Cover image for Zen gifts to Christians
Zen gifts to Christians
Kennedy, Robert E., 1933-
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Publication Information:
New York : Continuum, [2000]

Physical Description:
xii, 131 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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BQ9288.K861685 K46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This book is about how Zen experience can enrich Christians' emotional orientation. It is addressed to Christian practitioners of Zen meditation and is structured around the 10 ox-herding pictures that have been a source of inspiration to Zen students for centuries.

Author Notes

Authors Bio, not available

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Kennedy is a Jesuit who teaches theology at St. Peter's College, a psychotherapist in private practice and a Zen teacher who believes that Zen Buddhism has much to complement Christianity. In this bookÄdirected primarily toward Christians who already practice Zen or those who are curious about doing soÄKennedy draws on the symbolism of 10 12th-century Chinese depictions of ox herding to demonstrate the quest for one's true nature. (The ox represents a person's true self, while the ox herder is the one seeking that self; the 10 pictures symbolize 10 stages of spiritual growth.) Throughout, the book is a mishmash of East and West: interspersed with the pictures are Zen koans and poetry and prose from Western culture. While the illustrations and koans are interesting, something almost Zen-like has happened in the bookÄKennedy's literary selections (from Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and H.L. Mencken, to name a few) are so exquisite that they surpass the narrative rather than simply complementing and explaining the Buddhist teachings. Also, Kennedy sometimes has to perform difficult theological gymnastics to reconcile Buddhism to Christianity, as when he tries to align an Eastern understanding of humanity as divine with the Western Christian doctrine of humanity being created in the image of God. Despite these flaws, this book may appeal to those Christians whose temperament predisposes them toward the practice of Zen as they strive to grow in their spiritual lives. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Kennedy, a Jesuit and trained psychotherapist, has written a book that attempts to find new means of dialog between Zen Buddhists and Christians. The germ of the book is simple: Kennedy addresses in turn each of the famous "Oxherding pictures," an essential teaching tool in the Buddhist East and finds commonalities in Christian belief and culture. While Kennedy does not address his subjects with the depth one might hope for, and finding common points of interest from one faith to the other has a limited effect on true understanding and tolerance, Kennedy's chapters are capably written reflections on the shared issues of the two faiths. For larger collections, or where there is a strong interest in interfaith dialog. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE SEARCH FOR THE OX The Gift of Practice Facing outwards only the herdsman searches with all his might. His feet are already in a deep and muddy swamp but he does not notice. Let us reflect on what the poet tells us in this verse about the young ox herdsman. We know first of all that he is a beginner because he is "facing outward only" and pursuing a goal other than or even foreign to his very nature. And yet our young beginner has formidable strengths. We know he is well into the practice of searching because his feet are already "in a deep and muddy swamp." He is full of energy and courage and has impressive single-mindedness: he is not preoccupied, in fact, because his attention is so steady, he is totally focused on searching for the ox, which, as I have mentioned earlier, symbolizes our true nature. The verse strongly implies that unless we are totally attentive, unless we search "with all our might," we remain unaware of our true nature. We know that to want to search for the ox is already an awakening of our spirit. This in itself is a precious gift. It is this awakening, this becoming attentive that drives beginning students to start on the long and arduous journey to find and live their true nature. Their journey at this point consists in sitting with great fervor and attention, and listening carefully to the instruction of their teachers.     Zen Buddhists place great emphasis on the importance of attentiveness and practice. Form and teachers play the important role of guiding students and encouraging them to practice "with all their might." The best instruction I have heard for beginners came from Maezumi Roshi in his zendo in Los Angeles where I was a student. He told us what I had suspected was true but had not heard so clearly from any teacher before. The roshi said that zazen was not only spiritual; it was also mechanical: that is, it was important for us to pay attention to form. He claimed that if we practiced zazen correctly, we would in about two years' time receive some insight into our true nature regardless of our spiritual intentions. Maezumi Roshi was so adamant in his insistence that we sit well that he advised us not to sit at all if we were not attentive to form. Actually, one summer afternoon when twenty of us, all Zen students of Maezumi Roshi, were sitting in his zendo , he walked in, sniffed the air, and announced that the energy level in the room was too low. He picked up the keisaku (stick) used to rouse tired monks and went around the zendo striking each one of us. When he put down the stick, he left the room. Indeed as a result our energy level rose and our attentiveness sharpened. We all knew how fortunate we were to have such a teacher.     