Zen for Christians
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Zen for Christians

A Beginner's Guide

Kim Boykin

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eBook - ePub

Zen for Christians

A Beginner's Guide

Kim Boykin

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About This Book

"Whereas other Christianity-meets-Buddhism books stress ideology and the intellect, this one emphasizes daily acts of practice." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)In this illuminating and insightful guide, Kim Boykin offers Christians a way to incorporate Zen practices into their lives without compromising their beliefs and faith.
Zen for Christians assumes curiosity but no real knowledge as it walks readers through specific concepts of Zen philosophy — including suffering, attachment, and enlightenment — and explains each in a simple but lively way. Sections between chapters gently demonstrate Zen meditation practices, explaining the basics in a clear, engaging manner.Placing Buddhist and Christian teachings side by sidehelps readers not only understand Zen but also showstheir compatibility. Drawing on Dr. Boykin's own personal search through Buddhism and Christianity as well as her background in theological studies, this thought-provoking work illustrates how Zen practice can be particularly useful for Christians who want to enrich their faith by incorporating contemplative practices."An excellent introduction to Zen — clear and to the point, practical, respectful, and even humorous at times." — Yoga Journal "Makes Zen practice more approachable and less esoteric … a straightforward guide for those who want to try Zen for themselves." — Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Bulletin "A trustworthy and delightful guide. Kim Boykin will demystify and deepen your understanding of both the traditions she practices. A gem!" — James W. Fowler, author, Stages of Faith "Kim Boykin writes in the skilled language of simplicity. While addressing those new to Zen, she offers practical wisdom, challenge, and encouragement to all practitioners." — Rose Mary Dougherty, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Bethesda, Maryland"The great religions of the world have much to learn from each other. Kim Boykin's book is a skillful step in that direction. The heart of the matter of Zen is presented in a direct and informative way that is based on her firsthand experience of Zen training. This should prove to be a helpful guidebook for any Christian who wishes to explore Zen practice." — John Daido Loori, roshi, abbot, Zen Mountain Monastery"This lovely, wise, and practical introduction to Zen keeps its promise of companionship as the kind of spiritual cookbook you can bring right into the kitchen. Recipe-reading like this, in fact, inspires you to get into the kitchen, encourages you to keep at it, and invites you to share your efforts in communion with others." — Steven Tipton, coauthor, Habits of the Heart "An excellent resource on Zen practice, written from a pragmatic, personal, and yet sophisticated point of view. What a fine contribution to Buddhist-Christian understanding!" — Judith Simmer-Brown, coauthor, Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule "This is a good-humored, intelligent, nonguilt-inducing book written by a person who shows us clearly what it would be like to reap the benefits of what she preaches." — Roberta Bondi, author, Memories of God and Houses: A Family Memoir of Grace

