Dilatato Corde 8:1
January – June, 2018

John Backman

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2017 issue of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature It appears in Dilatato Corde with permission.

An exercise bike is not ideal for zazen meditation, especially for an undisciplined beginner like me. But a neck injury last winter landed me in physical therapy, with its rubber bands and heated cloth collars, and, yes, exercise bikes. At the same time, Zen had been drawing me in— inviting me to something, as it were. So I pedaled and pedaled and did something like the basics of zazen: breathing in, out, deeply, evenly, counting each breath, focusing on nothing else.
And I began to notice.
Yes, I know: in zazen, one should notice things and let them go. It is always about the sitting, the breath, the now. But I thirst for wisdom, and the things I noticed had the scent of deep, transformative wisdom. In my “noticings,” for instance, I started to question who was breathing and counting. I glimpsed the exquisite beauty of the moment right in front of me. Most of all, I could see impermanence as I never had before.
Curiously, I had seen impermanence before. It’s a small but compelling truth in my own faith tradition, Christianity, which I inhabit as an associate of an Episcopal monastery. The psalms of the Hebrew scriptures often note that our lives are but a breath, that we are like grass, springing to life and then just as quickly fading into death.
I had read those truths and meditated on them. Somehow, though, through whatever I was calling zazen, they took hold of me. They became part of my deepest self. And, as it turned out, they changed the way I moved through the world.
Can people of different faith traditions get along? Oh, yes. We see it every day, if we know where to look. Many of us take part in it, through interfaith alliances and story circles and organizations and massive events like the Parliament of the World’s Religions. They comprise a powerful way to get along. The story I’ve told illustrates another way: living in harmony with other traditions not just by respecting them, but by plunging into them ourselves.
This is hardly a new idea. To cite just one example, the nuns and monks of DIMMID (Dialogue Interreligious Monastique/Monastic Interreligious Dialogue) practice this doctrine with Zen practitioners, Muslims, and others in the documentary Strangers No More, Pierre-François de Béthune, a Benedictine monk who has held leadership positions in DIMMID, believes that:
If you are deeply rooted in your tradition…you don't have to be afraid of immersing yourself in another religion. It’s not a question of compromise, saying I’ll accept this, but not that. No. I accept everything! But I accept it from [within] my everything. It’s a meeting from faith to faith.
From my embryonic experience with Zen, I have seen several ways in which immersion in another tradition promotes interfaith harmony. First, it doesn’t take long to see the beauty of a new practice. I have often heard about the value of mindfulness, and I can readily attest to the idea. But I did not experience the sheer aliveness of the present moment is until it became clear in zazen. It is very difficult to hate a faith tradition that you have experienced firsthand as beautiful.
Second, when we take a tradition or practice within ourselves, it makes a home in our heart. We live with the practice day by day, come to know it personally, appreciate its strengths and nuances, find common ground with our own traditions. And that intimate experience breaks down the fears and stereotypes we might have about other religions. This is why we bring together white people and African Americans, or gay and straight people, or conservatives and progressives: there’s nothing like up-close contact with the “other” to melt away fear. The same holds true with our faith traditions.
Third, it is difficult to hate a tradition when it changes you for the better. A few months after my exercise bike zazen, it became clear that my aged, beloved father-in-law was approaching his final days. The response of his immediate family included some of the common Western approaches to grief: a drive to gather the family, to say goodbyes, to ensure nothing was left unsaid, to spend as much time with Dad as we could cram in.
There is nothing wrong with these approaches to grief. But I found myself impatient with them, and that impatience arose partly from my work with zazen. His passing, though sad and weighing heavily on my soul, now seemed a moment among innumerable moments. Something in me recoiled from the last goodbyes and gatherings as a clinging, an attachment. When it came to the father-in-law I loved dearly, I wanted simply to let him go as, in zazen, we let everything go.
It is, I think, a tad odd to write about this immersion as a Christian. My Buddhist colleagues seem to embrace elements from other faith traditions seamlessly: one Vietnamese friend, for example, venerates ancestors in her Buddhist tradition and serves as an acolyte in our Episcopal church. She sees no conflict in the two practices whatever.
Many of us Christians, in contrast—particularly those of us raised in literalist traditions— wrestle with the legacy of exclusivism in our sacred texts. According to those texts, God’s first commandment to Israel was, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” Jesus is quoted as saying, “No one comes to [God] except through me.” The conservative tradition of my youth would judge me to be in violation of these fundamental truths. My defense—that I still have no other gods besides God, because God is the same God in every tradition I encounter—would fall on deaf ears.
Yet in one place—Christian monasticism and its kissing cousin, mysticism—I see my tradition’s impulse transcend this exclusivism. Thomas Merton spent time with Buddhist and Hindu monks, absorbing the wisdom they could share with him. So often, in monastic and mystical literature, elements of our various traditions seem to converge and echo one another, like the echo of impermanence in the Hebrew scriptures that opened itself to me more fully in zazen. Each tradition adds depth and detail to the others in a virtuous cycle of wisdom.
Béthune underscores the value of monasticism in this “plunging inward to reach out,” as we can see in a part of the quote that I omitted above:
If you are deeply rooted in your tradition, as one might expect of a monk who has been formed over many years, you don't have to be afraid of immersing yourself in another religion. It’s not a question of compromise, saying I’ll accept this, but not that. No. I accept everything! But I accept it from [within] my everything. It’s a meeting from faith to faith (Emphasis mine).
When we hold another tradition within ourselves, even a little bit, it becomes nearly impossible to exclude it in others. In effect, we are reaching out to others by going deep into our deepest selves. No wonder the monks and nuns and mystics have led the way: many of them have devoted their lives to “going deep.” But the path is open to anybody. That is good news indeed, for each of us and for the world.
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