Zazen is a physical skill and can be compared to any physical skill such as, for example, sailing. There is a correct way to sail that guarantees some success and there is an incorrect way that results in failure. Sailing incorrectly is pitting one muscle carelessly against another; it guarantees only pain and exhaustion. One observant sailor remarked that the sea is not our enemy, but it is unforgiving if we do not sail correctly. In other words, let the would-be sailor beware! So too with zazen , let the inattentive sitter beware!     The koan that helped me most to practice zazen with attention comes near the end of the book, The Record of Transmitting the Light . This koan tells us about the 49th Master who as a young monk listens to his master reflect on a well known teaching which the young monk had often heard before. Hearing it this time, however, he jumps up from his seat and bursts out saying, "Why haven't I heard this before?" We are told he truly heard it at that moment for the first time and became enlightened as a result of his attentive and disciplined sitting. The teisho (instruction) the master gives in this koan illustrates the absolute necessity of discipline. O monks, if you want to reach this realm in person, you must close your eyes for a while, regulate your breathing, forget your body, have no place to lodge your body, have no need for any relationship with things, become like a cloudless blue sky, and become like the great ocean without waves. Then you will have some experience of it.     Disciplined and attentive sitting empties the mind and prepares it to receive insight into reality. This insistence on the practice of good sitting is shared by all great teachers. Yasutani Roshi, for example, claims that we must throw our whole life into the practice of zazen . Teaching his students, he says: In the practice of the Buddha way [and in fact it's the same with any "way"] maturity cannot simply be measured in any length of time. There are some who go along lazily, some who make average effort, some who are truly ardent, and some who throw their whole life into it. If they practice for the same amount of time a great difference will emerge in the result, so it can't be measured merely in terms of time.     For his part Master Hakuin, perhaps the most influential Zen teacher in Japan in the last six centuries, compared lazy students to a torn rice bag. He said that no matter how much rice is poured into the top of the bag, nothing is saved, for it spills right out the bottom. So too students who practice fitfully can never hold the energy that zazen builds. They will never reach the point of insight that inspired the 49th Master as a young monk to burst out and say, "Why wasn't I told this before?"     Instruction will only teach us how to sit. Finally it is our own practice of sitting, of honing our mechanical/physical skills that will discipline us into attentiveness. Just as the young ox herdsman "searches with all his might" so too in the zendo we must learn and practice to sit with complete attention. Of course we all know that for anyone in any walk of life to achieve and master a mechanical/physical skill requires practice and attention. For example, recently I listened to an interview of a professional golfer. An interviewer for TV stopped Greg Norman after he had played brilliantly and had won a major golf tournament. The interviewer asked Norman how he learned to play so well and position his shots so accurately. Perhaps the interviewer expected Norman to speak about his natural gift for the game. Instead Norman replied simply and said that whenever he was not playing in a tournament he made seven hundred practice shots daily. No follow-up question was necessary! No natural gift alone brought Norman to win the prize. Long laborious daily practice of attentively positioning his shots plus the desire to excel empowered him to master the game. So too with Zen practice. Those seekers who go to Japan for training but give up when they first encounter frustration incur the derision of their instructors who call them "three-day boys."     In the spring of 1998 I was privileged to be present at an unforgettable demonstration of attention and practice of mechanical skills at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Anne-Sophie Mutter, a solo violinist, played five sonatas of Beethoven accompanied by Lambert Orkis on the piano. I had never before seen anyone standing alone for two hours playing the violin. I was impressed not only by her genius for music but by her superb athletic posture. She played the violin with her whole body: not just with her fingertips but also with her toes without which she could never have kept her balance and rhythm. No talent in the world could have played so beautifully without having spent years honing the mechanical skills and paying precise attention to the many details of her craft. Her attention to mechanical skills in no way suppressed or minimized her humanity, which was so evident at the very start of the concert. Lambert Orkis, her accompanying pianist, was an elderly man who had difficulty with the tails of his coat as he seated himself at the piano. Anne-Sophie was not too great to put her violin down and assist the old man to be comfortable. Her spontaneous gesture drew an immediate and spirited applause from her sold-out audience.     