Posted inOther Teachings

Is Zen Foreign?

November 4, 2016

If you’re a Christian, Zen practice will make you a better Christian; if you’re a Jew it will make you a better Jew.


A question that I’ve been asked several times, concerning the seeming “foreignness” of meditation and Zen. How foreign is it? And is it compatible with other traditions such as Judaism or Christianity, for example?

The first response is a simple: yes, fully compatible. Since meditation is a way of opening up to our humanity ever more fully, how could it not be? Yamada Koun Roshi, a former master in the lineage of which I’m a part, used to say,

“If you’re a Christian, Zen practice will make you a better Christian; if you’re a Jew it will make you a better Jew.”

But then I thought of a little background story too. One of my own teachers, Ruben Habito Roshi, is a former Jesuit, and still a practicing Christian. He went to Japan as a young Jesuit, and while there got interested in Zen. It seemed it might offer a way of coming to a more immediate experience of God. Sure enough, he found it “worked,” and after some two decades of training, he left Japan as a Zen master, and took up a job as Professor of Comparative Religion in Dallas, where he still lives.

He was actually guided toward Zen by another Jesuit, a remarkable man called Father Lassalle, who had survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. He was living less than a mile from the epicenter of the blast when it went off, and he somehow made it out alive. Right after, he petitioned the then-Pope for permission to set about building a “Cathedral of Love” in Hiroshima, and traveled the world collecting donations. Construction began in August 1950, exactly five years after the bomb, and today the World Peace Memorial Cathedral is a great testimony to peace. Lassalle himself became a Zen master, while remaining a Jesuit all his long life.

But there’s another story closer to home which illustrates the same point. When Swami Yogananda was encountering difficulties in the US, he wondered if his great venture of sharing the wisdom of his Hindu masters with the West might be collapsing, and whether he should pack it all in and return to India. As many of you may know, he was standing on the steps below his hermitage, on the cliffs at Encinitas, pondering his situation, when a light appeared in the sky, and out of it came… not Shiva or Krishna… but Jesus. At that point, Yogananda knew that he must continue his mission and service to all humanity. Truly, no matter the nation or culture, we were all in this together.

Excerpted from Thank you from Henry Shukman posted on Yoga Mandiram’s website, written by Henry Shukman.

Image: Taize Ecumenism, CC0 Public Domain, from

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