Tag Archives: Zen Buddhism

Meditatio House: (Stay Awake) and Do What is Appropriate (Part 2)

…and do what is appropriate.

What is the appropriate thing to do in any given moment? How do we know that it is appropriate?

The more attention we give to the moment and the longer we can simply be in the moment with this attention (that is, to stay awake), then the more we learn (through experience) about the now of the moment. We learn what it is about the experience of the now that invites appropriate action.

Zen and Christian spirituality (along with their own meditation practices) are both ways to practice being in the present moment and to develop the necessary sensitivity to live and act in the present moment, the now.

The Christian spiritual master Meister Eckhart has said

The most important hour is always the present. The most significant person is precisely the one sitting across from you right now. The most necessary work is always love.

Love can only happen now.

Christianity teaches that God’s will, in all its manifestations, is simply loving attention in action now. The Divine Life, as love, gives its attention fully to each moment. Our task is to learn to live attentively in this attention, being and acting more and more with and in it.

As I walked out the café gate I saw an older lady looking at a chalk board that was hung on the gate. “Oh, it’s closed” she said. “I was hoping for a coffee.” I looked at the board; on it was written ‘Closed’. I found myself saying “They’re still serving. I’m sure you could go in and get maybe a takeaway.”

Contemplative practice seeks to live the heart of Christian spirituality: living life open, attentive, and responsive to what the Divine Life in the moment is being attentive to. We simply grow in learning to love in the circumstances of the moment – whatever those circumstances might be.

The morning air was crisp and fresh. Attention, at least for now, was not caught in the compulsions that have it chasing thoughts and being lost in imaginings. The calling birds sung into clam. From deep within me came a soothing. It rose, welling, and enticing. In this silence of the morning an invitation came: “give yourself some loving attention. Be with me while you can.” Time to be, time to be in love – time to have attention turn (in)to Love. I gave Love attention as best as I could. Now, in the moment, attention became the way God loved me, the way I loved God, and the way we loved together.

Another way to practice staying in the present moment is to give attention to our bodily senses in the everyday. Using our senses in this way we can give attention to such things as the feel of a t-shirt on the body or the sensation of feet on the ground while walking. Smells and sounds can also ground us in the now, as can everyday practices such as brushing our teeth, washing up, and ironing. Giving and re-giving attention to these things is a spiritual and human practice that, when done regularly, helps ground us in the now where God is and where our attention can be re-claimed by a Love that wants to act through us.

As well as using our external senses to practice staying awake in the moment, attention can also be turned internally to observe thoughts, emotions, feelings, and imaginings. We can grow, for example, in the practice of observing our everyday reactions to events and people. Reactivity can be like a momentary release of repression revealing to us hidden wounds and attitude we would prefer to forget. In time, as we grow in a gentle, non-judging attention to these rich flashes of the deep of us (something that meditation helps us with), Love in the present moment heals and shapes us. Soon we find enough courage to see and grow in the acceptance of that within us that does not want to love.

Strangers broke into affection in front of me. Straight away I began to feel uncomfortable. “Why do people insist on treating public spaces like a living room?” Then they began to speak in intimacies: ‘I know life’s been a struggle, but I’m here for you.’ ‘Please call me if you need to.’ Their bodies clogged the space. Spontaneity and concern had them lost in their own familial world. Rather than soften, I cursed them for the inconvenience.

The more our senses can stay in the present moment, the more our attention can be shaped by the always present love-life of God. Living attentively in the moment leaves us exposed to a divine dynamic that would have us slowly forgetting ourselves for love’s sake.

The more time I spent in the palliative care room with mum and my family, the more I sensed that the most important thing to do was to be in the moment with mum and her experience of dying. Any time that I found myself away, distracted, or doing something else, these were the times when God and conscience invited me to come back and be present in these last physical moments with her. As I did this I experienced the challenge of my own experience of mum’s death. In the moment with mum was the invitation to simply be in love with her. The more I could be in the moment with mum, the more I was in love with her and my family. The more time spent in this moment meant less regret later.

Life in the present moment is where divinity has the chance to shine in us and through us. The Zen Master Robert Kennedy, while teaching us that evening at the Meditatio Centre*, passionately cried out: ‘Burn bright, breath by breath!’ Our everyday practices of attention now – meditation and attending to the people and everyday things of life – can enliven us and have us burning bright with other-centred loving attention.

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. (Luke12:35-36).

* See ‘Meditatio House: (Stay Awake) and Do What is Appropriate (Part One)’.

