Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

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.

Fr Thomas Keating

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.

Zen Christianity

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For some time I’ve been exploring an approach to Christianity which I have come to think of as Zen Christianity.

There are no particular teachers of ‘Zen Christianity’, at least none that I know to be using that term. But the ancient exponents of Kenotic or ‘self emptying’ Christianity are very influential, as are a number of contemporary writers and teachers.

So what do I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’?

Realistically I suppose I’m using the idea of Zen in its most basic sense, in terms of placing a particularly high value on meditation, and of stillness, in this case in the presence of the divine (immanent/ here and transcendent/ out there).

I’m using the term ‘Christianity’ here to mean two things, firstly an approach to the divine which is centered upon understanding Jesus as the incarnation of God, and secondly a commitment to following the Jesus way/teachings.

I appreciate that in either case this is not a good enough definition for many people. Zen is a more subtle system of thought than this would make it appear, and Christianity has as many permutations as any other system of religious belief, and that is a vast number after all. But in the first place I want to keep it simple, after all, life is complicated enough.

So what does it practically mean to be a Zen Christian? That, among other things is what I will be blogging about through 2015.

Why Christians should celebrate the summer solstice

stones07-solsticeThis week the summer solstice rolls around – on June 21st we will have the longest day and shortest night of the year. On June 22nd we begin the countdown to winter once again.

As part of Oasis Church Grimsby we’ll be celebrating the summer solstice with a forest church gathering. Very informal, as all of our gatherings are, and marked no doubt by the familiar sound of children tearing around and having fun, we’ll get together in a small piece of woodland and share some life and friendship together. If the weather is kind to us, we will bake some bread on a barbeque or open fire.

Fire has been part of solstice celebrations for many many years, since before the development of Christianity in fact, the primal force of the flame reflecting something of the power of the sun – offerings made into the fire whisked upwards towards the heavens on a thermal draft. Back in those times, clever people built stone structures which were perfectly aligned to the light of the sun on these special occasions, and the day itself was believed to have a propitious magic.

The solstice was also seen as a new year, and celebrated as such. As a time of transition, offerings were made to thank or appease relevant spirits who might be able to affect harvests, water supplies and the welfare of animals. In our more ‘rational’ age such spirits have largely been forgotten, with solstice celebrations being left to those perceived as oddballs and refuseniks.

But I think that more of us should celebrate the solstice. In particular I think that Christians should celebrate the summer, and winter solstices.

One reason for that is that I think its a very good thing to reconnect ourselves with the ancient patterns of the world, it’s healthy for us to find ways of making a connection with the earth.

Everything we do and interact with these days is alienated from the earth, we buy bread that comes neatly wrapped in a plastic bag, we buy clean vegetables and packaged meat from supermarkets. We clean our teeth with a mysterious paste that comes out of a tube, our clothes although often made from plant fibres, bear no resemblance to the raw materials they contain.

Our alienation is almost complete, were it not for walks in the country, gardening, and so on, the only way we would experience the natural world would be through our televisions. I generalise of course, lots of us are much more connected to nature than this, but you get my drift.

The word ‘solstice’ is a compound of two Latin words, ‘sol’ meaning ‘sun’ and ‘sistere’ meaning to ‘stand’ or ‘halt’. It’s a time when the sun seems to stand still, to hang in the heavens for an unusual amount of time. And its a time when we humans can be still too – when we take time out of our alienated lives to be thankful for the  world we live in. To be thankful for the fruitfulness of the earth, and the life that comes from the sun. Some say all life comes from the sun, and that’s more or less true – plants have life because of photosynthesis, creatures have life because they consume plants, or consume creatures that consume plants. More or less all life is viable only because of the sun.

So yes, I believe it’s a good thing to celebrate the solstice. Christians in particular should celebrate the summer solstice and give thanks to the great spirit who they understand as the maker of all things, including the massive ball of incandescent gas which we know as ‘the sun’.

But lets not make it exclusive, non Christians should celebrate the summer solstice too, indeed we should all do it. The mid point of summer has arrived, it’s a special time. Give thanks to God, the universe or whatever you believe in, or if you prefer, just think happy thoughts. The sun gives us life, and this is it’s high point, we should celebrate it.

God and the dualist imagination part 4: God beyond dualism

file0002028828893Having previously outlined how evangelical thinking has dualism at it’s heart, how this has caused a problem, and how it impacts the way evangelicals typically understand ‘God’, I want to turn now to my own reflections on this issue.

