Zen and the Rich Young Man

Much of everyday life is a dialogue with our desires. These include, most basically, positive desires—what I like, what I find interesting or funny, what is relaxing or entertaining, what I eat, read, think, say, do, love, even—and negative desires—what I dislike, what I fear, what I disagree with, what I am discouraged by, what is uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, painful, hateful, even.

I will attempt to now trace a recent attempt of mine to confront this scrolling social-media-feed of personal desires and distractions head on, and what it illuminated for me concerning the spiritual life. The main protagonist, however, will be Zen Buddhism, and my brief glimpse of it while in a week-long residency at the Zen Center of New York City (ZCNYC): Fire Lotus Temple. Specifically, I hope to show how this all too brief immersion as a Catholic in Buddhist life not only deepened my appreciation for the spiritual richness (or paradoxically, spiritual poverty) of Zen Buddhism, but also how this encounter opened up Scripture to me in important ways, and refocused some of the often overlooked existential terrain of the Christian spiritual journey.

Admittedly, there are significant differences between Zen Buddhism and Christianity that cannot be overlooked. As Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and studied amateur of Zen Buddhism,[1] admits, it is moreover far from evident that all religions “meet at the top,” religion in the end really functioning as various “means for arriving at the same end,” “as if a fundamental belief were something that a mystic could throw off like a suit of clothes.”[2]

In light of Merton’s “sartorial” admonition about interreligious encounter, I would like to offer a simple but fundamental moment of spiritual synergy: Zen Buddhism teaches the Christian how to unlearn the self.

Ideally, at this point, theological flags are flying on the field. Unlearn the self? Are you about to tell me that the self is an illusion? Is that even orthodox? False interreligious start, five-yard penalty, second down. The chastening words of Merton seem only to gain more traction: “it is not that simple.”[3]

Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the words of one of the temple Sensei, Ron Hogen Green, who told me in multiple conversations together, “Zen practice makes better Christians.” This essay is an attempt to honor that interreligious refrain, to give it limited but pointed theological reinforcement, and to pass it on to you for consideration.

Posing the Wrong Question: What is Zen?

In beginning Christian-Buddhist dialogue, an essential and seemingly innocuous question worth asking is “what is Zen?” I will attempt two possible responses: the first is assuredly wrong, and the second is autobiographical. I aim to show how the failure of the former response relates to the autobiographical nature of the latter, and how this failure illustrates the ways in which the question itself can be misleading. And so, let us begin with the first response: the wrong answer to the wrong question (is Zen like graduate school?).

In order to understand Zen in our American context, consider the words of John Daido Loori, founder of The Mountains and Rivers Order, an American Buddhist order of which the ZCNYC is a part. How to describe this local form of Zen Buddhism? “The Mountains and Rivers Order,” writes Loori, “represents a unique interweaving of the Soto and Rinzai Zen traditions as they come to be expressed in a modern way.”[4] The logistics of this practice? “The thrust of what is Zen in America was and continues to be zazen and the teacher-student relationship, which is the basis of the mind-to-mind transmission, common to both the Rinzai and Soto Schools.”[5]

Finally, a note on method: how to transplant this sect of Zen Buddhism into an American spiritual geography, so markedly foreign to the historical, philosophical, and cultural life of Buddhism native to its Japanese counterpart? Loori directs the reader to the evolution of the “Eight Gates,” a structured pedagogy of spiritual living that trains the American novice in and towards enlightenment.

A bit historically broad and a bit technical, but a start. Let us get to the heart of things. “The whole aim of Zen,” continues Loori, “is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing”; “The Zen experience is a direct grasp of the unity of the invisible and the visible, the noumenal and the phenomenal, or, if you prefer, an experiential realization that any such division is bound to be pure imagination.”[6] Better: a bit theoretical, but the promise of mature, spiritual insight is there. “Direct grasp” strikes as honest and raw, and Loori appears self-reflexive enough to distinguish his “experiential realization” of Zen from those who rely on the metaphysical crutch of “logical verbalizing.”

