A Zen Retreat


The dates for the retreat with a Zen Buddhist orientation were convenient. I participated and ended up with new insights and aspirations. The routine was rigorous. We began at 6:15 a.m. and ended with mass at 9:15 p.m.- all in total silence.The retreat leader, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., had spent some ten years in Japan. He is a professor of Japanese and theology at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, and has written two books on Zen addressed to Christians (Zen Spirit Christian Spirit, Continuum, 1996, and Zen Gifts to the Christians, Continuum, 2000). He spoke regularly during the week long gathering at Jesuit retreat house on Long Island. More importantly, he regularly led the seventy-two retreatants, mostly laymen and women, in prayer.

Some may feel that the catholic retreat integrated with Zen Buddhism looks "trendy " and is open to question. But the week made clear to me as never before the incomprehensibility of God, the pervasiveness of self- deception, and the desperate need of detachment from all living things.

In 1989, in the seven-thousand-word letter to the bishops, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith raised some questions about Buddhism, but stated that the church accepts everything that is "true and Holy" in other religions. Similarly the document from John Paul II titled Dominus Jesus (August 6, 2000) affirms that "interreligious dialogue, which is part of the church evangelizing mission, requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment" I found the "reciprocal enrichment" of this retreat particularly satisfying.

The history of Buddhism goes back more than twenty-five hundred years, expressed in many variations in India, China, Japan, and elsewhere. Hundreds of millions of God's children have sought some explanation of life in Buddhism. There are surely ways to God to be found by Christians in Buddhism-the way of life for one-third to one-half of the human race. In assessing Buddhism is reminded of Saint Bonaventure who was called a pantheist because he perceived God and mankind to be similar. The wonders of the universe inherent in Buddha are also suggested in the Jewish writer Spinoza, who was described as "intoxicated" with god. A modern Catholic writer had suggested that Christianity may be in the process of interpreting Buddhism just as Catholics in the Middle Ages combined Philosophy of Aristotle wit that Aquinas.

At the retreat with Robert Kennedy, each day there were thirteen sitting or meditations of twenty-five minutes followed by eight minutes of walking -all in unbroken silence. As an amateur, I am not able to assess the efficacy of this practice. But I know that the habitual reflection on the indwelling of the Holy Sprit brought about remarkable results. It gave me some ideas of the way to attain self-awareness, self-realization, and enlightenment.

I first experienced this spell of Buddhism in 1969 when I arrived in Vietnam with a human-rights team. It was Buddha's birthday and at least one million people, all dressed in white, filled the streets and park of Saigon. The scene was unforgettable. At the same time, Buddhism paled in comparison when August 15, we celebrated the feast of the Assumption. Christianity is a religion based on God becoming man whose mother was assumed into heaven. Unlike the nebulous concepts of Buddhism, Christianity is a religion filled with a man who was human and divine with mother born without sin.

The Buddhist prayers are powerful. At least once a day the retreatants chanted together various prayers, one of which is:

All the evil karma ever created by me of old
On account of my beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance
Born of my conduct, speech, and thought I repent of it now.

There are many things in Zen Buddhism in which are baffling, contradictory, and almost incomprehensible. At the same time, thinking and praying in the Buddhist tradition is encouraged and even mandated by Vatican II and by the thrust of Catholic teachings since that time.

The value and the precious nature of the Zen Buddhist tradition were evident in the last lunch of the retreat where the gathering present father Robert Kennedy a gift on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary as a Jesuit. It was a moving scene where a devout gathering, mostly Catholics, thanked a priest who had the faith, vision, and courage to lead them into a union with God that they had never before experienced.

In Kennedy's "Zen Gifts to Christians", he cites the conclusions of the 34th General Congregation of the society of Jesus, held in 1995: "To be religious today is to be interreligious in a sense that positive relationships with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religion pluralism" (emphasis mine).

After the retreat, I arrived at LaGuardia Airport feeling reluctant to enter a world where the spiritual and transcendent seem so foreign. I had found God in a new way. I was a new man with better deeper insights, and most important, a better Christian.

Robert F. Drinan, S.J.

Robert F. Drinan, S.J. teaches at Georgetown University Law Center and is a former congressman.

This article originally appears in Commonweal January 11, 2002

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