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Information

Publisher
Ixia Press
Year
2018
ISBN
9780486830391
Chapter 1
How I Became a Christian Zen Practitioner
I grew up in Los Angeles, in no religious tradition. During my childhood, my mom was involved in the Unitarian Church on and off, and my dad was a Mormon for several years—this was after they’d divorced. I occasionally went to church with them. I liked the Unitarian church better because I could wear jeans and we did arts and crafts. For five summers, I went to a Unitarian summer camp where we tie-dyed T-shirts, sang folk songs, and played noncompetitive games, and the only rules were “Don’t do anything that will hurt anyone else” and “Don’t throw rocks.” My grandmother, who became a born-again Christian late in life, taught me a few bedtime prayers and gave me a children’s Bible that I never read. And at my private elementary school, we sang a little prayer before lunch, and we recited Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus at the Christmas pageant. That about sums up my childhood religious training.
At Vassar College, in upstate New York, I majored in cognitive science, which included classes in psychology, computer science, philosophy, and linguistics. Initially, I focused on computer science, but midway through college, I began to lean toward the philosophical side of my major and I also started taking religion classes.
When I read Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche, I thought they had religion pretty well figured out. Religion was a neurosis or the opiate of the people or the rationalization of weakness or something along those lines. That is, religion was something I didn’t need to bother with personally, though I figured I should learn a bit about it as part of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
But then I started reading about the mystical and monastic traditions of Buddhism and Christianity and I read William James’s classic on the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and I started to think that religion might have something to say to me after all. Both of my grandmothers had died during my sophomore year in college, which almost certainly contributed to my newfound interest in the deep issues of human life, though I made that connection only in hindsight.
In the fall of my senior year, my Buddhism class took a field trip one Saturday to Zen Mountain Monastery in the nearby Catskill Mountains. I was intrigued by the monastery and felt a certain attraction to Zen, though I remember chatting with one of the monks and wondering how such a normal-seeming guy had ended up shaving his head and devoting his whole life to Zen. In the spring, the Zen teacher from the monastery came to Vassar to give a talk and afterward I inquired about the possibility of doing a retreat at the monastery. My friend Anne and I spent our spring break that year at the monastery, following the rigorous monastic schedule of work and meditation.
Monastic life turned out to be different in many ways from my image of bald men in medieval robes, in complete silence, copying manuscripts by hand. For one thing, there are both women and men in residence at Zen Mountain Monastery. The monastery usually has twenty to forty full-time residents, which at the time included about five “monastics” (their gender-inclusive term for monks and nuns), and now includes about twice that number. The rest of the residents are there for a limited period of time agreed on in advance, anywhere up to a year, without making or necessarily intending to make any longer commitment. And there are usually some twenty to forty guests each weekend for retreats.
The monastery was founded by John Daido Loori, Roshi, who was raised Catholic in New Jersey. (“Daido” is his “dharma name” or Buddhist name. The title Roshi, which literally means “old master,” is used for Zen teachers whose awakening has been certified by their own teacher.) Daido’s teacher, Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, was from Japan and founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Daido also counted among his spiritual teachers Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross.
When I made my first visit to the monastery, only two residents had shaved heads: Daido and the head monastic. In the meditation hall, residents wear Japanese-style robes—gray for students, black for monastics, white for senior lay students. The rest of the time, they wear ordinary clothes in black or other dark or neutral colors so as to blend in with the rest of the sangha or community.
A day at the monastery is spent mostly in work and meditation. The daily schedule varies slightly, depending on the season, but a typical day begins with wake-up at 4:30 a.m., zazen at 5:00 a.m.—two thirty-five-minute sitting periods separated by five minutes of walking meditation—and a twenty-minute service centered in chanting texts such as the Heart Sutra, which encapsulates core teachings of Zen. The day includes seven-and-a-half hours of work, three vegetarian meals, and some time for rest and relaxation. And the day ends with another block of two sitting periods at 7:30 p.m. and lights-out at 9:30 p.m. Silence is generally kept from evening zazen through about 10:00 a.m. the next day. My favorite exception to this rule is on Wednesday nights cookies are served in the dining hall after evening zazen and you can chat on “cookie night.”
Like all newcomers to the monastery, Anne and I were taught the practice of counting the breath. I spent a lot of time noticing the noisiness of my brain and the complaints of my body about sitting completely still with a straight back, and I discovered the simple wonder of paying attention to what’s actually happening. Immediately after doing zazen, I usually felt peaceful and relaxed, and I didn’t feel much like talking or performing any unnecessary actions. But this was not a feeling of drowsiness or lethargy. I felt focused and alert and very aware of everything around me. During my whole stay at the monastery, but especially after zazen, I really enjoyed eating. Maybe this was simply because the food at the monastery was so much better than the food at school, but I think it was also because I was attending more than usual to the actions and sensations of eating.
The monastery supports itself by offering weekend and weeklong retreats, so a lot of the work of the monastery is that of running a retreat center. Guests are assigned a job each day, depending on what is needed: helping in the kitchen, housekeeping, gardening, lawn mowing, office work. Monastics and other long-term residents have an ongoing job. There’s a head cook, an accountant, a work supervisor, a registrar, and so forth. The monastery residents don’t make hand-illuminated copies of sacred texts, but they do publish a quarterly journal and produce audio and video recordings of Zen teaching.
The monastery has the equivalent of a weekend, called hosan, from Sunday afternoon, after the weekend guests leave, through Tuesday afternoon. During hosan there is no schedule to follow and no rule of silence. Residents are on their own for meals, and you can leave the monastery grounds to go for a hike in the mountains or spend time in New York City or just go to nearby Woodstock for ice cream. The television in the library is off-limits during the week but can be used during hosan. While Anne and I were visiting, a bunch of us watched the movie Return of the Jedi.
One week of each month is a sesshin or intensive meditation retreat. During sesshin, silence is kept at all times and most of each day is spent in zazen.
Everything done at the monastery all day, all year, is part of the practice—not just zazen but working, eating, even resting. And everyone there—monastics and laypeople, residents and guests—follows the same monastic schedule and discipline. The whole environment is designed to encourage and facilitate practicing at all times the awareness that is practiced in zazen: repeatedly noticing wandering thoughts and returning to full engagement with the present moment.
