Zen: Meditation and Simplicity as a "Sacrament"
by Notto R. Thelle
Zen does not transcend the human consciousness in a
search for "higher" value, this author says. On the contrary, one is
summoned back to the original awareness, to this world.
A student once visited the Zen master Gasan in Tenryuji, one of the
five great Zen monasteries in Kyoto, and asked him: "Have you ever read
the Christian Bible?" Gasan replied: "No--read it for me."
The student opened the Bible and began to read from the Gospel of
Matthew: "And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of
the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,
even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of them. . . .
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its
Gasan said: "I would say that the man who spoke these words is enlightened."
The student continued his reading: "Ask, and it will be given you;
search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you"
Gasan then said: "Wonderful! The man who spoke such words is not far
from Buddhahood!" A little over one hundred years ago, a Christian
theological student called Seitaro Yoshida knocked at the gate of
Gasan's monastery and told him that he was "called by God" to meditate
under Gasan's guidance. Initially, he did not get beyond the gate, but
he did not acquiesce in this harsh rejection--he returned again and
again, and was literally thrown out of the monastery each time. This is
how Zen tests the seriousness and perseverance in a person's religious
search. At last, the gate opened, and Yoshida shared the strict rhythm
of the monastery's life for three years, before he resumed his
theological studies and subsequently became a leading pastor in Japan's
We are not told the name of the student who read to Gasan from the
Sermon on the Mount, but it is not improbable that it was Yoshida
Zen or zazen--meditation
in a seated posture--is the innermost secret of Buddhism. The Buddha
himself attained enlightenment in the course of silent meditation.
Indeed, many would say that meditation is the very Buddha Way.
In the silence of the meditation hall, the body and mind become calm,
one breathes more deeply and freely, and thoughts become clearer. The
life-transforming insight is sought beyond the artificial boundaries of
This was the context that Pastor Yoshida entered. He meditated with the
monks, worked in the monastery garden and kitchen, listened to the
master, conversed with him, and looked for answers to his questions.
After three years, he went back to serving his church.
Naturally, this is not a normal career for a clergyman in Japan, and it was even
more unusual in the nineteenth century, when Buddhists and Christians still regarded
each other with suspicion and dislike. Nevertheless, Pastor Yoshida was not unique.
He attracted attention because he was a clergyman, but we find the same pattern
in many other Christians who were impelled by an inner force to put their faith
to the test in the encounter with Zen. They became spiritual pilgrims, setting
out on their travels in order to discover the hidden connections in their lives.
What happened to them? And why were they attracted by Zen?
Some who had converted to Christianity now rediscovered in Buddhism the
landscape of their childhood, and they turned their backs on
Christianity for good. Their Christian faith became just one phase of a
path which was absorbed into larger contexts. Others found Buddhism to
be so severe and cold that they returned with a new eagerness to the
warmth and human concern in the Christian church.
But many--perhaps most--discovered that Zen changed them. Their
Christian faith became receptive to Buddhist experiences and insights,
and this was more than merely an aesthetic varnish on the surface: new
ideas and expressions made their faith look more Japanese. Some found
new perspectives on their faith, when they recognized in Zen elements
of their own faith; others found that Zen helped them to understand the
Bible better, and they spoke enthusiastically of a "Zen spirituality"
in Jesus and Paul. Some noticed an inner transformation: their faith
was not only challenged and inspired, but acquired a new dimension.
They held fast to Christ and remained members of the church, but they
believed in a new way.
Something like this happened to another Japanese clergyman, the
Dominican Shigeto Oshida. After many years of priestly ministry, he
received permission to leave the normal structures of religious life,
and he founded a little community in a mountain village north of
Nagoya. He says of himself: "I am a Buddhist who has met Christ." He
grew up as a Buddhist, and discovered the meaning of life in Christ.
Since then, he has lived in the service of the church; but in the
course of the years, he has rediscovered a way of life in which Zen is
a natural part of the rhythm of faith. Father Oshida does not say very
much about Zen, but it is there in the air one breathes, and the
visitor notices how Zen inspires everything from worship and meditation
and biblical study to the community's meals and conversations and daily
Everywhere in the East, one meets "hyphenated Christians" whose faith
is formed in close contact with their inherited religion and culture.
It seems that the encounter with Zen creates a particularly large
number of hyphenated believers, who become "Zen-Christians" or
"Christians inspired by Zen."
