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God. Life. Spirituality.

A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen

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An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants with the Zen master Kubota Roshi (middle). (Circa 1999)

An old photo of Matt (far left) and some of his fellow retreatants during a Zen retreat conducted by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi (middle) in October of 1999.

When you pick up the whole great earth, it is as small as a grain of rice.

–The Blue Cliff Record

It was sometime in March of 1999 when I attended a one-week Zen retreat. Up to that time I was practicing Zen meditation on-and-off, mostly by myself, for a little more than 20 years. I attended the retreat to simply jump start my Zen practice. Never did I expect that something wondrous was going to happen to me.

The retreat started uneventfully. The Zen teacher was late. She explained that the traffic was terrible. It started with an orientation talk. But, because I had attended Zen retreats in the past, I was already familiar with what she was saying.

It wasn’t easy sitting in meditation for about 5-6 hours daily. I spent most of the time putting up with the physical pain (at one point I was sweating because of the almost unbearable pain) and battling with mental distractions. I mentioned this to the Zen teacher. And she told me: “The reason you’re in pain is because you are fighting your thoughts.” Somehow when I followed her advice not to resist my thoughts, but, instead, just letting it be – letting it come and letting it go – I felt better.

By the 4th day I was achieving a certain level of stillness and depth during our meditation sessions. It was during this time, as I was holding a piece of biscuit, during our morning break, that something extraordinary happened to me.

In a flash, the world as I knew it collapsed! Time stood still, and space disappeared! There was no time and space, no I and you, no inside and outside! Touching a piece of biscuit, I had a glimpse of the world of Zen. I could only describe it as a thunder-and-lightning realization that the universe is a palpable Whole!

Touching a piece of biscuit,
Heaven and earth are recreated.
Sipping a cup of coffee,
Whole rivers are swallowed in one gulp.
Emptied of notions of “self” and “other,”
In a flash, the True Self revealed!

Initially, I was filled with trepidation and fear. I thought I was hallucinating, going crazy and losing my mind! I shared this with the Zen teacher. She reassured me: “This is as close as you can get to experiencing your True Self.”

After the experience, I viewed the world in a fresh way. It was as if scales were peeled off my eyes and I saw the world for the first time in all its splendor and beauty! Everything and everyone was luminous and radiant! And I saw every being, every object as precious, and having an absolute value.

This was accompanied by a deep peace which I haven’t experienced before. To use biblical language, it is what probably what St.Paul meant by “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I experienced, too, a freedom and spaciousness in my life that is “as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament,” to borrow the words of one of the koans of The Gateless Gate.

The after-effects of the experience lasted for weeks. And just remembering those days gives me an exhilarating feeling of joy!

In the meantime, I began to ask myself what the experience meant to me as a Christian.

I had three questions:

1. What is the relationship of the Zen enlightenment experience to the Christian mystical experience?

2. Can we consider Zen meditation as a form of Christian prayer?

3. Is the Zen enlightenment experience similar to the mystical experiences of the great Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross?

Fortunately, as I was surfing the internet I came across a website of a Christian theologian and Zen practitioner, Jim Arraj. (Later, I found out that he wrote a number of books addressing these issues – God, Zen and the Intuition of Being; Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain; Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue.)

I started corresponding with him through email. And he was kind enough to accommodate me and answer my queries.

In a nutshell this is how he explained it to me:

Zen enlightenment is a deeply spiritual experience. We could even say from a Christian perspective that it is a mystical experience of God as the author of being. But it is not identical to the Christian mystical experience, as described by St.Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. And it is not also good to call it prayer in the Christian sense of the term, either.

Zen enlightenment is a deep seeing into the isness, or existence of things. As such it is a certain contact and union beyond concepts and beyond the distinction between subject and object, between our own selves and these things, and with God who is the author and sustainer of their existence. We could say that it is a mystical experience of the very mystery of existence, and in some way embraces all that exists: ourselves, the piece of biscuit, and in an indirect but very real way, God who is existence Himself.

That sounds like a mouthful. But this is the way he puts it:

In the center of every soul, in the deepest part of our being, is that place where we come into existence. Somewhere in the depths of our self, in the depths of our souls, there’s a point where we touch God and God touches us. But we’re NOT talking about when God makes His presence felt in the center of the soul through grace and then this sharing of His own life.

Normally, we spend our time looking out, and we spend our time on the superficial level with all our ideas. We don’t even see the things around us clearly because our ideas are getting in the way and we are looking out through them. The Zen practitioner tries to quiet all this, but there are layers and layers of our ideas and thoughts and emotions, and he starts going down through these layers.

So what happens is if the Zen practitioner practices long enough and hard enough, that house of cards is like all these different layers, and they begin to collapse and are no longer operative in the same way. And he gets down, and finally, when all the collapse is done, when all the layers have fallen, he experiences what is at the center.

