A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen
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 almost 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! 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 a 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 in 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! Each object was luminous and charged with energy! And I saw each 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 this wonderful 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, but I can still feel the impact of my Zen experience up to this very day. 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.
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.