The traffic goes in the other direction too. After Japanese Buddhists
overcame their skepticism and grasped that Christianity was not an
enemy of the East, there has been a continuous stream of spiritual
pilgrims to the Christian landscapes. The Christian faith, and not
least the Gospel narratives about Jesus, unsettled them and inspired
them. They were touched in the very depths of their life-experience,
and the Bible became their favorite reading, shaping their way of
thinking. There are many "hyphenated Buddhists" in Japan. Their
existential attitudes are formed by Buddhism, but they are also friends
and disciples of Jesus.
What is it about Zen Buddhism that permits Christians to recognize
themselves in its experiences, and inspires them to see larger
contexts, receive new insights, and be affected in the depths of their
faith? The interest in Zen often begins as a romantic and aesthetic
attraction. Zen has an atmosphere all of its own. Even in temples
crowded by noisy tourists, one notices the silence behind the external
forms; the architecture hints at hidden dimensions, and the miniature
gardens in moss and stone and sand point one to a larger cosmos. Zen
has penetrated Japanese art through and through, cultivating
existential expressions that range from tea drinking and flower
arrangements to sport and martial ideals. In the encounter with Zen, a
Japanese Christian who has lost contact with his own background is
compelled to ask whether God intended that the Christian faith should
exclude the richness and simplicity that is at home in the religious
world of the East.
Gradually, however, the aesthetic attraction becomes less important, as
one concentrates on the life that lies behind the forms--the silence,
the meditation, the concentration. One quickly sees that Zen makes
demands; discipline, will, and perseverance are necessary for
meditation. There is nothing romantic about sitting with your face to
the wall while your legs ache and your thoughts are unwilling to
concentrate. Aestheticism disappears when you are overpowered by sleep,
or when you remain dumb because you cannot find an answer to the
master's insoluble questions. How is one to meditate when doubt goes
about its corrosive work, and one no longer knows where all this is
And yet, thousands of Christians continue their journey into Zen,
because they are nourished by an inner disquiet--which is also an inner
certainty. The path into silence does not lead away from their faith,
but into deeper dimensions of that faith. All that is superficial is
stripped away; one no longer expects dramatic experiences and cosmic
breakthroughs, but waits in simple openness. For many Christians, this
meditation is a preparation for prayer. Words fall silent, expectations
and ambitions disappear, and the mind opens up to perceive a greater
I have helped organize seminars on Zen both for Japanese clergy and for
foreign missionaries, and we always met in a Zen monastery. This meant
that we not only had lectures and discussions, but could follow the
rhythm of the monastery, including the fixed times for Zen meditation.
The participants repeatedly confirmed my own observation: Zen can open
up paths into silence because it has preserved a unique awareness of
the body as an integral part of our spiritual search. Christians speak
a great deal about silence and prayer, but they often forget that the
body, the breathing, and external circumstances prepare concentration
and are themselves a part of the silence. As one participant put it,
somewhat paradoxically, "We tend to think that Buddhism despises the
body, because it has no place for a Creator. But Zen taught me
something about my body that my Christian faith in the Creator ought to
have taught me long ago!"
When we hear that Zen is a finger pointing directly to the human heart,
and that Zen means discovering one's true self, we naturally ask
whether this means that the search in Zen is self-centered.
Self-centeredness does in fact flourish in all religions which take the
inward path, including Buddhism; but those who are looking for a
comfortable ego-trip should seek methods other than Zen, for part of
the point about finding oneself in Zen is not to confirm one's
egotistic dreams, but to tear away the mask from the false ego so that
the "original face" can emerge. The new world is born when we shatter
the artificial world we have built up around ourselves. In Zen, we find
our true being only when the ego dies.
This awareness that the true human person is born when the ego dies is
a bridge that allows a dialogue between Buddhists and Christians. The
conversation reaches a dead end when they formulate their insights in
philosophical or theological concepts, but they are speaking the same
language when they offer a concrete description of the person who has
become what he was meant to be. Here is what one of Japan's leading Zen
masters, Dogen Kigen (1200-1253), said to his disciples:
To get to know the Buddha Way is to get to know oneself.
To get to know oneself is to forget oneself.
To forget oneself is to be confirmed by all things.
To be confirmed by all things is to let go of one's body and mind, and to let go of others' bodies and minds.
All traces of enlightenment vanish; and these vanishing traces of awakening must be left behind forever.
Let us mention one further paradox: despite all its emphasis on
achieving redemption by one's own power, Zen is profoundly aware that
the individual's life is borne up by a greater presence.