Over some period of time, I have moved from a classically dualistic transcendent view of the Divine towards a way of thinking called panentheism. I perceive this way of thinking as being a much more helpful way of seeing God.

According to panentheist thinking, God is both transcendent in the dualist sense, but also immanent. God is simultaneously both here and there. He or she is, to use a traditional term, omnipresent.

This adoption of panentheism removes the issue of seeing through an entirely dualistic lens: we can recognise God as ever present, allowing us to see God in those who we might otherwise have seen as ‘others’. But it doesn’t necessarily entirely rid us of concepts such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘good and evil’ for instance. What it does is put them into perspective.

Panentheism as a stance is well expressed by Marcus Borg who said: “God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, the Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not “somewhere else” but “right here.”…” (Borg, The God We Never Knew, 1998, 11 – 12)

A panentheist approach is, I believe, much more inclusive than dualism which I think is problematic and exclusive. A panentheist can more readily overcome the barriers between us and others, by recognising that those barriers are irrelevant, and illusory. That being the case, a panentheist approach drives us towards re-engagement, as we recognise that whilst we are apart, whilst we are separate, we are not whole.

This view of God and people changes the way we must look at everything. It calls for a radical re-engagement with the other as we begin to recognise that ‘God dwells and is present substantially in every soul…’ (Julian of Norwich)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: ‘God’s dream is that all of us will realize we are family – we are made for togetherness. In God’s family, there are no outsiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – all belong’… ‘God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion.’ (Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s Recipe For Peace, 2004)

From my perspective, Tutu’s point about conflict is very helpful. My own reflections on this has helped me understand that I have certain underlying assumptions about (for instance) politics, and crime. But Tutu points out that God is simultaneously with both offender, and offended against. God sits across differing sides of disputes, he/she is not on ‘my side’ no matter how much I might demonise the other in my mind.

Although I don’t feel the need to dispense entirely with dualistic notions of justice and injustice, good and evil etc, I need to locate them in the idea of Shalom  the holistic love and peace of God. Christ as ‘saviour’ in this sense is the one who restores us, who brings us back to that wholeness. The verb ‘sozo’ which we translate as ‘save’ also means to heal or make whole.

God then is simultaneously with us, in us and around us. Others too are the same as us, our separation although real in one sense is also illusion. We are all family – discrete yet the same.

The problem we face then, obviously enough is that we are so manifestly physical, and God is so manifestly not, making it extremely difficult to understand that wholeness. But Jesus, who we can at last understand as the incarnation of God, or God in human form (not part of God, or a separate person, but fully God and fully human) comes to restore us to wholeness, to demonstrate to us the Shalom of God, the holistic peace and love which is freely available to us, and which is surely our destiny.

As the manifestation of this holy wholeness, the personification of eternal love, as fully God and fully human he is clear – ‘I am the way, the truth, the life…. no man comes to the father but through me.’ This is not a statement of dualistic separation, an ‘I am better then the others’ boast, it’s a statement of reality – Jesus lives and calls us to live the reality of Shalom in the here and now – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the beginning and the end of it.

Read the previous posts to this one: 1, 2, 3.

Belief and the unbelievable

Brace yourself with the grace of ease, I know this world ain’t what it seems… You’re unbelievable. (EMF)

It’s interesting to consider what is now unbelievable, and what used to be. It would at one time been perfectly reasonable for instance, to believe that the world is flat – now we no longer think that is reasonable.

Similarly it was once very common to believe in a literal six day creation story, these days that is only thought to be reasonable if one belongs to a particular strand of a religious subculture.

Without making any sort of value judgement on the relative strengths or weaknesses of either of these beliefs, what I want to suggest is that there is a power dynamic at play in what is, and what is not, believable.

In both of the examples above, the power dynamic stems from the rule of the church over society. As modernity progressed the norms of belief which had solidified the authority of the teaching of the church as sovereign were gradually eroded – leaving us in a position where now the church is (relative to its previous position) marginalised. Please note that in talking about this I’ve genuinely no interest in trying to perpetuate the idea of the persecution of the church in the West or any of that stuff, I’m simply talking about the way that belief has developed.

What I am keen to do is reflect the way that what is believable and unbelievable changes according to who has particular interests to protect, and what they want to perpetuate. With the church as sovereign then certain Biblicist notions meant that particular things were unbelievable. With the modern ‘secularlist’ upsurge many of these ideas have become unbelievable.

For instance the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or that women by nature cannot hold positions of power, or that the poor are feckless – beliefs aimed squarely at marginalising sectors of society to solidify the power of another sector.

