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Dharma Talks : The Kwan Um School of Zen and Providence Zen Center

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Christian Contemplation  

From a talk given by Father Hunt at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at Providence Zen Center in October 1998.

The Christian tradition of prayer starts with Jesus. His disciples came to him and said: "Lord, teach us how to pray, as John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray." This led to the teaching of the "Our Father," which is, in many ways, a complete expression of vocal or oral prayer in the Christian tradition. But it is not the only way of Christian prayer.

We know that from the earliest times within the Christian church prayer and meditation were seen as essential. These two terms--prayer and meditation--were generally used interchangeably where the first tends to emphasize a vocal, conceptual way of praying, and the latter tended to be silent. The Gospels tell us that Jesus frequently went off into the mountains to pray by Himself. The strong tradition of prayer and meditation also appears, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read that the Deacon Philip had five daughters who were virgins (which was a lifestyle in the early church) and that they were given completely to prayer and meditation. The same traditions tell us also that Peter and Paul often prayed and meditated.

The written traditions that have come down to us from the time immediately after the New Testament frequently spoke of prayer and meditation, even when their main thrust was apologetic or controversial. These earliest writings in the Christian tradition were simply conferences or homilies given by Christian teachers and bishops to ordinary people. This was true even of writings which today are considered very high and esoteric. Remember that for almost three centuries, monasticism did not exist in the Christian tradition. So when these early teachers spoke about prayer, for example, the author of the Didache, they were talking to the ordinary person in the pew -- people like you and me.

About 300 A.D., the early Christians began to move into the desert, becoming monks and nuns. This occurred simultaneously in several parts of the Near East: Syria, in what was then known as Palestine, and most especially in Egypt. As the practice of prayer and meditation intensifies a tradition builds up, whether it be in Christianity or Buddhism. Usually it takes several generations or even centuries for this wisdom to become formalized or written down. These early Christian monastics made such an impression on the world of their time that the first written documents appeared within a couple of decades -- a flood soon followed.

You are here today trying to share in the experience that I embody from my Christian tradition and the centuries of effort and meditation that the community here at Providence Zen Center embodies. There is, however, a human tendency to feel: "Well, I am trying but I am not succeeding." Or: "This is happening (or isn't) and I don't understand..." "What am I doing; how am I doing?" and "Why am I doing it?" This is natural, even for someone like the prophet Elias. One of the earliest realizations in the Christian tradition was that the quintessence of prayer and meditation is a quiet mind. The Desert fathers and mothers, as the first monks and nuns were called, would frequently recall the story of the prophet Elias (1 Kings 19). He is being persecuted for being faithful to Yahweh, so he runs away into the desert to escape. He becomes exhausted and lies down under a bush and falls asleep. He had run so fast that he had not taken any food or water with him. An angel awakens him and gives him a loaf of bread and some water, saying: "Elias, get up and eat." So he ate and drank and with the strength from this bread and water, he journeys into the desert for forty days until he arrived at the Mount of the Lord, Horeb. Here he hears the voice of God, who asks him why he has come. Elias replies, "Everyone else has left the Way which you taught us. I am the only one left and I am feeling pretty sorry for myself. What's going on here?" (That is my translation of the original Hebrew, of course.) So God answers: "Well, don't get into such an uproar. I've got everything under control. But to prove that I am the only true God, I am going to let you see me." Elias says: "Huh?"

The tradition in the Hebrew and Jewish cultures has it that someone cannot see God and live. Elias didn't know how to respond. Should he see God and die, or refuse to see God and live? He is caught on the horns of a dilemma. God then directs Elias to a small cave and tells him to hide in it while God passes before him. The story continues that there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Next there was thunder and lightning, but God was not in the thunder and lightning. And a windstorm occurs, but God was not in the windstorm. Finally, there was simply the quietness of a gentle breeze. When he hears the whisper of the breeze, Elias takes his cloak and covers his face and cries out: "Yahweh, Yahweh, Lord of Host..." The voice of Yahweh says: "It is okay, you can come out now."

This quiet breeze, or the quiet moment before the breeze was, for the early Christian monastics, the ideal of true contemplation. This quietness remains as a constant undercurrent in Christian meditation. The early monastics called it "a quiet mind" or "purity of heart." John Cassian, one of the seminal figures for the Western tradition, uses this term, as does Benedict of Nursia, who is called the "Father of Western Monasticism." Among those who spoke Greek the term apathea was used. In the early part of this century, a certain confusion was created when apathea was translated into English as "apathy" or "indifference." They had failed to realize that it was a technical term best translated as "tranquil" or "undisturbed." Thus we have three different ways in which this basic insight came down to us: tranquility or quietness of mind, purity of heart, purity of thought or apathea.

Every exercise or practice that one does in prayer or meditation -- whether it be chanting, reciting oral prayers, or physical prostrations -- aims at creating interior quietness, an interior tranquility that puts us in the same state, the same condition that the Prophet Elias experienced. In the quietness we are able to come to see God face to face. This apathea is beyond thought, beyond concept, beyond imagination, beyond emotion... beyond description. We are simply in Its presence. That doesn't mean that we are unaware; most often, we know who and what we are, and who and what "God" is.

As I said before, all the practices aim for this. What we will be doing today will be an instruction in -- and, as they commonly say today, a "hands-on experience" of -- a very useful and efficient way of returning to this basic condition, of where we are completely in the presence of God, of the transcendent, of the immanent. There are a lot of words and phrases used to describe this, but what we are going to do today is going to be very practical: you are going to be shown how to sit, how to hold your body, how to breathe; in other words, you will learn a technique or method.

Tranquility of mind is one of the great problems for human beings. How do you control this stuff going on up here in your head? Thoughts bounce back and forth, in and out, up and down; and they get your emotions running here and there; this is happening... and that also! Whew! People have tried for centuries to think of ways to control their minds. Alcohol and drugs, sex, war--you name it and it has been tried. Most often people discover that the attempt at control ends up worse than the thoughts themselves. The more you think about controlling and getting "things" under control, the more it is the ME attempting to dominate. But the ME has to disappear. So how do we do this?

The best way to do it is simply to return to one point. Just return to one point, over and over again. After a certain amount of practice of returning quietly to one point, one discovers that all this running around from the ears up (that dialogue that is like a broken record in your head) really isn't that important. Then you begin to let go and it drops off. As it drops off, you discover spaces. In these spaces there is no I, or ME, or you. There is no up or down, no in or out. It is simply presence, awareness. Today's work is going to be--as I said--a "hands-on" way of doing that: discovering how to sit, how to walk, how to keep silent. I come from a tradition, the Trappists, of strong silence. Thomas Merton, on his trip to India shortly before he died, was asked by a Tibetan monk what they had taught him when he first entered the monastery. He replied: "I spent the first six months learning how to close a door quietly." That's an exaggeration, although he was probably corrected quite a bit for banging doors. Merton found silence something he had to work at. However, more important, exterior silence is useless without interior silence. One of the early teachers in my tradition, an Englishman by the name of Aelred of Rievaulx (12th Century), in one of his homilies to his monks, said: "What is the use of having a quiet monastery if you don't have a quiet mind?"

So today we are in a quiet monastery. Today, you are going to experience quiet and silence as Elias experienced it. You may be disconcerted by the experience. You will most likely be surprised to find how noisy you are inside. Don't let that disturb you. The quiet atmosphere and the quiet practice that you will learn today will not make you achieve it in one day, but, if you allow it to work in you, it will ultimately teach you how to be pure of heart, tranquil of mind, and live in apathea.


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