That attention to technique and to mechanical skills is essential to achieving insight in the theater was the theme of a speech the playwright, Tom Stoppard, gave at the New York Public Library early in 1999. By technique he said he meant the control of information that flows from the play to the audience by hundreds of production cues that adjust the timing, duration, volume, intensity, color, and speed of the play. Stoppard said that we don't like to think of genius employing technique--it almost feels like a contradiction--but the emotional payoff in theater is often handed over to the punctuation of very specific technical cues. Stoppard insisted that theater is a physical event and that the words alone are not enough without everything else. In the extravagant complex equation of sound and light, it is certain words in a certain setting that--often mysteriously--can turn our hearts over. So too in the Zen meditation hall there is enacted among the master, the assistants, and the students, a kind of theater in which many mechanical cues of timing, duration, sound, and light play their part to give structure to aspiration and make it possible--often mysteriously--for our hearts to turn over.     Simone Weil, who has written much on the importance of paying attention, says that our attention is pure only when we are able to attend fully to what is in front of us. This kind of attention is essential to good sitting in the zendo . Putting much effort into practicing and listening attentively, students learn to develop increasing control over the obsessive distractions that beset us all. To control distractions, however, does not mean to suppress them. It is futile to try to suppress the mind and even if such a feat were possible, it would create not an attentive mind but a pot of dead ashes. Bodhidharma explains well how to deal with distractions: he says, let the mind circulate freely but let it cling to nothing.     For Weil learning to pay attention includes acknowledging our failures without making excuses for them. Weil explains that by acknowledging our failures we can acquire the virtue of humility, which is a far more precious treasure than all academic achievements. Even the concentration we develop to attain academic achievement is for Well a tool to form the foundation of our spiritual focus. She writes: When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls we shall be well established on the right foundation.     Especially important to sitting with "the right attention" is Simone Weil's equally convincing advice that twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of frowning application, which serves only to let us say that we have done our duty. Yamada Roshi of Kamakura would agree with her for he always advised us that twenty-five minutes of attentive sitting at one time was sufficient and contended that zazen was not an endurance contest to see who could sit the longest. I myself heard him say that exclusive concentration on endurance can turn Zen meditation into "Zen hell."     Although the gift of practice strengthens their ability to pay attention, to stay focused on what they desire, beginning students still need to surrender all barriers that prevent them from finding their true nature. Like the ox herdsman who gives up everything, even his own comfort, they must also give up their old ways and habits to follow the new path their teachers lay out for them.     A recent article on dancing written by Joan Acocella and subtitled "controlled anarchy and self-abandon" clarifies the importance of having good teachers as well as practicing with attention. In this article Acocella insists that most dancers don't develop into anything interesting unless choreographers continue to make new and interesting roles for them. She contends that we don't get a Suzanne Farrell without a George Balanchine, or a Margot Fonteyn without a Frederick Ashton.     Acocella agrees that most young dancers have inherently some special gift that is there from their teens. It's who they are. One has speed, another delicacy, another stage presence. But without challenging experiences their gifts can become repetitious and lifeless. To avoid this from happening, these gifts, according to Acocella, must be bent, even by a sort of "ballet Zen," and must be damped down by a choreographer. When this happens, the dancer works, gives up old habits and cherished strengths to dance into new territory. Acocella singles out Susan Jaffe who, under the direction of Suzanne Farrell, stopped impersonating a Catholic school girl and learned to Come alive, heat up, expand, and fill the ballet's skin.     Performing under the direction of a master is not difficult or burdensome. To a true artistic talent the challenge is longed for. Painful and frustrating though the challenge surely is at times, it is sought out and embraced as the sole means to come alive, expand, and fill the gift one initially possessed only as a promise. Similar to the dancers, Zen students under the care of a master must allow their gifts to be bent and damped down. They must give up their cherished strengths in order to move into "new territory." Because serious and dedicated students long for this death and transformation, they embark like the ox herdsman on a path they have never before traveled following signs posted there by others.     