statement. I have interspersed my questions for you.

KTF: The ceremony I participated in was quite simple. I provide below the one vow I took and the precepts I affirmed. I believe you will find they have nothing whatsoever to do with me joining Buddhism.

Question: Elsewhere KTF writes that he received Lay Ordination. Is Lay Ordination a lesser thing than "being a Buddhist"? Can one have Lay Ordination and not be Buddhist?

KTF: Within the ceremony I took one vow: “We vow to save all beings.”

Question: Is this not the Bodhisattva Vow to help save all sentient beings, before going into full Nirvana or enlightenment. Does this not require the prayer, "May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings"?

KTF: For me, as a Christian, this meant a recommitment of my baptismal covenant: to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons [creatures],

Question: “Creatures” seems a curious insertion here. Don't Buddhists believe that all living things have the Buddha spirit in them?

KTF: There were also “The Three Collective Pure Precepts,” which I affirmed:

-Striving to avoid the unwholesome,
-Striving to do the wholesome,
-Striving to benefit all living beings.

Finally, there was an affirmation of “The Ten Grave Prohibitory Precepts”:

Not taking life
Not stealing
Not indulging in sexual greed
Not speaking falsehood
Not indulging in intoxicants
Not discussing the faults of others
Not praising self or slandering others
Not begrudging the bestowal of Dharma [wisdom] on anyone

Question: The Dharma is not just generic wisdom; is it not the sacred doctrine of the Buddha and of Buddhism? Isn't Dharma transmission one function of a Roshi?

KTF cont.:
Not indulging in anger
Not disparaging the Triple Treasure [the Buddha as a teacher, the wisdom, the community]

Question: Is this not a vow to refrain from critique of the way of the Buddha?

KTF: I hope this provides some clarity. I am not a Buddhist. I am a Christian who has benefited from
being taught the spiritual practice of meditation. The Incarnation, I believe, frees us as Christians
to recognize and receive the Holy wherever we encounter it. As Christians, we have felt free to
incorporate a non-Christian practice such as the labyrinth, and allow it to become a spiritual
practice that deepens our walk in Christ. In the Middle Ages, we adapted non-Christian prayer
beads and developed them into our rosary. Meditation, for me, and countless others, is a spiritual
practice which deepens my contemplative dwelling in Christ, so that I may say ever more fully –
into your hands I commend my Spirit. All Christian spiritual practice, whatever it is, is done for this reason alone.

John Mangels said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog, and thanks for this clear comment on the compatibility of zen and Christianity.