Standing at the dharma gates

14 10 2013

Our sangha is taking some initial steps to try serving the needs of people interested in Zen meditation who aren’t able to easily travel to the far south end of town, where our zendo is currently located. This has resulted in us trying to establish relationships with some of the Christian churches in the more central and northern ends of town, churches with rooms we can rent on a monthly basis for the sole purpose of hosting a sitting one or two nights a week for anyone who wants to attend. “Renting” by the room from a church is generally a lot cheaper and less contractually binding than most of the other options, and you might also reasonably think there is, on some level, some sort of potential spiritual connection between the two.

It’s been interesting. For the most part, the Catholic Church (a church with a pretty well-established contemplative tradition) and the more liberal Episcopal churches, along with a few of the Methodist churches, have been the most open to our presence. For awhile we sat at a Presbyterian church in what I would consider a strongly conservative area of town; while we were allowed to sit, we were not allowed to chant following the sitting. Certainly the chants are Buddhist-centric, but I frankly couldn’t see what harm was being done by chanting — it wasn’t as if the words could physically seep into the walls and somehow lodge there and grow, like some sort of dangerously mutating non-Christian fungus – and I only attended one of these sits. Why visit somewhere that you’re really not fully welcomed? We moved somewhere else very soon thereafter and are currently sitting in a dark and moldering fellowship hall at another Methodist church, amongst the whirring of power tools and the shouting of workmen and day care workers.

For various reasons – renovations, the need to use rooms for other uses, odd restrictions and some surprisingly high room rental prices, etc. – we have been forced to roam from one Christian venue to another, like Zen nomads. Ironically, our wanderings among the Christian parishes has reminded me somewhat of the wanderings of Moses and his people in the book of Exodus, only we want to stay, not go. We’re hoping to establish a permanent, more centrally located zendo soon, but there is some apparently legitimate concern that the current property we’re looking at buying will meet resistance from the Baptist church next door. Moving from the fringes of town into the more mainstream central section has made me feel like a stranger in a strange land. Can’t we all sit along?

To be fair, I’ve also witnessed in many Zen practitioners a strong reluctance to intermingle with even the most generic aspects of Christian practice. It just seems to me that Zen and Christian practice have a good deal to offer each other. I’m a former Christian who still finds much value in many aspects of the traditional Christian faith, and the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer could easily be a bridge between both. Coming together in shared silence and stillness, we can each come away with our personal practice, Zen or Christian, the richer for the encounter without danger of either being compromised or “dumbed down.” Our Zen teacher, a former Jesuit priest and a teacher of comparative religion, is certainly attuned to this idea and has done what he can to advance it for as long as I’ve known him. All it would take is for one forward-thinking Christian church to not only provide a comfortable room for sitting, but positively promote the idea in their congregation.

Our noisy, chaotic world could benefit from offering a place of stillness and silence for all. As we chant (where we’re allowed) in the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva, “The dharma gates are boundless. I vow to enter them.” By which I like to think we mean you never know when, how or where your next teacher is coming from. Let’s enter those gates together.



2 responses

15 10 2013
Paul Johnson

Nice post. I wish your group was near our small town in Utah. I’d like to think the Presbyterian church I attend would welcome you–and embrace the shared goals.

17 10 2013

Thanks Paul. It’s certainly not all doom and gloom here – on the contrary – but I think both Christian churches and Zen Buddhist sanghas are missing out on valuable opportunities for growth by not being more open to the possibilities of at least sitting together. I’m not trying to make the case that Zen and Christianity are just two flavors of the same thing, but simply that both can enrich and inform the other. I’m sure there are communities where this is happening on some level.

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