An even more direct formulation:

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 exist, that I live: who is this “I” that exists and lives?[7]

Any further simplification possible? “Zen is the direct experience of Life itself,” or “Zen is Life itself,” or in its simplest form, “Zen is Life.” So it seems, we have gone from history lesson, to theoretical exposition, to a bumper sticker.

Nevertheless, we have “learned” something. Zen is the result of a spiritual practice manifested in multiple historical traditions of Buddhism, which transmit an evolving spiritual pedagogy to meet the needs of their given cultural context, whereby people learn to encounter reality head-on: not “foolproof statements about experience” but “direct experience” itself. There is an abstruse notion of “unity” involved between the invisible and visible that one might leave to the experts, but basically, that is it.

Did that work? Enlightened yet? Indeed, has my logical verbalizing worked? Have I taught you, however simplistically, Zen itself, or have I taught you about Zen Buddhism? So far, I have probably accomplished little more than preparing an exotic knapsack of interreligious nouns to rummage through. Loori’s account of and personal practice of Zen is both more profound and more simple than I have articulated in my caricature. However, we can add here one central lesson of his, which arguably underpins his introduction to Zen Buddhism in The Eight Gates of Zen, and accompanied my residency at the temple: paradoxically, to attempt to “define” Zen is to miss the point.

To qualify: to define Zen is misleading not because Zen is inherently ineffable, transcendently beyond description and human speech. Rather, it is because the goal of Zen, or rather its practice, primarily concerns human experience, and not its articulation in definitions. As Merton explains, “Zen is not a systematic explanation of life, it is not an ideology, it is not a world view.”[8] However, even this qualification (“Zen has to do with experience, not definitions”) has its pitfalls, as it too can turn into a mental, notional definition. There is a marked irony to offering a systematic explanation of the fact that Zen is not a systematic explanation of life. One is still, as it were, playing the definition game.

We have not yet encountered, experienced, “known,” Zen: reality, the thing itself, the res tantum. But what is this elusive “thing”? To risk asking: what is Zen? And so we return to our tenuous question, and depart from its failed response.

Zazen, Part 1: Bookends

Instead, a second answer, organized into two parts. The first part is itself organized into two stories: more humorous, certainly more oblique, and autobiographical throughout.

Two moments of zazen in recent and remote memory (You do not know what exactly zazen is? Even better):

Thomas Graff, age 4,[9] El Dorado Hills, California:

Oh no. I know what that is. The blue and white book. With the fish (I like fish) and the clowns (I don’t like clowns). I know what that means.

My mother dutifully restrains me with her arms on her lap as we sit together on the armchair: “Time to read together, Thomas. Ready? ‘Sid is sad in the sub.’ Now you try.” Learn to read? Not a chance. All right, don’t mess this up . . . “Siidd is saaad in thee . . .” now! I twist out of my mom’s bear hug—a move she has since dubbed “the corkscrew”—as her arms relax in the belief that I am finally starting to cooperate. I flee the scene, giddy in escape. I open the door, and waddle confidently outside. Sid is sad in the sub? Thomas is happy in the backyard.

Thomas Graff, age 26, New York City, New York:

Setting: a monotonous, hot August afternoon. Dramatis personae: a herd of (a corporation of? a start-up of?) nine-to-fivers. The train is here. My wife and I scurry tactfully down the stairs. The clockwork flash mob wades hastily and yet artfully into a packed MTA uptown train, a social space that can only be understood as some strangely professional dorm party, where you do not know anyone, and the lights are on and everyone is listening to their own music, but no one is dancing. I experience a Pavlovian spike of self-satisfaction: we just made it on board. We lurch forward and make it past the first routine stop. Thoughts of annoyance and discomfort drift by: “Man it is packed in here. I’m hungry. what should I make for dinner? It’s really hot in here. I’m sweating a lot”

Suddenly, the train comes to a lethargic and screeching halt. “Oh Geez,” I mutter reflexively. Well, looks like I am one more step towards reaching my sin goal for the day if only they could track those on a FitBit. Silence returns. I look around for an explanation. “Why did the train stop?” I think to myself. “Are you kidding me?” Maybe we can play the scapegoat game to pass the time: who is to blame here? I meet equally blank and searching stares from my more-than-neighbors.

