For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.
It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.
Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.
In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.
But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.
Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.
The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.
Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.
When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.
There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.
Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.
By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.
So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?
With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.
For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.
Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.
Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.
By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.