Dilatato Corde 3:2
July – December, 2013

“Neither I nor not - I”
The Dialogic Community “Vangelo e Zen”
(The Gospel and Zen)
And its Monastic Life at Villa Vangelo e Zen, Desio, Italy

How to introduce this testimony? The following news event catches the spirit of Vangelo e Zen, I think. On November 7, 2012—just a few weeks before I arrived in Desio--Father Luciano Mazzochi, 73 years old, director of the very institution I was about to visit, collapsed and fell onto Milan’s subway tracks during “rush hour.” He was saved by a young stranger who jumped down onto the tracks: while the young man heaved from below, a second person pulled from atop the platform, and together they hauled Father Luciano out. Seeing medics were arriving and Father Luciano dazed but conscious, the young man waved goodbye and quickly disappeared. Recovering in the hospital, the priest introduced himself to the man in the next bed. The man snapped back, “I am from the Antichrist Band, an atheist from head to foot….and who is your Christ?” “Christ is the young man who, yesterday—though he could have been killed himself—risked his life to save mine,” replied the priest. On the “Vangelo e Zen” webpage, Father Luciano comments on the above incident and reminds us that Peter was able to say “You are the Christ” (Matt 16:16) because of Jesus’s deeds. Likewise, he continues, we are able to discern Christ in all those who act out of love, in all those who truly act out of their heart of hearts, for the most intimate core is neither I nor not-I; rather, it simply is as it is

For years I had been looking for a religious community where three factors converge:  (1) the integration of Catholic monastic practice (Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, etc.) and meditation in Buddhist-form (classic sitting posture and breathing—in lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese-style if possible); (2) a Catholic leadership both trained in Catholic religious life and qualified to teach Zen or Vajrayana or Theravada-style meditation; and--in the West most difficult to find conjoined with the above two--(3) both long-term and short-term residency for lay people, at minimal economic cost. When, in 2012, I made an eleven-day Lenten retreat with the community at Vangelo e Zen, and when, in 2013, I lived the life there for two months and a half, I realized I had finally found the format that I had been seeking. 

Vangelo e Zen [1] is a “community of interreligious dialogue” directed by Father Luciano Mazzocchi, a Xavierian priest [2] who is one of the pioneers of Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in Italy. Other than the priest, all the resident members are lay people. The resident community is housed in Villa Vangelo e Zen, in Desio, a town less than 30 minutes north of Milan by train. Bequeathed to the Xaverian Fathers in the second half of the twentieth century, the imposing building and grounds are in grand eighteenth and nineteenth century Italian Villa style (though the interiors, in conformity with their new role, have been quite rudely stripped of their luxuries). Each Saturday is a retreat day, and the small nuclear community is joined by affiliated members and others who live and work in the towns nearby. Since Father Mazzocchi is also the archdiocesan chaplain for the Japanese Catholic community of Milan, the community travels on Sundays to the Japanese Mass at the Chapel of Santa Maria Annunziata. Once a month groups of affiliated members of Vangelo e Zen from more distant venues make the trip to Desio and join the retreatants. Father Mazzocchi makes the rounds of these more distant venues regularly, leading meditation groups in Venice, Parma, Florence, Rome, Bari and other places. There are also strict retreats of a week’s duration or more, scheduled periodically during the year, and “encounters” of various sorts open to the public. As I write this report, for example, Vangelo e Zen is sponsoring in Milan a four-part series, “On Pilgrimage across Nothingness and the Absolute in Nature: The Faith and the Poetry of the Mystics.”

In 1987, a group of Buddhist monks from Antaji Monastery in Japan, Italians among them, came to Italy and invited Father Luciano Mazzocchi to collaborate. Father Luciano had been a missioner in Japan for nineteen years (1963-1982), where he had trained in Sōtō Zen, and already established relations with Antaji Monastery. His friend Jiso Giuseppe Forzani, an Italian Buddhist monk from Antaji, in association with two other Italian Buddhists, Mauricio Yushin Marassi and Massimo Daido Strumia, and with Watanabe Koho as honorary president, founded the community “La Stella del Mattino” (The Star of the Morning) in Italy in 1988.  The community was open, in particular, to dialogue with Christianity, and Father Mazzocchi was its Christian consultant. In 1995, after a broken history caused by frustrated searches for permanent sites, Father Luciano’s official reassignments, and other vicissitudes, [3] La Stella del Mattino formed as two new associations—this time in Galgagnano, Italy—and with a more experimental format: Buddhists and Catholics would live in the same building, interact frequently, and live-out their respective monastic practices sometimes together and sometimes in parallel.