After a few minutes, the otherwise routinely unintelligible voice on the intercom announces loud and clear: “Pardon the interruption, ladies and gentlemen, but there is a police investigation going on in the train ahead of you.” We spontaneously exhale in unison, “ughhhh,” and wait in the stuffy, broken-air-conditioner air.

The reality of the moment seeps in: here we are, stuck motionless and confined in a metal box, immured by the concrete overhead. Images of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado flit ruefully through my mind.

A neighbor adds, dramatically: “Oh, my, Goh, duh.” Well, at least we have successfully spanned both the Old and New Testaments in colloquial curses. Opposable thumbs serve as percussion for a man clutching an overhanging metal bar; another shoulders the silence like a stoic, staring forward in dogged silence; most heads bow in millennial prayer, buried in iPhones—the litany of the annoyed, fidgety, and distracted goes on. No one seems capable or willing to sit or stand quite still; the corkscrews reappear.

Zazen, Part 2: Sitting

But, perhaps zazen is yet unclear. Thus, here is the second part of my second answer to the question “what is Zen?” which, I hope, will accomplish three things: first, to make explicit what zazen is and how I engaged with it among its Brooklyn practitioners; second, to suggest how a carefree, distracted toddler and an overheated, inconvenienced twenty-something might exemplify trace moments of zazen in daily life; and third, to consider how this exploration of zazen might inform the place of “unlearning the self” in a robust Christian spirituality.

During my residency at ZCNYC, I was welcomed into a recognizably monastic weekly schedule of prayer, liturgy, communal meals and chores, and study, with the unique option of time set aside during the day for lay practitioners who work a usual nine-to-five job.[10] There is much to say about the deep spirituality accompanying these rhythms of daily communal life, I will focus here on the “heart” of temple life, the weekday dawn and evening zazen, and weekend liturgy.[11]

Zazen, or “sitting Zen,” is most understandable as “meditation.” Its practical focus is with the body and posture, the breath and consciousness, and perhaps only secondarily with the typical buzz-word connotations of well-being, peace of mind, and health benefits—symptoms, not objectives, of the practice. But most importantly, as the center emphasizes, drawing from the wisdom of Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, “Basically, zazen is the study of the self”:

Zazen is the form of meditation at the very heart of Zen practice. In fact, Zen is known as the “meditation school” of Buddhism. Basically, zazen is the study of the self. The great Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to recognize the unity of the self and the ten thousand things. Upon his own enlightenment, Buddha was in seated meditation; Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For 2,500 years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on. It spread from India to China, to Japan, to other parts of Asia, and then finally to the West. It’s a very simple practice. It’s very easy to describe and very easy to follow. But like all other practices, we have to engage it on a consistent basis if we want to discover its power and depth.[12]

As this writer can relate, if studying the self “is a very simple practice” and “very easy to follow,” it is also quite simply terrible to begin. The self, with its laundry list of unfulfilled desires and demands for comfort, attention, and sovereignty, is quite the dogged taskmaster.

I began my week with Sunday liturgy. Two hours for morning service, a brief introduction to proper sitting postures, zazen, and a “sermon” on Buddhist practice by the Sensei. Zero-to-sixty zazen meditation never felt so slow; the spare amount of sleep the previous night following surely did not help either. Sitting on an admittedly comfortable cylindrical cushion (zafu) atop a square-shaped cushion mat (zabuton), I was settled enough, until the fidgeting began. Stray thoughts and discomforts pricked at my mind constantly. “Focus on the breath” and “count slowly to ten” ceded quickly to “My nose itches” and, “Is my leg falling asleep??” (It fell asleep a lot).

The gauntlet with myself continued during the various hour and hour-and-a-half daily zazen meditations. To no foreseeable end, I continually came up against the strange irony of resisting, fidgeting, scrutinizing, and controlling one of the most simple, carefree, basic human experiences imaginable. I was sitting.

