My life in Zen

I am a student of Zen.

For over twenty years I have studied the writings of Zen masters, most notably the modern day Vietnamese Zen Master and beautiful man, Thich Nhat Hanh. In them, and in the Zen practitioners grace has enabled me to walk alongside, I have found that my own spiritual life in Christ has deepened into a life of contemplative prayer and living. Whilst the Church has been, and remains, the home in which I find community and expression of my calling, it is through Zen Buddhists and those of the Christian faith who embrace Zen that I have I have come to meet my ‘Original Face before I was born’ – a Zen Koan riddle I have no intention of explaining. You can explain it to yourself if you wrestle with it long enough, and then allow it to wrestle with you!

Zen Christian? Isn’t that a contradiction? Well no. Zen training, as explained by the Jesuit priest and Zen Master Robert Kennedy SJ in his book ‘Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit’, follows two expressions, often conjoined but not always. The first path is that of the Zen Teacher, the way of realisation, then transmission, of the unconditional experience that lies at the heart of Zen. The second path is that of the Zen Priest who trains to express oneness of life in Buddhist liturgy, culture and style. The priesthood is expressive of the Buddhist heart of China and Japan. The Zen Teacher may indeed be immersed within Buddhism but also may be immersed within the mystical and contemplative ‘home’ of another religious tradition, finding resonance between them.

For me personally I have learned much at the feet of Buddhists. I have a deep love and respect for that Wisdom path and it has enlightened my understanding of the Christ of Wisdom I meet in the Church and in scripture, not least in the Gospel of John. Buddhism has enlightened my Christian life, insofar that such labels such as ‘Christian’ or ‘Buddhist’ always fall short of the experience of the eternal and infinite God.

My early fascination with Zen developed into love and eventually became a means of grace for me. I find collegiality with the Christian mystical tradition – the Desert Mothers and Fathers, St. Francis (himself it seems influenced by the Islamic Sufi mystical tradition), St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila up until the present day with priests who learned from the eastern Indian and oriental paths such as Bede Griffiths, and Robert Kennedy himself. From where I now stand I can only perceive my Christian home through the lens of Zen.

It is with intense gratitude and a sense of humility that I have been honoured to be accepted as a formal student of Zen under Patrick Kundo Eastman Roshi, himself having been trained by Robert Kennedy Roshi (Roshi is the title given to a recognised Master of Zen). Patrick Roshi is a Roman Catholic Priest who has felt the same sense of calling as have I. From being with Roshi I am beginning to understand that Zen is not simply an addition to my life as a priest, it is its expression and nourishment.

Now there may be a number of you who could feel uncomfortable this. Is it not a movement away from the ‘Truth’ of Christianity, a watering down, a lack of commitment, a confusion, a betrayal? For me that response could be nothing could be further from that Truth we all seek. For me, Zen allows me to understand my Lord Jesus in ever deeper ways and to walk his walk, albeit with faltering steps. I am not a cultural Buddhist in any formal sense, but I have learned from that tradition and from its people and have a deep love for both. I find myself excited by continued explorations with Buddhists in Interreligious dialogue and Interspiritual practice. However, I remain in love with remembering the Jewish mystic of Nazareth. I would, with Pilate, ask the question ‘What is Truth?’ and allow the answer of Jesus to guide me – embracing the silence and an entry into stillness. In the heart of Zen, I discover that awareness of the great Stillness which I have called God. I ask those who may struggle with this to simply ‘watch and wait’ and see what emerges.

To others who feel drawn to Contemplative life of prayer in daily life, I now invite you to join me in deepening your life of prayer and awareness in sitting with me in contemplation, after the manner of Zazen – formal Zen sitting meditation. In August I will begin to build upon an established quiet practice in East Sutherland by now also offering a weekly hour session of Zazen at St. Andrew’s in Tain. This will incorporate several aspects. Firstly, teaching and discussion about an aspect of the Contemplative tradition within Christianity and the saints who led the way of wisdom. Secondly twenty minutes of Zazen. Finally, the Eucharist in the contemplative style. The same format will be followed at St. Andrew’s Cathedral on Wednesday afternoons, starting this week, with myself and the Rev Sarah Murray, the new Vice Provost.

For me, this new direction in my ministry has found permission in my time away from service during my early recuperation following cancer. Quite deliberately I spent that time in much solitude, which afforded me the opportunity for significant periods of contemplative sitting meditation. It is why I call my cancer a moment of grace. It was the Zen shock to the system that woke me up to being true to myself and not try to be the kind of priest I had all too often tried to be because I believed it would make others happy. I was disrespectful of others by not being honest with myself. I offered them a face that was not my own and they deserved better than that. Whilst there were glimpses of my ‘original face’ on occasions, and more and more so in the past year, it is only now that I have truly begun to understand what it means for me to die and be raised with Christ. Whilst not physically, an old Chris Mayo did indeed die on that theatre table. What was raised is someone more honest with himself and, therefore, with others. In some respects, it can be said that my answer to Pilate’s question “What is Truth?” must now be who and what looks back at me in the shaving mirror. Words cease, breathing speaks, awareness is…..

And so, one foot in front of the other, on the Path that is No Path, I join my hands and bow to you all in gassho – the Zen bow of deep respect – and invite you to join with me in meeting the Christ who sat zazen on the hilltop each night, as was his practice we are told, quietly communing with the Divine life in the stillness of loving awareness.

Peace and every blessing,