Several years after this visit to the monastery, I heard someone say, after some intensive Zen practice, that it felt like she’d had all the plaque scraped off her brain. That’s how I felt at the end of my week’s stay: like I had a fresh, clean, shiny brain. Especially for the first few days after leaving the monastery, I was more aware of all the meaningless and unnecessary chatter going on all the time—my own chattering, other people’s chattering, and the incessant chattering in my brain. And I kept feeling like I was getting too much stimulation or doing too many things at the same time. As we drove away from the monastery at the end of the week, we were talking, listening to the radio, and watching the snow hit the windshield, and this seemed like two too many things to be doing at once, like this was more than one could fully attend to. Back at school, I found that I had an easier time taking care of tasks that I ordinarily would have put off or grumbled about.
Shortly after my college graduation in 1987, during a cross-country drive from New York City to Los Angeles with my aunt and my college possessions, I became suddenly and painfully aware of my own mortality and finitude, my smallness and powerlessness in the universe.
I had had a similar experience before, when I was about six: coming to the dizzying realization not only that I was mortal, but also that I might never have existed and that, in fact, nothing might ever have existed. But I had apparently managed to repress that line of thought for many years until, at age twenty-one, it hit me, in a gut way, that I would eventually die and that I wouldn’t be consulted about whether that was okay with me. Like it or not, sooner or later, I would die.
I felt terrified and confused, like my world had turned inside out. I wondered how people could so blithely go about their daily lives knowing they were going to die. I felt as though now I really understood the existentialist philosophers I’d read in college, the “sick soul” of William James, and the story of the Buddha, a pampered, sheltered prince who was in his twenties before he discovered some of the fundamental realities of human existence—aging, illness, and death.
I suppose you might call this crisis a conversion experience, in that it decisively and permanently reoriented my life, propelling me on my religious search. But we usually imagine conversion experiences as joyful, and this experience was horrifying. I was glad, some years later, to read what Susan Howatch, author of a series of novels about the Anglican Church, says about her own conversion: I began to feel as if God had seized me by the scruff of the neck, slammed me against the nearest wall, and was now shaking me until my teeth rattled.” She adds, “Why people think a religious conversion is all sweetness and light I have no idea. It must be one of the big spiritual misconceptions of our time.”
I spent that summer in Hawaii with my mom and stepdad, who were living there at the time, but I didn’t much enjoy my exotic locale. I slept as much as possible—my preferred method of escaping myself and the world—and read anything that I thought might help me understand what was going on with me and what to do about it, mainly books on religious experience and meditation.
That fall, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, to start a PhD program in philosophy at the University of Colorado. Boulder is a center for Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, and I began a regular meditation practice there, with the support of classes and weekend meditation retreats at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), a small college founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. I also read some of the classics of the Christian contemplative tradition: The Cloud of Unknowing, Saint John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.
I quickly discovered that philosophy wasn’t going to address the Big Questions in a way that would satisfy me, and I sat in my philosophy classes wondering if the other students actually cared about the issues we were discussing and, if so, why. My undergraduate adviser had warned me that I wouldn’t like graduate study in philosophy, and he was right. I dropped out of the program shortly after the start of my second semester.
By that point, my religious search was by far the most important thing in my life. The questions of life and death were urgent and painful and unrelenting, and I wanted to devote some time to single-minded, wholehearted spiritual practice. So I spent three months of the fall of 1988 at Zen Mountain Monastery, which I had visited in college.
After that, I returned to Boulder and transferred into the graduate program in religious studies at the University of Colorado. But I quickly became frustrated that no one seemed to want to talk about religion in relation to their own lives. They were observing religion from the outside, as anthropologists and sociologists, and I realized that I was primarily interested in exploring religion from the inside. At that point I didn’t want to be reading and writing and talking about religion; I wanted to be practicing it.
So I left the program and went back to the Zen monastery, this time for a year’s residency, beginning in the summer of 1989.
When I tell people that I lived at a monastery, they often say something like “That must have been so peaceful.” But peaceful is not one of the adjectives that comes to mind. I remember thinking that the schedule felt relentless. The experience was intense, challenging, difficult. I almost always felt sleep-deprived. I was only twenty-three and was dealing with basic issues of growing up—work, relationships, and so forth—at the same time as questions about life and death. I once asked one of the monastics, “Don’t you sometimes wish you believed in Someone you could pray to for help?” But he looked at me uncomprehendingly and said no. I learned a lot about myself during my time at the monastery but felt afterward that it might have been too much all at once.
My future husband, Brian, and I dated during my year’s residency at the monastery. We had met two years earlier through the Buddhist community in Boulder, but we got together long-distance, writing letters while I was in New York and he was in Colorado, and he came out to the monastery three times to visit. Brian was teaching at the University of Colorado while finishing his dissertation in theology for the University of Chicago.
After my year at the monastery, I returned to Boulder to be with Brian, who had just finished a thirty-day silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat center. We got married two years later.
Although Brian is Boston Irish-Catholic and my background was Southern California agnostic, we somehow ended up with strikingly similar worldviews. When we moved in together, between the two of us we had no car, no couch, and no television, but we had three zafus and five copies of The Cloud of Unknowing (in three different translations).
Toward the end of my time at the monastery and especially after I moved back to Boulder, I was really struggling with my Zen practice and my Zen teacher. On Thursday nights, Brian and I sat with a small Zen group that met in the basement of the Tibetan Buddhist center downtown, but that was all the Zen practice I was doing and even that felt like a chore.
At the monastery, I realized that I never had to work for much of anything in my life and never had done much of anything requiring discipline. School work had come easily; I was never involved in sports; I...

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