Saturday, December 20, 2008

Further notes on Jesuit Zen adepts

Not including the name of Fr. William Johnston in my article “Buddha, S.J.” was a major oversight on my part that will be corrected. Morgan and I have yet to approve the final galley proof for Meanderings, and besides, at least with regard to Zen study, nothing is ever really final.

Thank you, compañeros and compañeras, and special thanks to Paul Kelly. I was very moved by these few sentences from his email which was forwarded to me: ¨Twenty years later, I was led to Zen practice by his best book, to me, at least: The Still Point. We corresponded by long distance airmail -- it was 1974 -- and he helped me begin Zen practice by simple, yet detailed instructions, and his own prayers on my behalf. All by mail. As each one of his books came out, I bought it, read it, kept it in a special place on my little library shelves. I owe him much.” This reminds me of many stories that I heard about Bob Aitken over the years. Students would write to all the Zen Centers in the US asking for guidance and, time after time, student after student, Bob was the only head of a practice center who responded, and usually with a personal letter, not a mimeographed application for a practice period. The encounter with Zen, though it may begin with reading, at least from my point of view, takes place outside books, in real human contact.

I have been trying to figure out how Johnston escaped my notice. First of all, I began formal practice about 20 years ago, not as a Jesuit or even a believer—in fact quite the opposite. Once inside the zendo, I began asking questions, both about the practice and its history. To my astonishment, the most recommended, and by far the most complete, thorough, sympathetic, accessible and scholarly work was the three-volume history of Zen Buddhism by Fr. Heinrich Dumoulin, another Jesuit from Sophia. (Phil Whalen called him Douggie DeMoulin, as if he were an old friend. Even as Phil was going blind, when I asked him a question, he would often point in the direction of a shelf in his extensive library and say, Douggie has something to say about that, go look in the second volume -- on the second shelf of the third cabinet, Chapter 5, page 279, that will be the right hand page, the third paragraph from the bottom. And dammed if he wasn’t right on most of the time).

All this to say, my discovery of the Jesuit-Zen connection came from my narrow Zen point of view, and I studied, read priest practitioners who had connections to the Zen teachers I worked with. I tended to stay away from those who set out to make connections between Zen meditation and Christian prayer. There was a definite anti-Christian stance in some American Zen circles, a reaction against the Church of our fathers, and to some degree this prejudice is still in place. The first book that I read that made that connection for me, and one in which I felt the power of Zen, was Fr. Kadowaki’s Zen and the Bible. Kadowaki linked his realizations working with certain koans to stories from the Gospel of Jesus, especially stories and sayings that he connected with the themes from the 4 weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: the Kingdom, the Three Classes of Men, and the Three Degrees of Humility. He opened my inquiry into what was happening among Christians who practiced Zen.

There are at least two other Jesuits I neglected, besides Johnston, whose work I am unfamiliar with. Fr. deMello has been mentioned many times by some Compañeros. I have at least 2 of his books in my library that I have only skimmed. And then there is Dan O’Hanlon whom I met when I was a JSTB. It was only after his tragic death that I discovered how respected he was in Zen circles. I was talking with a woman who is a dharma heir of Kobin Chino Roshi, and she spoke about Dan with such love and respect that I regretted not having gotten to know him better when I was up on the hill (the holy hill of the GTU).

And finally, I feel now that the Zen-Jesuit connection is not just a one-way street—that it is not just what Zen can contribute to the prayer life of Christians. Christian practice has something tangible to offer a Zen student. I want to tell a story about what may have been the first Mass said in a zendo. I have heard that Fr. Kennedy said Mass at ZCLA, but before that, in 1991, my friend, Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., of the New England Province said Mass in the zendo at the Hartford Street Center.

I had asked Joe to come by and say mass for the Catholic men in the AIDS Hospice. It was a Saturday evening. He was due to arrive at 5 or so, and I was scrambling, assembling a few basics, bread and wine, a tablecloth for the dining room table. Issan, who was at the time in the final stages of HIV disease came downstairs in his bathrobe, to ask when Joe was due to arrive and see what I was doing. After I explained, he said, “Mass will be in the zendo,” and took over directing me in all the preparations with the same care that he would have given to a full-blown Zen ritual. He went back upstairs and came down dressed in his Zen robes, and greeted Joe at the door with a hug and kiss, thanking him for coming and telling him that Mass would be in our chapel, the zendo, and I would get him anything he needed.

Issan and 5 or 6 of us sat in meditation posture on cushions while Joe improvised the Liturgy, beginning with the rite of confession and forgiveness. When it came time to read from the New Testament, Joe took a small white, well-worn Bible out of a pocket in his jacket, and told us that his mother had told him that the following story contained all the essentials for a Christian life. Then he read Luke 11, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Issan sat giving his entire attention to Joe and the Mass, but I couldn’t get a read on how he was reacting. The next day, I found out that he had fallen in love with Luke's parable, and Joe.

Sunday mornings were the usual community gathering of the Hartford Street community, and Issan began to talk about Fr. Joe and the liturgy. He turned to me and asked, “What was the little white book that he read from?” Startled, I said that was the New Testament. “Oh,” said Issan, “it must have been in Latin when I heard it as an altar boy—or something, but it was exactly how we should lead our lives as Buddhists.” He then said that during the Mass he had the experience of really being forgiven and that the experience had allowed him to feel such peace with his early religious training. Joe and I had dinner the night before he flew back to Boston. I told him about Issan had said. A few days later, the small New Testament that had been in jacket for years arrived in an envelope addressed to Issan. He would die 6 months later, and, during one of our last meetings, asked me to thank Joe again for the zendo mass after he was gone. I did. And that New Testament which passed from the pocket of Joe’s jacket to Issan’s room at Hartford Street is now on my altar.


Here are additional books that are be included in the Zen bibliography in Meanderings:

Kadowaki, J.K. (1980) Zen and the Bible. NY: Routledge & Kegan.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. (1974) Christianity Meets Buddhism. La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Habito, Ruben L.F. (2004) Living Zen, Loving God. Wisdom Publications.
Johnson, William. (1970) The Still Point, Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism. NY: Fordham University Press.
Johnson, William. (1981) Christian Zen: A Way of Meditation. NY: Harper Row.
de Mello, Anthony. (1978) Sadhana: A Way to God. St. Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Sources.
O'Hanlon, Daniel. (1978) "Zen and the Spiritual Exercises: A Dialogue Between Faiths" in Theological Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4, Dec. 1978.