What’s at the center? Existence is at the center. What does that mean? At the very center is the point where God as the author of existence is touching the soul and bringing it into existence. If we could get back to that point, dig down far enough where we no longer have any ideas, and we get back to simply THAT – that THAT is the very point where God is infusing existence into the soul. Or put another way, that very center point is the existence of the soul inasmuch as it is springing forth from the hand of God.

On the other hand, the heart of Christian mystical experience is a contact with God who as a loving person makes himself present to us, and calls us to share in his own life through Jesus. It is the experience of the Father and lover of the soul who wants to transform the soul by love so it shares in his own nature.

In other words, in the Christian mystical experience God is transforming us into Himself, so that we are becoming God – certainly not like our nature, our being, because we are just limited creatures – but by being transformed in knowledge and love. We are directed towards God because He is where our knowledge and love are going. So there is this tremendous mystery of transformation we hear about all the time, and St. John of the Cross is trying to say that in the Christian life we actually experience this becoming God. That’s the only way you could put it – participation in God’s nature.

You don’t get to contact with God by this kind of contact through Zen practice. You don’t arrive there by technique. No matter how elevated and spiritual the technique is of controlling the mind, or controlling the breath, and concentrating, you can’t arrive at God’s inner nature.

Why? Because there’s such a difference between the level of our being and the level of God’s being. The only way you can arrive there is not because it is due to us. That would make us God by nature, and we know enough about ourselves to see that’s not true. The only way you arrive is through God’s gift and through the transformation that comes through knowledge and love, that transformation that comes from grace.

The whole Christian mystery revolves around that distinction. Zen is not Christian mysticism in that sense. It doesn’t sound like it. And the Zen practitioner doesn’t go around praying and thinking about God and trying to be transformed into God.

This is why the accounts of Zen enlightenment and Christian mystical experience do not sound alike.

There certainly cannot be any opposition between Zen enlightenment and the Christian mystical experience because to oppose them would be to oppose God as the author of being, and the Trinitarian God that the Scriptures teach us about. But at the same time we have to make a distinction between these two kinds of mystical experience, and I think there is a need to because they demand different means to arrive at them.

I’m profoundly grateful to Jim for his insightful explanation. He has helped me to reflect on my Zen experience in a way that makes sense to me as a Christian.

This happened many years ago, and looking back now I can see that my Zen experience has transformed my life in a way that I could not have imagined. In the end, what Zen means to me is summarized in these words of Goto Zuigan Roshi:

What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.

— Matt

Note: Seven months later, during a one-week Zen retreat, this experience was confirmed by the Zen Master Kubota Jiun Roshi as kensho, i.e., a Zen enlightenment experience.

Written by MattAndJojang

February 27, 2014 at 9:30 am

7 Responses

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  1. I’m so impressed with those last lines quoting Goto Zuigan Roshi. And I really enjoyed reading this article. I have a hard time with the Eastern mindset, with Zen – and never have found any way to truly reconcile it with Christian faith. But this piece is rather intriguing, and seems to resolve a couple of questions I’ve had. I’ll re-read it a time or two.

    Thanks for the post!


    February 28, 2014 at 9:16 am

  2. And then there’s this, from the esteemed T.S. Eliot – a selection from “The Four Quartets”. This, I understand – albeit intuitively.

    If you came this way,
    Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
    At any time or at any season,
    It would always be the same: you would have to put off
    Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel
    Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
    Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
    Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
    And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
    They can tell you, being dead: the communication
    Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.


    February 28, 2014 at 9:18 am

  3. Glad you liked it, Linda.

    It’s actually one of the very few pieces that I wrote myself for our blog. It’s an account of my Zen experience 15 years ago. I myself found it very difficult to reconcile my Zen experience with my Christian faith; that’s why I know where you’re coming from. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by my Zen experience that I even thought of becoming a Zen Buddhist! As I was grappling with what it meant, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the website of Jim Arraj, a Christian theologian who was also practicing Zen. I emailed him, and he was kind enough to accommodate me and address my issues. Our correspondence lasted for almost a year.

    At first, it was quite difficult for me to grasp what he was saying through his emails, and through his books (which I later read). I had to read and reread his emails and books since he was explaining the whole thing to me in terms of the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas! I’m not a theologian nor a philosopher, so it was really difficult for me to understand what he was saying at first. But thankfully, after exerting some effort, I was able to have a glimmer of understanding. The second part of the article is my attempt to articulate my understanding of his explanation to me.

    Anyway, I’m just so happy, thanks to him, that I’m now able to understand my Zen experience in a way that makes sense to me as a Christian.