After a period of time, a different set of complexities began to arise. The pertaining Buddhist authorities sensed that the new format tended to blunt Buddhist uniqueness and missionary drive. Meanwhile, the pertaining Catholic authorities were concluding that the new format seemed to invite syncretism. In the year 2000 the Buddhist and Catholic components of La Stella del Mattino re-arranged the timetables for their respective religious practices according to the byword—“same space, different times.” Meanwhile, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had sent an official letter to Father Mazzocchi approving and encouraging his practice of Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. Nonetheless, the future brought yet more changes. In 2005 Father Mazzocchi was transferred from his former diocese to the archdiocese of Milan. After some months, La Stella del Mattino became a Buddhist center, with Jiso Giuseppe Forzani continuing on as director there until his appointment, in 2009, as Director of the European Office of Sōtō Zen Buddhism (Paris). A new community, called “La Stella del Mattino--the Italian Zen Buddhist Community” took shape, now directed by Mauricio Yushin Marassi. Meanwhile, the present structure of Vangelo e Zen was forming, with Father Mazzocchi as president of its legal association, and Jiso Forzani as a founding member.

Throughout the history of La Stella del Mattino in its various configurations and of Vangelo e Zen up to the present, the founding members and other scholars--most of them, including Father Mazzocchi, fluent in Japanese--have produced for Italian readers a stream of books on Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, on Dōgen (the great founder of Sōtō Zen, 1200-1253), and so on. [4] Up and down the peninsula, Father Mazzocchi’s Delle onde e del mare (“About waves and the sea”), a vivid account of his interaction with Buddhism, has been widely read and appreciated.

The round of daily life at Vangelo e Zen celebrates each event, place, and time as it is.  “Christ is the most intimate quality of all that exists. The most intimate quality is neither ‘I’ nor ‘not-I’. The ‘I’ is egoistical. . . . The ‘non-I’ is vacuous, indifferent . . . . [Things] ‘selve themselves’ according to their part in the providence of life.” [5] Zendo, kitchen and refectory, the gardens and indoor work-spaces, the library and study-tables . . . each has its own timbre. At 6:50 a.m. the bell for meditation and prayer sounds, and every morning of my stay I would go to the zendo and with the other members of the community sit in meditation, facing the wall in Sōtō-Zen style, and in winter weather under quite austere conditions. [6] The spirituality taught at Vangelo e Zen regards Zen meditation as a settling into the “originary silence” that precedes us and is infinitely grander than we are. After meditation, everyone rises, and bows to the altar at one end of the zendo. The altar-table is in Japanese style, that is, about 14 inches from the floor. On it rest the eucharistic cup and a missal. Father Luciano reads the Gospel of the day (according to the calendar of Milan’s Ambrosian rite), and then follows with a homily. Then the community recites Lauds in common (at night it recites Vespers and sometimes Compline).

Vangelo e Zen’s spirituality considers the gift of the Orient to be Oneness, the Silence that is positive emptiness, and it considers the gift of the West to be “Alterity.” The West is said to celebrate the individual, but in this regard Father Luciano insists that Catholic theology emphasize the interdependence of individuals, that is, the love-for-the-other that Jesus exemplified. In the matter of Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, Father Luciano foregrounds the role of reciprocity, so that each religion—while remaining true to itself—inspire the other. For example, more priests should give sermons on the unconditioned nature of God, since Catholic theology teaches that God in se is empty of “determinations,” i.e., of characteristics. And more Buddhist teachers should point out that forgiveness is freely given: in the Far East there is an over-emphasis on “negative karma,” i.e., the inevitability of retribution for past offenses, but Dōgen teaches that repentance causes the infinite compassion of the Buddhas to rain down, and that repentance can—instantly--transform guilt into the “guiltless and pure.”

The round of the day next takes the community to the refectory, an Italian breakfast of caffè latte, Pugliese bread, honey, homemade jam, fruit. Three times a day the spirituality of the Villa rotates around the mystique of the cucina. In the kitchen the mindfulness taught by Dōgen’s “Instructions for the Cook” (Tenzo Kyōkun) intersects with the Italian culture’s veneration of natural ingredients artfully prepared. In penitential seasons the resident community is vegetarian (and meat is rarely served during the rest of the year). At table, there is much animated conversation in the Italian manner I know so well from my own Italian upbringing, but, as in my own family, the attitude is always respectful. The natural “sacrament” of eating and drinking transforms Nature’s matter into energy: when the community “communicates” at table, it reflects the Eucharist.

Next in the daily schedule comes “work,” be it the general maintenance of the Villa or tending of the gardens. The community cultivates fruit trees, gardens of vegetables and herbs, and rows and rows of flowers. Agricultural work involves our minds and bodies in the seasonal “cycles of Nature”--death, rebirth, persistent effort, fruition, decline. The Zen teaching that everything has the Buddha-nature can inspire Catholics to remember the analogous Catholic teaching that the Divine essence, presence, and power pervades all things. Vangelo e Zen emphasizes this Catholic teaching as an experience, the experience of the as-it-is that is Christ.

