Christian Zen (1971)

William Johnston’s Christian Zen argues that Western Christianity has much to learn from Eastern Zen. After some introductory chapters on his own experience of Japan and past participations in Christian/Buddhist dialogue, he turns to the notion of monism and discusses how contemplation leads to the reduction of self—”God is all in all, ‘I’ am lost.” But he also leaves room for “dialogue between creature and Creator” (27).

Johnston’s chapter on Christ was helpful. Addressing the “Where is Jesus?” question, he asserts that use of Scripture can be useful for meditation, following to some extent Ignatius Loyola. But he says not to get bogged down in Scripture studies at the expense of meditation. He uses metaphor of a finger pointing at the moon; focus only on the finger and you miss seeing to moon. The person that “clings to the words phrases [of Scripture] . . . is in danger of adoring images and concepts of God instead of God himself. A strange form of idolatry” (50). For Johnston, the Bible is the finger, and “Christ is the moon because the men who wrote the gospel are leading their reader to a vision not only of the historical Jesus . . . but of the risen Christ, the cosmic Christ, the Christ who was at the beginning. And it is he who escapes all images, all thoughts, all ideas, and all pictures” (52). He then cites Paul’s words in 1 Colossians 1:15–17 as an example of the depth of the New Testament’s language about Christ Jesus.

Johnston spends a chapter next on koans (stories of “paradoxical problems”). And he suggests that they appear in Scripture. For example, “Let the dead bury their dead and come, follow me!”; “He that loves his life will lose it.”; “I am the vine and you are the branches.”; and “This is my body” (63). Thinking of the latter one especially as koan adds depth those of Jesus’s words.

Next come chapters on the body, and breathing and rhythm. Especially interesting here is Johnston’s citation of a section of the Philokalia and his suggestion that the words of the Jesus Prayer help meditation enter into a natural rhythm.

The penultimate chapter is on progress in the spiritual life of meditation. Here he focuses on the death-resurrection cycle of Scripture, saying that progress can only be made through losing life and finding resurrection.

The final chapter is on enlightenment. Johnston offers three types of enlightenment that can be thought about in terms of Christian Zen. First, he identifies a “basic enlightenment which is neither Christian nor Buddhist nor anything else. It is just human.” Here he identifies a Christian monk who heard the call to enter the monastery after a jolting experience reading Plato. The second type he identifies is a vocational one, a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus bright-light moment, of which he says no methodology can get to. It’s a gift. The third type is “conversion or metanoia” (96–98). Johnston writes,

In the centuries that followed the apostolic age, it was customary to lead people to this deeply felt experience of metanoia, just as the Zen master leads his disciples to satori—though the methodology, of course, was quite different. Metanoia was no exceptional thing. It did not differ from ordinary faith; it was just that this faith could be experienced again and again in a series of “conversions.” As late as the sixteenth century we find Ignatius of Loyola with a methodology called The Spiritual Exercises for leading people precisely to this great and traditional conversion (98).

He goes on to say “that as Buddhism centers around enlightenment, so Christianity centers around conversion. Change your mind and hear for the kingdom of God is at hand. Change! Turn! This is the perennial call of Christ and the prophets. It is a clarion call, an invitation to rebirth, to a change of consciousness, to becoming a new man.” Additionally,

This . . . is what Christianity is all about; for this is faith. Chrsitianity is concerned with an earth-shaking, soul-stirring revolution . . . If we forget this, we end up with a milk-and-water thing that sometimes passes as Christianity but is no more than social respectability (103).

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