A Review of "Zen Gifts to Christians"

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In the 1970's, a group of Jesuit priests began to gather around Yamada Koun, a charismatic roshi in Kamakura Japan.  The seeds planted in  Kamakura Japan have now grown into fine orchard.  This book by Robert E. Kennedy, S.J. is part of the harvest.  In his earlier work, "Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit", Kennedy worked out a place for Zen within Christian life.  Zen is a devotional form in Kennedy’s view, associated with Buddhism, but not thereby an alternative to Christianity. As a devotional form, Zen may be useful to Christians who have a temperament for it.  Now, Kennedy reflects on Christian spiritual life based on this understanding of Zen.

Each of the ten chapters is a meditation on one of the "ox herding pictures," a 12th century Chinese classic on the stage of attainment on the Buddhist path.  Ueda Shizuteru and Nishitani Koiji wrote commentaries on this text for a contemporary Japanese audience.  D.T. Suzuki wrote a commentary for a contemporary western audience.  Kennedy’s reflections are for  Christian practitioners of Zen.  For example, the first picture, the "search for the ox," is a meditation on the necessity of religious practice.  The fifth picture, "taming the ox" has to do with the role of self-mastery in the spiritual life.  The eighth picture, "the complete disappearance of the ox and herdsman," is about accepting the gift of understanding that there is no separate dwelling place of God.

Kennedy's approach is theologically sophisticated and deceptively simple, the work of a Christian who is spiritually mature and a Zen practitioner of advanced training.  The ox herding pictures do not supply some grand narrative wherein Buddhism and Christianity are melted together into some meta-religious version of "the sacred" or "the transcendent."  Rather, Zen provides a meeting place where the Buddhist tradition offers gifts to Christians and Christians can wake up to the fact that what is being offered is truly a gift.  Thus for Kennedy, sitting (zazen) is a sign of Christian readiness to learn (a remarkably rare thing even among Christians who call for "openness" and dialogue).  And there is more. Zen is a place where poets offer their gifts to Christians as well.  Poets like Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov, Wislawa Szymburska and Czelaw Milosz rub shoulder with Buddhist figures like Dogen and Hui Neng.

Kennedy is not a systematic theologian.  Doctrine is not his particular concern.  His reflections on the spiritual life, however, betray a genuine theological sophistication and a depth of practical experience in dialogue with Buddhists.

James Fredericks
Loyola Marymount University

This originally appears in Horizons, The Journal of College Theology, Villanova University, Spring 2002:

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