Slowly, slowly, I began to learn what it felt like to loosen some of that tight grip on my thoughts, discomfort, and distractions. I tried to accompany thoughts; to offer them my attention, but not control them; to re-learn, as Loori writes, how most basically how to see, hear, taste, and feel:

Most of us are preoccupied. We’re constantly carrying on an internal dialogue, constantly talking to ourselves . . . we tend to miss the moment-to-moment awareness of our life. We look but we don’t see; we listen but we don’t hear; we eat but we don’t taste; we love but we don’t feel . . . Zazen brings us back into the moment, which is exactly where our life takes place.[13]

I settled bit by bit into an awareness of a much more basic experience of zazen, which is softness. “Although zazen looks very disciplined,” writes Loori, “the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight.”[14] In the span of a week, it became evident that my happily illiterate past as a toddler and my hurriedly annoyed present self had colluded to bring as temple offering a lifetime of energy, interest, impulses, and desires to the crucible of silence.

During the week, I began to notice those same pin pricks not only in the temple, but (God forbid) during everyday life, and especially while I was en route to the temple. “I hope I’m not late!” “Just missed the train,” “Why is it so crowded again?” Gradually, the great irony dawned on me of travelling agitatedly to get to a Zen temple so I could meditate peacefully. I am sure that the Zen monks and students I lived with would find something humorous in worrying about being “late” to practicing Zen.

Rest assured, enlightenment was far, far from realized during my brief residency. Zen practice takes years, decades, for that kind of familiarity, mastery, and freedom. But, for now, that dangerous germ of a question, embodied in the soft discipline of zazen, took root in an unexpected way. Who is this “self”? Who am I? Without going into it further, it is perhaps here, reader, that “Zen” begins: in personal experience, existential realization, in autobiography—yet note how even these words are insufficient; they can only point. And so, Loori again:  “If the student is concerned with the ground of being, with fundamental questions of life and death­—Who am I? What is truth? What is reality? What is life? What is death?—then they have come to the right place. Those are spiritual questions, and that is what Zen training is specifically designed to deal with. Those who begin Zen practice without an essentially spiritual motivation usually do not last too long in training.”[15] Paradoxically, the answer to “What is Zen?” seems to begin when question marks begin to replace periods.

Unlearning the Self: The Rich Young Man

To return to my initial aim of this essay: what might Zen Buddhism teach the Christian about “unlearning the self”? And, more forcefully put, why is this practice in fact at the heart of Christian spiritual life tout court?

The story of the Rich Young Man has greeted us recently in the liturgical cycle on October 14th, the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time. I read in Mark’s account[16]:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”
He replied and said to him,
“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions (Mk 10:17-22).

“At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad.” This crestfallen conclusion is one of the most shocking moments in the Gospels. And all the more so for being commonplace: a young man runs to catch Jesus, and they talk. No miracle is performed, no Pharisee is denounced, law overturned, or paschal mystery foretold. Jesus listens, he answers the young man’s questions lovingly, and the young man departs from him, disheartened. Somehow, the image of a person walking away from Jesus and weeping does not exactly strike as the most effective ad campaign for the New Evangelization, let alone as “good news.”

It is commonly understood that the young man balks at Jesus’s response because “he had many possessions.” This is all well and good: it is worth praying over and seriously considering how discipleship in Christ makes demands on our material possessions and material wealth, and how greed expresses yet another vicious form of pride. However, in light of our excursus on Buddhist life, one is tempted to expand the theological reading of the encounter further. Perhaps the young man himself has misunderstood his own situation and what is at stake in following Jesus. Is this story merely about the allure of wealth, poverty serving as the final “virtue” which the Rich Young Man could acquire, except that he chooses not to?