Meditatio House: Stay Awake (and Do What is Appropriate) (Part 1)

Recently the community at Meditatio House was privileged to have Robert Kennedy (Zen master and Jesuit priest) with us for lunch. He was to present a workshop at our Meditatio Centre that evening.

Robert Kennedy teaches and practices Zen meditation at Morning Star Zendo in New Jersey.

It was wonderful to spend time with Fr. (and Roshi) Kennedy during the informal time of lunch. Those present had the opportunity to share and ask questions about Zen, Christianity, and meditation.

During this exchange Fr. Kennedy said what he cautiously considered to be the essence of Zen. He described this essence as: “Stay awake, and do what is appropriate.”

Stay awake…

Zen, like all great spiritual traditions, invites us to be in the present moment. Ultimately, the past is memory and the future is fantasy. A human alive to the now is a human fully being and ready to express this being now.

To be awake is the essential work of being present to each moment as it comes, to experience the moment with our senses alive in the moment. Even describing the present as ‘each moment’ is to kind of ‘hem it in’ with a past and a future on either side. Being awake is being awake now with notions of ‘past’ and ‘future’ forgotten.

How do we stay awake? We practice in our lives that which anchors sense and experience now. One such way is the practice of Zen meditation.

That evening Fr. Kennedy guided us through a session of Zen meditation. He asked us to use the Zen mantra mu (pronounced ‘moo’ with lips slackened). We said aloud and together this mantra for about five minutes, exclaiming it from deep in the gut as we exhaled. It is in the gut, just below the belly button, where the Zen meditator experiences their centre. After this opening five minutes we repeated mu softly and to ourselves in union with our breathing.

We were asked to keep our eyes open rather than have them closed. Fr. Kennedy invited us to fix our eyes on one point in front of us. He suggested between the shoulder blades of the person in front of us. He asked that we focus on this point and look nowhere else. For the Zen meditator keeping the eyes open and fixed is an aid to staying alert in the now.

As we meditated Fr. Kennedy taught us. This is the way a Zen master can choose to teach – as the student meditates. The teaching serves the now, is in the now. In the practice of being now, the student is taught about the now in both word and experience.

The practice of Christian meditation differs in some aspects to Zen meditation. Some aspects stood out for me after experiencing Fr. Kennedy’s brief introduction to Zen meditation. Rather than saying aloud our mantra, the Christian meditator repeats the mantra internally. Also, our eyes are closed rather than being open with gaze fixed. Finally, any teaching with words is done before and/or after a session of Christian meditation, not during.

What struck me in the (brief and introductory) experience of Zen meditation we had with Fr. Kennedy was the absence of an emphasis on silence. Mu was said aloud, and then whispered; Fr. Kennedy taught while the meditation was happening; the eyes remained open. In the emphasis on the now that Zen teaches, silence seemed to take a back seat.

Within the practice of Christian meditation there seems to be a reversal of this emphasis: the now seems to take a back seat to a coming to stillness and then a moving into silence. The mantra, sounded interiorly and with eyes closed, draws attention into stillness and then into the mystery of silence. Closed eyes assist this journey into silence.

A question arising from this very basic and incomplete comparison of the way in which these two meditation traditions approach meditation is: are silence and the now somehow mutually exclusive? Another way of asking this question is to ask: it possible to view silence and the now as somehow complimentary?

It is possible for Christian and the Zen meditators to answer this question from their own experience of meditation. Being a Christian and a meditator, how can I answer the above question in the light of my own experience?

A fruit of the work of giving attention to the mantra (along with a growth in silence) is consciousness becoming grounded more and more now. The Christian meditator, over time, experiences the past and the future fall away. Indeed, a self-conscious awareness of the present also falls away – self consciousness (or ego) can get in the way of being now.

As this happens we discover, thanks to this non-reflective experience, that silence and the now are part of the same experience. There can be no experience of silence without being now; there can be no experience of being now without silence. Now is silence; silence is now. It could be argued that this insight from experience can be the insight of any meditator from any tradition.

It is assumed that as the Zen meditator continues in their practice, becoming more experienced and more grounded in the now, that there is less reason for the Zen master to teach with words. With eyes open and fixed, and with mu gently said, the Zen meditator falls into the silent now, the now of silence.

In this silent now any meditator from any well-founded tradition of meditation can come to be in the oneness within and beyond all things.

In Christian meditation, as we go beyond any notions of now and silence, we experience the no-where of the Divine Life. In this no-where we discover ourselves in the prayer of the risen Jesus. The light of Christ then shines more brightly in the practicalities of our Christian and human lives.