There is no doubt that Zen is a path that the individual himself must
take. Zen is hard work, concentration, discipline, and a journey toward
insight that takes many years. One can listen, learn, understand with
the intellect, and receive inspiration, but one must take
responsibility for one's own destiny. No one can wake up in place of
another person; the insight which transforms one's life is granted only
to the person who opens his own eyes and sees. The traditional
vocabulary calls this "self-redemption."
Nevertheless, those who have genuinely familiarized themselves with Zen
have a surprising awareness that enlightenment is ultimately something
one receives. The hard work and discipline do not create the insight;
their function is to prepare the person and to create a space for the
insight. Reality opens up for the one who has let go of his or her own
self. There is a link between Zen's demand that one let go of the ego
and its awareness that enlightenment is a gift of grace.
The most striking expression I know of this coexistence of hard work
and gift is a book of sketches of life in a Japanese Zen monastery. One
drawing shows a monk who at last has achieved his spiritual
breakthrough. He has meditated for many months and years, and has given
everything to attain insight. One day, the world opens up for him: he
is awakened! He reacts to the miracle of enlightenment by stretching
out his arms in an explosion of joy--and at precisely this moment, he
sees something he had never before realized, namely that he is sitting
on a huge hand, the hand of the Buddha. It had been there all along,
but I imagine that he did not see it until he woke up and received
knowledge. Despite all its emphasis on self-redemption, Zen is
conscious that life can be received only by the one who has empty hands
and an open mind. This idea is familiar to Christians too.
Zen Buddhism begins and ends with the simplest and most difficult
questions of all: What does it mean to exist? How does one encounter
life? How can one live in harmony with one's innermost nature? Many
people come with exaggerated expectations of ecstatic experiences,
cosmic breakthroughs, and superhuman abilities. They may indeed have
important experiences, and they may be transformed in the course of
time; but Zen does not seek extraordinary or super-human things. With
ruthless consistency, it calls the individual back to the ordinary
sphere where life unfolds in its "suchness" or "thusness," as Buddhists
put it. Enlightenment means opening one's eyes in such a way that
reality can be seen, untouched by desires, ambitions, dreams, and
expectations. Zen means finding one's place in reality, not groping
blindly for an unattainable dream world, but in a spontaneous and
The title of this essay speaks of simplicity as a "sacrament." It is
perhaps somewhat audacious to employ such a theologically loaded word
about something as Buddhist as Zen, but I hope the point is clear
enough. In the Christian tradition, a sacrament is a visible sign
pointing to the presence of invisible grace. The water of baptism and
the bread of the eucharist are fundamental elements of life that become
the place of the divine presence in the sacred rites. In Zen, it is
precisely the simple and everyday things that have a sacramental
character. There is nothing special about drinking tea, meeting people,
going about one's daily work, playing with children, or taking delight
in nature; but it is in the elements of ordinary life that the mystery
of existence opens up. A Zen poem puts it as follows:
How miraculous! I carry water. I cut wood.
Zen does not transcend the human consciousness in a search for "higher"
values. On the contrary, one is summoned back to the original
awareness, to this
world. True life finds expression in everyday things. There are plenty
of religions in the East that speak of the divinity of the soul and of
superhuman experiences, but Zen speaks of something much simpler and
much more demanding, namely of realizing one's own humanity.
Ultimately, it is perhaps this radical simplicity that makes the
greatest impact on the Christians who journey into the landscapes of
Zen Buddhism. In the course of their search, they become more open to
the traditions of their own culture; silence and concentration give
them a deeper understanding of the divine presence. Above all, however,
they have learned something about true humanity. They have discovered
the sacrament of simplicity.
Their Christian background alienated them from aspects of Zen. At the
same time, their Christian faith gave them certain advantages, since
they had already learned some elements of Zen from the Master himself.
He too called people to return to the life they were meant to lead. He,
more than anyone else, knew that the true life begins when the self
dies. His life displayed what the sacrament of simplicity means. All
this led these Christians to read the Gospels with a new eagerness, for
it was there that they met the true Master who crossed all borders and
made the divine presence a reality in people's daily lives.
In very truth, he came from God. But the really miraculous thing about him was his unfailing humanity.
Notto R. Thelle, D.Th., is a professor in the
Faculty of Theology, the University of Oslo, Norway. Having studied
Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, he acted as associate director
of the NCC (National Christian Council) Center for the Study of
Japanese Religions in Kyoto from 1974 to 1985, where he was a visiting
scholar in 1999 and 2000.
This essay is a translation from the author's 1991 book
in Norwegian whose title translates as "Who Can Stop the Wind? Travels
in the Borderland between East and West." This article was originally
published in the April-June 2007 issue of
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