Zen and Christianity

Contributed by Dr. Jason Pittser, good friend and fellow Christian man working on his Zen.

I’ve had many people ask me about the conflict they see with Zen and Christianity, or how Zen ties into Christianity. For many Christians, it can be a frustrating task trying to reconcile Zen insights with Christian doctrine. Maybe the best way to present Zen is to do so without comment; which is really the only way to talk about it.

From Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton:

The truth of the matter is, you can hardly set Christianity and Zen side by side and compare them. This would almost be like trying to compare mathematics and tennis. And if you are writing a book on tennis which might conceivably be read by many mathematicians, there is little point in bringing mathematics into the discussion – best to stick with tennis.

Now the reader with a Judeo-Christian background of some sort (and who in the West does not still have some such background?) will naturally be predisposed to misinterpret Zen because he will take up the position of one who is confronting a “rival system of thought” or a “competing ideology” or more simply a “false religion.” Anyone who adopts such a position makes it impossible for himself to see what Zen is, because he assumes in advance that Zen is something that it expressly refuses to be. Zen is not a systematic explanation of life, it is not an ideology, it is not a world view, not a theology of revelation and salvation…in fact, it fits no convenient category of ours. The chief characteristic of Zen is that it rejects all these systematic elaborations in order to get back, as far as possible, to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience. The direct experience of what? Life itself. What it means that I live: who is this “I” that exists and lives? What is the difference between an authentic and an illusory awareness of the self that exists and lives? What are and are not the basic facts of existence?

When we in the West speak of “basic facts of existence” we tend immediately to conceive these facts as reducible to certain austere and foolproof propositions – logical statements that are guaranteed to have meaning because they are empirically verifiable. These are what Bertrand Russell called “atomic facts.” Now for Zen it is inconceivable that the basic facts of existence should be able to be stated in any proposition however atomic. For Zen, from the moment fact is transferred to a statement it is falsified. One ceases to grasp the naked reality of experience and one grasps a form of words instead. The whole aim of Zen is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing.

Mindfulness meditation seeks not to explain, but to pay attention, to become aware, to be mindful, in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas – or by emotional excitement. Deception in what? Deception in its grasp of itself as it really is. Deception due to diversion and distraction from what is right there – consciousness itself.

In understanding Zen, it would be a great mistake to concentrate on “doctrine,” the formulated philosophy of life, and to neglect the experience, which is absolutely essential, the very heart of Zen. This is in a sense the exact opposite of the situation in Christianity. For Christianity begins with revelation. Though it would be misleading to classify this revelation simply as a “doctrine” and an “explanation” (it is far more than that – the revelation of God himself in the mystery of Christ) it is nevertheless communicated to us in words, in statements, and everything depends on the believer’s accepting the truth of these statements.

Therefore, Christianity has always been profoundly concerned with these statements: with the accuracy of their transmission from the original sources, with the precise understanding of their exact meaning, with the elimination and indeed condemnation of false interpretations.

This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Christianity too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. What too often has been overlooked, in consequence, is that Christianity is the taste and experience of eternal life. Too often the Christian has imagined himself obliged to stop short at a mere correct and external belief expressed in good moral behavior, instead of entering fully into the life, hope and love consummated by union with the invisible God “in Christ and in the Spirit,” thus fully sharing the Divine Nature.