Ultimately, the final “possession” which Jesus asks the young man to relinquish, to which all of his earthly possessions point, and over which the young man ultimately despairs, is his self-possession, that “self” which he “has” like so many other possessions: autonomous, self-directed, and—quite impressively—virtuous. As the story hints, eternal life is not one of many virtues, achievements, or statuses which one can “possess” like so many material things; and the fact that the young man at least implicitly (mis-)understands it as such is suggested in the diction present in the Greek text.[17] In short, the Rich Young Man, in confronting the offer of eternal life, was unwilling to “unlearn” his pre-conceived notion of his self. But why is this so crucial to the spiritual life?

Let us return, again, to our thesis: “Zen Buddhism teaches the Christian how to unlearn the self,” and the flags on the field. Must the young man merely “learn” that his self is an “illusion,” and all his problems will go away?

Theologically, the issue at hand is not some addition piece of knowledge or illumination which the young man lacked (“if only someone told me the self is an illusion . . .”), but the intractability of pride. Traditionally, the Church Fathers located the root of all sin in pride. As John Cassian writes, pride is “the beginning of all sins and faults” and “destructive of all virtues.”[18] The Rich Young Man is called by Jesus, in no uncertain terms, not only to relinquish the vicious consequences of the Fall (Cassian’s “destroyed virtues,” i.e., those forms of excellence which biblically the Rich Young Man had managed so far to recuperate in faithful obedience to the Commandments), but the Fall itself, Original Sin (i.e., pride, “the beginning of all sins and faults” [emphasis added]).

Thinking in line with our Buddhist brothers and sisters, we might here ask: to what extent is pride fundamentally linked to notions of the self? In its respective practice, Zen Buddhism patiently insists on the kind of abandonment of “self” of which the young man is incapable: to relinquish, piece by piece, the intelligently curated, comfortably delineated, and righteously defended “I.” From the perspective of the Christian tradition, a slight emendation of prefix might offer illumination (risking again, perhaps, Merton’s “change of clothing” problem in interreligious dialogue). Theologically, Original Sin is not so much an illusion as a delusion of the “self,” to which we are addicted. “The tragedy,” Merton writes, “is that our consciousness is totally alienated from this inmost ground of our identity. And in Christian mystical tradition, this inner split and alienation is the real meaning of ‘original sin.’”[19]

This is the kind of unlearning of self to which Zen Buddhism might helpfully point: unlearning our independence from God, creator and ground of our being, unlearning our self-imposed and accumulated degrees of isolation from our neighbor, the stranger, and ourselves, unlearning the many layers of acquisitiveness and “possessions” that convince us of owning or having an autonomous self (however virtuous). In a word, unlearning the delusion of any individual sovereignty and existence apart from or over against God the Creator. We must, in no uncertain terms, unlearn our separation from God. Merton writes,

A method of meditation or a form of contemplation that merely produces the illusion of having “arrived somewhere,” of having achieved security and preserved one’s familiar status by playing a part, will eventually have to be unlearned in dread—or else we will be confirmed in the arrogance, the impenetrable self-assurance of the Pharisee. We will become impervious to the deepest truths. We will be closed to all who do don’t participate in our illusion. We will live “good lives” that are basically inauthentic, “good” only as long as they permit us to remain established in our respectable and impermeable identities. The “goodness” of such lives depends on the security afforded by relative wealth, recreation, spiritual comfort, and a solid reputation for piety.[20]

The young man, confronting Jesus, may have realized the absurdity of his situation: it is impossible to give up all that he knows to be himself (“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”) while remaining that same self. The self cannot lose itself and have it too on its own terms. Most basically, he was unwilling to ask that fundamental question, “who am I?” and see anything or indeed anyone beyond his “impenetrable self-assurance” of possessions and self-possession. Poverty of self, self-emptying love (what the Christian tradition terms kenosis) and thus discipleship in Christ and perfect freedom was to him impossible.

We are familiar with the saying: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”[21] In radical departure from its popular formulation, it is more often the case that in the religious life, the good is the enemy of the perfect. It is the Rich Young Man’s “goodness” that ultimately hinders him, and frustrates love of God. He arrives with great zeal for inheriting eternal life, but ultimately cannot part with his pre-conceived notion of the “good life” which he could direct, craft, and control. This is indeed a startling challenge to our contemporary culture, allured (reasonably enough) as it is by the ethos of “living your best life.”