    Love also that quote from Goto Zuigan Roshi. In much the same way that love is at the heart of Christianity, so is compassion in Zen. What is at the heart of Zen is to manifest the wisdom we’ve gained through our Zen practice by acting compassionately to the people we come in contact with in our day-to-day living.

    That excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is beautiful! Love the Four Quartets! I don’t know if it’s just me, but i find it very Zen-like (the whole thing sounds like a Zen koan to me!); with its paradoxical language, and multilayered, multidimensional meanings. It’s a poem that will take a lifetime for us to plumb for its full meaning and significance!

    — Matt


    February 28, 2014 at 10:07 am

  4. This is a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your experience. I find contemplative disciplines very difficult. It’s very difficult for me to quiet my mind. Like your teacher said, I am probably fighting my thoughts.

    Your experience of enlightenment is fascinating and reminds me of the descriptions of the experience of Christian mystics. I will have to think more about the distinction Mr. Arraj makes. I appreciate your comment that while they are different, they do not stand in opposition to one another.

    Thanks again for this excellent and thought-provoking post.


    March 5, 2014 at 8:08 am

  5. You’re welcome, Bill.

    The practice of contemplative disciplines is indeed quite challenging. My first exposure to contemplative spirituality started when I read the books of Thomas Merton when I was in my teens in the early 70s. Because of Merton’s influence (he was very much interested in Zen), I began to study Eastern spirituality (Yoga and Zen). At first, though, it was a purely academic exercise to me. Until in the late 70s (I was a college student then) when one of the members of the Christian community that I was a part of at that time mentioned that she was practicing Zen meditation. She introduced us to her Zen teacher, who in turn conducted a weekend Zen retreat for us, introducing me and some of the members of our community to the practice of Zen meditation.

    To sit still regularly, day-in and day-out, letting go of thoughts and practicing non discursive meditation as well as attending intensive Zen retreats is indeed challenging. I wish I could say that from that time I was faithful to the practice of Zen meditation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t – especially when I started to work in the IT industry (which could be pretty demanding). In fact, there were many years that I stopped practicing Zen meditation altogether!

    At the heart of the Zen enlightenment experience is the experience of the unity of all things. Prosaically, it is described by Philip Kapleau (one of the first persons from the West who studied Zen in Japan, and introduced Zen to the West) in his book The Three Pillars of Zen in this way: “The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.” But I don’t think such an experience is only found in Zen. It is found in all religions and cultures. The great Sufi mystic, Rumi, had probably a similar experience when he said: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the ocean in a drop.” Also, my favorite Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, when he said: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

    But the challenge is for us Christians to interpret Zen practice and the Zen enlightenment experience not in terms of Buddhist categories but in a way that makes sense to us as Christians. I myself believe that we can separate Zen meditation and even the Zen enlightenment experience from its Buddhist matrix. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be practicing Zen. In the words of the Jesuit priest, Hugo Enomiya-Lasalle, considered as one of the pioneers in the Zen-Christian dialogue, as well as one of the Zen teachers recognized by the Zen Master Koun Yamada Roshi: “Zen practice has nothing to do with Buddhist philosophy.”

    David Loy is a Zen practitioner who got interested in Christian mysticism. He was starting to read the Christian classic on contemplative prayer The Cloud of Unknowing when he got the idea to send a questionnaire to Christians who were practicing Zen. Most of them, though, didn’t answer! But to those who answered he found two different tendencies. Some wanted to maintain a distinction between Zen practice and Christian practice. And then there were those who said they’re practically the same thing, with the same goal, that is, enlightenment. Personally, I go with the former, especially after my correspondence with Jim Arraj. For one thing, the accounts of Zen enlightenment and the Christian mystical experience don’t really sound alike!

    Jim’s position is that Zen enlightenment is a deeply spiritual experience of God as the author of being. But it is not identical to the Christian mystical experience, as described by St.Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. And it is not also good to call it prayer in the Christian sense of the term, either. This really made sense to me.

    As Christians we could learn a lot from other religions, like Zen. In fact, my Zen practice has enriched and broadened my Christian faith. However, we just have to be careful not to fall into the trap of religious syncretism. We need interpret what we’ve learned from them in a way that makes sense to us as Christians.



    March 5, 2014 at 10:56 am

  6. Thank you for sharing, like this quote: “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” – Lao Tzu, great Blog.

    Irene A.

    April 23, 2015 at 2:05 am

  7. You’re welcome, Irene.

    Very wise words, indeed, from Lao Tzu. I agree, we don’t need look outside of ourselves to find out who we are. What we are looking for is not in any exotic place; not in any temple, mosque, synagogue, or church. The answer to our deepest longings and desires is found within us. In the words of Rumi:

    I looked in temples, churches & mosques. I found the Divine within my heart.

    Thank you for taking the time for visiting our blog.



    April 23, 2015 at 9:47 am

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