What this means is that by reflecting on the way the power dynamics affect ‘believability’ we can turn an eye inward and ask what things are unbelievable today.

A good example is the very apparent battle over belief concerning who is to blame for the economic problems we currently face – various groups are lobbying hard to make it impossible to believe that they are responsible.

Another example of that could be the overturn or radical overhaul of the Western capitalist system – to ponder such an eventuality is ridiculous… isn’t it? It’s unbelievable that things could change to such an extent, right?

We need to ask, who currently has particular reason to ensure that certain things are unbelievable?

And what would happen then, if we all began to believe the unbelievable?

Read post one in this series – Belief and the believed.

Belief and the believed

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

In JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ the fairy Tinkerbell was saved from death by belief, specifically, belief in fairies. Barrie uses the motif of mythology, specifically mythical creatures, to suggest that in some cases, belief actually CAUSES existence.

But is that true of things other than fairies? I want to suggest that it is.

Where this starts is with ideas – because it is ideas that rule our imagination. But an idea has no power until it is believed.

And like Tinkerbell, who needed lots of belief to make her well again, the more belief there is, the more power an idea has.

Let’s take money as an example. Money is only really an idea, we are long past the time when money actually meant something, if it ever really did. What gives money its power is not what it is actually worth, but what we believe it is worth. If we all stopped believing that money had worth, it would actually be worthless.

We could talk similarly about government, government has power because we believe it has power, and crucially some of us who believe that have decided to learn how to shoot people who don’t believe it.

Belief you see, must be protected, because the consequences of loss of belief are dire indeed.

This has implications for an awful lot of things – in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’ we see a clear explanation of this issue, the god who is the main character of the book has suffered a great loss of belief, and as a result has shrunk away to almost total powerlessness.

Pratchett is actually very good on this stuff, he goes over much of the same kind of material in ‘Hogfather’ too, which also makes a good Christmas movie if you are interested.

So when it comes to it, we need to recognise that while it would appear that the power lies with the believed, actually it lies with the believer, and if unbelief could be manifested on a large enough scale, the power of the believed could be broken altogether.

This is based of course on the relativistic idea that ideas don’t exist objectively. That is something which I am not going to go into now, as it is an idea that I personally half believe (I think some things are objectively real, and others aren’t).

But of course on a deeper level you could question the entirety of existence in this way, do we actually exist in an objective sense, or is this all just an idea that we believe strongly enough to make it real?

Personally I’m not so concerned about that, but I am deeply interested in the idea that ideas which hold power over us can lose their power once they lose their belief, as it demonstrates our collective ability to make genuine and complex changes in the world around us, by making simple changes in what we believe.

The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

‘Come on, girl,’ said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. ‘We monks don’t go near females,’ he told Tanzan, ‘especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?’

‘I left the girl there,’ said Tanzan. ‘Are you still carrying her?’

Writings from the Zen Masters. Penguin, 2009, p 81.


Losing my religion?

All the cool kids are ‘spiritual but not religious’ now, but what does that actually mean?

For many people, it means that they believe in a higher power or powers, but have freed themselves from the perceived domination of any particular doctrine and/or human authority structure.

That doesn’t actually mean they are free of religion though.

Religion as a concept has evolved, from an initial meaning of a subjective experience/attitude of awe in the presence of a deity, to become a response – religion is the practises one adopts as the outworking of a belief system.

It is not simply the doctrines and practises that make up a faith tradition.

If your belief is that we are all one, and that nobody should harm anyone else, you develop a set of practises which go along with that belief. If you believe that God loves the poor and needy, and that he lives and acts through his followers, then you develop a set of practises to reflect that.

You are also liable also to develop patterns and ways of demonstrating worship, veneration and adoration which fall in line with these beliefs. Worship and celebration seems to be something that comes quite naturally to humans, that these practises become part of our religion is equally as natural.

That is religion.

To be ‘spiritual but not religious’ actually doesn’t mean what people think it does. It would actually mean, ‘I believe in things, but don’t let my beliefs impact my life in any way’ (This is something which could be said of many ‘religious’ people). But I don’t think that is what people are trying to express when they talk about themselves in this way  – which is perhaps better summed up as ‘spiritual but not an follower of any of the major faith traditions.’

Religious has become a dirty word, it has become the reflection of an idea that ‘Religion’ or ‘Religio’ is an abstract something – usually something malign and harsh.