There is, however, a beautiful paradox hinted at structurally in the Gospels, concerning the nature of this perfection in discipleship. In the Synoptic Gospels, the brief passage in which Jesus rebukes the disciples for restraining the little children being brought to him (“Let the little children come to me”) immediately prefaces the story of the Rich Young Man. “The kingdom of God,” Jesus claims, “belongs to such as these”; and precisely not to those like the Rich Young Man, for, famously, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The structural continuity, I suspect, is not coincidental. Ultimately, the “good” young man cannot mature and become spiritually “perfect” in Christ because he cannot become like a little child. For such as these is the kingdom of heaven. In the spiritual life, it seems, the good can even be the enemy of the child-like.

Learning the Self: Life in Christ

To summarize, to begin to unlearn the self is to be willing to unlearn the delusion of pride, and thereby to question radically the extent to which pride asserts an illusive or “delusive” self which claims for itself sovereignty of action over against the promptings of divine love (“Go, sell what you have . . . then come, follow me”); in a sense, even in its most positive iteration, to decide alongside the Rich Young Man to be virtuous ultimately on one’s own terms. The Doctrine of the Fall, however, implies most basically a condition of created integrity. Creation is fundamentally good, and pride perverts that good—a kind of spiritual auto-immune disease. Its recuperation, therefore, the “unlearning the self” to which this essay points, is not primarily possible through our own efforts (the trap of the Rich Young Man again), but through grace, and our cooperation with grace. Merton writes,
As the Christian doctrine of grace teaches us in other terms, this cannot be the work of our own “self.” It is useless for the “self” to try to “purify itself,” or for the “self” to “make a place in itself” for God. The innocence and purity of heart which belongs to paradise are a complete emptiness of self in which all is the work of God, the free and unpredictable expression of His love, and the work of grace.[22]

So far, we have located the question “who am I?” as fundamental to the Buddhist and Christian traditions alike. Zen Buddhism plumbs the question of “Who am I?” with an almost mischievous abandon; in light of the gift of grace, i.e. the “work of God” in the self, might we likewise explore a further question, namely, “Who is Christ?”

I read in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). As Paul proclaims, the two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is Christ?” are inextricably, and astonishingly, linked. The self unlearns it-self in grace not as its own end, but in order to come to new life in Christ.

Radically put, Zen Buddhism offers the Christian the practical resources for the beginnings of a rediscovery of the imago Dei at the heart of religious life. “The ‘death of the old man,’” writes Merton, “is not the destruction of personality but the dissipation of an illusion, and the discovery of the new man is the realization of what was there all along, at least as a radical possibility, by reason of the fact that man is the image of God.”[23] Or, to return to language of “possession” of eternal life seen in the story of the Rich Young Man: “We ‘possess’ [God] in proportion as we realize ourselves to be possessed by him in the inmost depths of our being.”[24]

In grace, and in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, you, I, we live in and as Christ, in his mystical body. The two questions (“Who am I?” “Who is Christ?”) and their attendant spiritual practices (unlearning the self of pride, learning the self of Christ) are, in the end, one; just as, theologically, the self-emptying love of the Cross is none other than the self-emptying love of the Trinity, of the divine life. “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Discouragingly, the activistic spirit of the Rich Young Man is no stranger to contemporary Christian life. Concerning this radically transformative “life” and “unity” in Christ, Merton laments that “Today they are not understood in all their spiritual depth. Their mystical implications are seldom explored. We dwell rather, with such greater interest, on their social, economic and ethical implications.”[25] And so our deepest desires in life, sadly, remain unfulfilled. “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee,” Augustine unforgettably confesses. Scattered desires, distractions, and ambitions easily and imperceptibly idolize and personify in the pride of an “I” separate from transformative discipleship and life in Christ, and inevitably cede to frustration: whether to the indefinite fixations of desire (“what I really need to be/become/have/acquire more of to be happy is . . .”), self-deluding privilege (“I accomplished this, I deserve what I have worked so hard for”) or magnanimity (“look how generous and self-sacrificial I am), moral self-righteousness, whether interpersonal, social, or political (“of course s/he is wrong . . . ”; “I could never understand how you support . . .”; “I can never forgive him/her for what s/he did”), or forms of despair, whether directed towards oneself or towards another (for a convenient catalogue, see Dante Alighieri’s Inferno).