Watching Me Fall: The Cure. Ego Falling From Its Centre

Is it possible to watch ourselves? If so, who is doing the watching? Zen Buddhism speaks of the prajna-eye and the gahakaraka within us. The prajna-eye is a kind of deep and spiritual intuition, which could be loosely translated as ‘wisdom’. This wisdom has the capacity to ‘see into’ things within and around us, to see into the truth of them as they simply and really are. The gahakaraka, on the other hand, is ego as our external and material senses (touch, sight, hearing, etc) as well as our rational intellect – the inner and outer senses of surface consciousness.

In a Christian sense, perhaps prajna could be something like the divine wisdom which lives in and with our deep Self. When our psyche is quiet enough and attentive to this deep Self, it is then that we can experience this prajna-eye as it observes life in deep intuition. However, if we give our attention more to gahakaraka and not the prajna-eye, it is then that the experience of prajna fades from consciousness (because our attention is now on the senses of surface consciousness rather than the deep intuition within the Self). A purpose of life is growing in a healthy balance between prajna and gahakaraka. Too much of ego is an over reliance simply on these inner and outer senses as the foundation for identity, perception and living. A healthy human life has Self as our centre, with gahakaraka as friend of and vessel for the Self. Gahakaraka becomes a friend who knows when to be silent and when to speak. Doubtless to say, if this is the description of a healthy mind, then we are all in some state of mindful disorder.

I experience this song from The Cure as a description of the Self wisely and intuitively observing ego in a state of ongoing disillusionment and collapse (“I’ve [Self with prajna-eye] been watching me [gahakaraka] fall for it seems like years”). This can happen to the best of us. Life stresses, anxieties, unrealistic expectations both from us and others, a wounded ego (we all have one of these), and the deep melancholy of a life disconnected from its true centre – all of this and more can cause the ego to “fall”, to “disappear”, implode under the weight. Our architecture of consciousness cannot long support the weight of an ego struggling to maintain the weight of anxiety, unrealistic expectation, and woundedness. At these times the Self (our true centre) waits patiently observing with prajna-eye the falling away of ego. As this falling away happens Self can then come alive in our consciousness as the true centre and ground of all our consciousness.

Yet ego can resist stubbornly its own falling. There is a deep fear in ego that if it yields the centre of consciousness it dies. Ego’s falling can then become a blood struggle for its own survival, or at least that can be our experience. What is happening is the forced de-centring of ego. It is dying – dying to its own egocentricity, falling under its own weight into a more realistic place and role. This can be painful and feel like the whole of our world is breaking down.

At this time ego can crave attention because the more attention it has then the more it can be experienced as the centre of psyche and thus be preserved in its egocentric state. In short, it can become narcissistic – completely concerned with its own survival and continued self-centred expression.

In this song it seems that the attention ego craves is coming to it through the passion and pleasure of sex. Sex as an expression of the deep Self is all about other-centredness, communion, and love. Here the sex seems merely a physical grasping at pleasure, an egoic attempt to have attention lost in the moment, to have ego sufficiently distracted from its own ongoing breakdown.

In this clip of the band performing I see ego’s struggle being expressed. The music sounds to me like the audio depiction of some kind of internal holy struggle between a prideful egocentricity and a wise, humble prajna-eyed Self. The Self cannot ‘do’ anything. Self is simply being in love as the ego rages on fighting its own egocentric demise, a forced (due to circumstance) transcendence from ego to Self as true centre.

A practice like Christian meditation is simply the gracefully controlled, long-term falling of the ego from the centre. It takes a lifetime. Egoic implosion, of course, can also be part of the journey. For the meditator attention to the mantra as it sounds in the heart is attention given more and more to the deep Self. Over time we come to see life more and more through the prajna-eye. For the Christian, this prajna-eye is the eye, or the consciousness, of Christ. This consciousness is the gentle yoke, the light burden of a human life let go into the divine life. We need not carry the heavy weight of egocentricity. We were never made for that yoke. When the letting go and the falling come it can be experienced as sweet relief. Sometimes, though, letting go into Christ consciousness does involve the pain, fear – even terror – of the ego. Ego can be stubborn.

All will be well. We fall into Love. There really is nothing to fear.


The Zen Buddhist terms used above, along with their descriptions, together with their suggested connections to Christian Spirituality, can be found in the book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist by D.T. Suzuki (1957, 2002).

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