In fact, I think we’re pretty much all religious, I’m less convinced that we’re all actively, or consciously ‘spiritual’.  By which I don’t mean that we aren’t spiritual beings – but rather that we’re not conscious of our own spirituality.

OR – maybe there’s another way of looking at it – it would be great to hear your perspective…

Do-gooders

A visit from the nice people who call themselves Jehovah’s witnesses is always welcome. They’re always good for a chat, and there’s something about the intensity of the commitment to what must be a pretty unrewarding task that I quite admire.

When I had some at the door yesterday, we had the usual good chat about beliefs, (they think I’m a heathen) and doctrine (I’m a bit worried about the Watchtower) and they wanted to play the usual game of proof text ping pong to prove that they are right, about everything.

In fact JW’s are a lot like standard evangelical Christians, except with a bit more ferocity, and two thirds less Trinity. These guys were keen that I agree with them that ‘wicked people’ such as ‘serial rapists’ should be subject to God’s wrathful destruction. I managed to swerve that particular debate, and was trying to build some bridges of friendship, when they hit on a bit of a nerve.

‘What do you think of all these do-gooders then?’

‘Pardon?’

‘These do-gooders who go around  talking about human rights, and letting people out of jail…’

‘Let me just stop you there, since when did we use ‘do-gooders’ as a perjorative phrase? I mean, since when was ‘doing good’ something to complain about?’

‘Well, I’m not talking about doing good, I’m talking about do-gooders…’

Unfortunately for the two bewildered door knockers in front of me, and for me, I launched into a tirade of complaint about the idea that we should use ‘do-gooders’ as an insulting term.

I was eventually saved from myself by a graceful apology by one of my visitors, but not until after he’d tried to excuse himself by saying that the phrase was a lot like the word ‘gay’.

‘You can’t call yourself ‘gay’ any more without it meaning homosexual’ he complained. ‘Well do-gooders is the same…’

Obviously though it’s not the same, as gay people sometimes choose to call themselves gay, whereas I’m yet to find a human rights advocate with ‘do-gooder’ on his or her business card. Rather it’s those who complain about ‘human rights’ and similar who invented and continue to invoke the dreaded ‘do-gooders’ terminology. But its crass – we shouldn’t be using this kind of phrase to complain about people who busy themselves trying to do good, even if they are misguided, they are at least well intentioned. I suspect it comes from an underlying libertarianism, which instinctively demonises anyone who might try and ‘do good to you’ without you seeking it first. This is pretty nasty right wing thinking which has effectively infiltrated the mass consciousness.

But doing good, in and of itself, is surely not something bad. I tend to think that people who go knocking on doors to tell others the ‘good news’ might even think that they too are ‘doing good’.

There’s certainly a lesson for all of us, to be careful in our unguarded and thoughtless use of language when talking to others about our beliefs. I imagine that when you’ve knocked on a few thousand doors, you end up falling back on a few clichéd phrases, and the do-gooders thing just slipped out of the poor guy’s mouth at the wrong moment.

Blinkin’ do-gooder.

Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

Whenever one has a discussion about an issue like pacifism with somebody who doesnt share the same convictions, there usually comes a point when an impossible question is posed. In that case, the question is usually something like: ‘What would you do if your family were being horribly slaughtered, and you could only stop it by shooting the assailant dead?’

The question is intended to demonstrate the futility of the pacifist position, the basic faulty thinking that lies behind a pacifist response.

But of course, just because there is an obvious thing that one probably would do – doesnt mean that it would be morally ‘right’.

In his incredible novel ‘Silence’ the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a Christian missionary in Japan a few hundred years ago. This was a time when the Japanese were extremely antithetical towards this foreign religion, and there was a great deal of persecution of both missionaries and converts.

Part of the plot revolves around the question of whether the main character should deny Christ, in order to save others from torture. The already suffering peasants are put through terrible pain, because the priest won’t ‘step on the fumie’ or apostasise.

So one could ask a committed Christian, who is sure of his or her faith – ‘but what if your family were being tortured and killed, and you could stop them by blaspheming and renouncing Christ? What would you do then.

This impossible question is perhaps a sister to that asked of pacifists – and demonstrates (perhaps) the futility of a faith position.

What they really demonstrate though are the impossibilities of asking such questions. Endo’s ‘Silence’s is a fantastic book for anyone interested in pursuing such thinking, and meditating on the silence of God amidst pain and hardship. But do consider the pointlessness of such questioning if you are ever challenging a pacifist – what might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘the only choice’ is not necessarily the right one.