One pauses to consider the unknown future of the Rich Young Man. The narrative ends unresolved, and two options at least seem equally feasible: did he harden into a calculating Pharisee, or (to adopt a Buddhist verb) soften into someone alive in Christ? The question accompanies him on the other side of his enthusiasm and his grief. But, then again, so it does for each of us.

Featured Image: Titian, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, 1510; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] I rely heavily on Merton’s thought and experience of Zen throughout this essay. The interpretation, as such, is imbalanced, but at least hopefully consistent with his much more extensive elaborations elsewhere on the relationship between Zen Buddhism and Christianity.

[2] Merton, Zen, 43.

[3] Ibid., 15. It is nevertheless worth emphasizing here that the fact of these opaque differences ought to attract new forms of humility, curiosity, and friendship. Thomas Merton, of course, stands as one among many of these models. Cf also the work of Dr. John C.H. Wu, 20th century Chinese convert to Catholicism, and Jesuit priest and Zen rōshi Fr. Robert Kennedy, SJ. For further media introductions to Zen and zazen, browse the ZCNYC: Fire Lotus Temple list of podcasts: https://zmm.org/media/. For an accessible introduction to “mindfulness,” and its relevance for social life, see Krista Tippett’s interview with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, “Being Peace in a World of Trauma.”

[4] John Daido Loori, The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training (Boulder: Shambhala, 2002), 10.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Merton, Zen, 37.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid., 35.

[9] This autobiographical snapshot is obviously a dramatic reconstruction, but, I am proud to say, nevertheless “true” in the ways all good fiction aims to be.

[10] See https://zmm.org/zen-center-new-york-city/zcnyc-schedule/. For those curious, the Zen Mountain Monastery is the main hub for the Mountains and Rivers Order in the state of New York, from which the more urban and lay-focused ZCNYC developed. https://zmm.org/zmm/zen-mountain-monastery/

[11] I am far from qualified to speak to the nature of Buddhist liturgy and its relation to Christian worship. Suffice it to mention the brief distinction (to a much larger conversation) offered by Sensei Hogen, who claimed that Buddhist liturgy differed most basically from Christian liturgy in that there was nothing there (no God, divinity, creator) to worship in the first place.

[12] https://zmm.org/teachings-and-training/meditation-instructions/.

[13] Loori, The Eight Gates, 28.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 43.

[16] The story is recounted in all three of the Synoptic Gospels: Mt 19:16-30; Mk 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30.

[17] Both Mk 10:17 and Lk 18:18 employ the verb κληρονομέω, “to inherit,” while Mt. 19:16 employs the more general ἔχω, “to have,” “to possess,” or “to hold.”

[18] John Cassian, Institutes, XII.6.

[19] Merton, Zen, 12.

[20] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image, 1969), 81-2. For a tangentially related treatment of “the privileging of goodness over solidarity,” See: Dr. Rowan Williams’ recent lecture at Wheaton College concerning Marilynne Robinson’s Lila.

[21] This quote is associated with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (“Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien,” or “The best is the enemy of the good”), but it may be Italian in origin, given Orlando Pescetti’s 1603 formulation in his Proverbi italiani: “Il meglio è nemico del bene.”

[22] Merton, Zen, 120.

[23] Ibid., 118, emphasis added.

[24] Merton, Contemplative Prayer, 61, emphasis added.

[25] Merton, Zen, 118.


Thomas Graff

Thomas Graff is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge. He researches on Augustine of Hippo and Dante Alighieri, and is interested in the relationship between contemplation, literary form(s), and theological reflection.

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