Paying attention while allowing oneself to be damped down is a noble and costly goal. It is essential to every aspect of our life. Literature often praises this goal and depicts scenes showing the cost one must pay to achieve and retain it. One scene in particular evokes in us heartbreaking emotions as we watch a young female character unable to exact such discipline of herself. The scene is in George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda and places Gwendolen, a beautiful and once carefree wealthy young woman, in the presence of Herr Klesmer, a focused, attentive, and successful artist. Because Gwendolen's family has recently lost its fortune, she is now forced to earn her living. Naively believing she has talent for the theater, she consults Herr Klesmer about her chances for success as an actress or as a singer in as high-ranking a position as possible. Gwendolen has no doubt that once having made her serious appeal to Klesmer, his judgment toward her will be favorable. She never thinks of the practice and discipline and focus such a goal demands. Filled with compassion for this "undisciplined" girl who all her life until now has only received compliments and praise, Klesmer tells her that to become an artist she must "try the life of arduous, unceasing work, and--uncertain praise." He continues: "Your praise [will] have to be earned, like your bread; and both [will] come slowly, scantily--what do I say? They [may] hardly come at all."     Gwendolen turns from her honest tutor and with an air of pique says: I thought you, being an artist, would consider the life one of the most honorable and delightful. And if I can do nothing better?--I suppose I can put up with the same risks as other people do.     In spite of his determination to be patient with her ignorant eagerness, Klesmer answers with a little fire: No.... You could do nothing better--neither man nor woman could do anything better.... I am not decrying the life of the true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but--natures framed to love perfection and to labor for it; ready like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say I am not yet worthy, but she--Art, my mistress--is worthy, and I will live to merit her.     Because Klesmer fears that he had not penetrated the depths of her soul to help her understand what it takes to be an artist, he tells her that to become one she must unlearn "her insignificant playing at life." And with fervor he adds: You have not yet conceived what excellence is: you must unlearn your mistaken admirations. You must know what you have to strive for and then you must subdue your mind and body to unbroken discipline. Your mind, I say. For you must not be thinking of celebrity:--put that candle out of your eyes, and look only at excellence.     What Klesmer is telling Gwendolen is that to become an artist she must "face outwards only" and like the ox herdsman "search with all [her] might," and not "notice" any discomfort. Because of what she has until now been used to--that is, immediate praise for "unworthy" triumphs--Klesmer wonders whether she can search and be content to keep her gaze fixed only on the object of the search instead of on her self-indulgent needs. Klesmer knows that wanting and willing results cannot accomplish them. We must make every effort but we must wait in readiness to accept the results when they come because the object of our endeavor cannot be won by will power alone; waiting and readiness are essential.     The contemporary poet, May Sarton, presents this same insight in a poem she wrote about the absolute giftedness of our achieving the goal of our "search." Effort and will power alone, the poet tells us, are of no avail: ... The Muse Ripples the waters, opens doors, Lets in sunlight, dazzles and delights.... There is no way to make it happen by will. No muse appears when invoked, dire need Will not rouse her pity. She comes when she can, She too, no doubt, rising from the sea Like Aphrodite on her shell when it is time, When the impersonal tide bears her to the shore To play a difficult role she has not chosen, To free a prisoner she has no reason to love.     Besides conforming to the mandate to be always ready, Klesmer tells Gwendolen that an artist must also respond fully to the call to excellence. Zen masters in like manner tell their students that Zen calls them to strive for excellence and shows them how to achieve it. For his part Yamada Roshi of Kamakura would not teach students who did not strive for excellence, who did not seek to enflesh the highest ideals of Zen Buddhism. He often quoted the words of the Pure Land Saint Shinran, "to strive for anything else apart from these ideals, even for enlightenment or teaching status, would be simply shameful."     What does all this talk about discipline, practice, and attention to form have to do with Christian prayer and life? And why should Christian people receive any sort of mechanics (practice) as a gift? For some people mechanics have nothing to do with prayer. These pray as they walk: spontaneously and with all their idiosyncrasies. For many others however some mechanics or method have everything to do with prayer. Without them these people become restless and distracted even at liturgical gatherings. Would not the gift of practice, of being totally attentive, help us to participate more fully in the liturgy and recall the death and resurrection of Christ more vividly? Why would we, who would not play a game of golf without serving some apprenticeship, come into the presence of God's mystery, truth, and revelation with no preparation at all? Do we expect that transformation, death, and resurrection in Christ will happen to us if we cannot even pay attention?     If the "mistress we serve" is God's transforming presence in our lives, then how can we make ourselves "worthy" of her? How shall we labor and wait--that is--be attentive--a lifetime for her? Can the answer to these soul-searching questions be found in this Zen gift? Can disciplined awareness encourage us to pay attention and focus our gaze as we wait for the bridegroom with our lamps filled with oil? If it can, then let us receive and practice this gift from our Zen brothers and sisters with deep gratitude. Copyright © 2000 Robert E. Kennedy. All rights reserved.