Studio is also a fundamental on the community calendar. Each week Father Luciano lectures on the Bible or the classics of Sōtō Zen, or other pertinent religious material. When dealing with the New Testament, his forte is to tease meaning out of scriptural passages whose exegesis has been either neglected or reduced to platitude. The lectures, and sermons too, are at their most engaging and provocative when they re-focus a traditional reading so that analogies (or loose analogies?) to Buddhist teaching can be drawn. Here is an example: 

In Matthew 9:20-22, the woman with the hemorrhage touches Jesus’ garment, saying to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be healed.” But when Jesus turns and sees her, he says, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you.” And instantly “the woman was healed.” That the woman touched Jesus’ garment is not what cured her. Jesus makes clear that the woman’s faith was there first, and her faith cured her. Her faith was there from the beginning, and in a way it can be said that her faith “forced Jesus’ hand.” Faith is buried in all of us, but we must activate it.

Thus, Father Luciano’s exegesis (from one of his homilies when I was there [7]). No doubt the Church teaches that if an individual freely cooperates, the preparation for the reception of grace is already a work of actual grace, [8] so the woman’s faith precedes her cure, but how many Catholic sermons emphasize this point? Do they not put the focus, instead, on Jesus’ miraculous cure of the woman? Apropos of Buddhism, Father Luciano’s phraseology implicitly invites the large proportion of his listeners familiar with Buddhism to draw an analogy to the Buddha-nature and its realization.

Here is a second example:

At the Last Supper, immediately before instituting the Eucharist, Jesus says: “for I shall not eat it [the pesach, “Passover”] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16). Jesus here reveals his grief, the natural human grief one has in the face of impending loss. This “supper” is the “last” time with his dear ones, until the heavenly banquet. He goes on, at once, to establish the Eucharist as a way that he can be “with” his disciples present and future. He undergoes “rebirth” each time the Eucharist is celebrated.

This exegesis [9] puts its focus on Jesus’ feelings as a “historical” figure, as a natural and mortal figure. Jesus’s divinity is from God and his humanity (and thus his mortality) is from Mary. Catholic popular spirituality tends to marginalize Jesus’ humanity in favor of his divinity. This one-sidedness can blunt sensitivity to Jesus’ emotional life. It can also, it seems to me, squander an opportunity to more fully appreciate the mystery of Jesus’s Hypostasis. Father Luciano in his writing [10] makes clear that his allusions to the Buddhist term/doctrine of “rebirth” is intended, but only figuratively. Humans in their natural human condition cringe before the specter of death and the “separations” it causes. Jesus’s human nature “wept” at the death of Lazarus, for example.

On Saturdays Father Luciano celebrates Mass for the resident community and the weekend retreatants at the Villa, and on Sundays for the community and the Japanese Catholics at Santa Maria Annunziata. The portico-style reredos above the altar features a centuries’ old panel in sculpted marble. The Archangel Gabriel, on the extreme left, delivers his announcement—across a disproportionately wide middle-space—to the Virgin Mary on the extreme right. An art expert advised me the sculptor had intended to somehow decorate the middle-space but never did. Thus, in the middle the empty but fertile space rests there, just as it is.

Given that this report has already exceeded its allocation, I bring it to an abrupt close. Be it known, however, that the doors of Vangelo e Zen are open wide to retreatants and visitors wishing to seriously engage with the community in its life. [11] 



1 See its very active website,

2 A missioner of the Pia Società di San Francesco Saverio per le Missioni Estere, or “Saveriani,” founded in Parma, Italy, 1898.

3 The complicated history is told on the website of La Stella del Mattino

4 See the list of publications on the Wikipedia page of La Stella del Mattino.

5 See the “Grazie Giovane” article on the Vangelo e Zen website.

6 No indoor heat in the zendo except sometimes one small portable stove.

7 My translation from his Italian, of course, and from memory (though I wrote down assiduous notes shortly thereafter).

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2000, 2001.

9 My rendering in English of notes I wrote down shortly after Father Luciano’s pertaining homily, in order to preserve his interpretation.

10 The article I have in mind is his “Testimonianza di p. Luciano Mazzocchi, ascoltando il Vangelo seduto in zazen: il pellegrinaggio verso l’assoluto” (forthcoming from an Italian journal). While I was at the Villa, Father Luciano asked me to read this article in manuscript form and write its English-language Abstract. The allusions to “rebirth” occur on p. 655 of the manuscript.

11 My one caveat is that the Villa is strictly Italian-speaking (though Japanese can be heard sometimes). My comprehension of academic Italian is very good, but my spoken Italian is “dialectical” (my parents spoke a hybrid Lombard/Piemontese). I have found that—fortunately—my spoken Italian is more than good enough for me to function. Foreign retreatants should arrive with at least a foundation in spoken Italian, be it dialectical or otherwise, and with an ability to understand, read, and recite (for the Mass and Office) Italy’s official Italian.



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