From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 1
© 1969 Far West Editions
BY DOM AELRED GRAHAM
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
This book is the attempt of a Benedictine monk to hold the light of Zen Buddhism up to his own religion. His purpose is not to criticize Catholicism or Zen, but to reveal certain primal elements of Christianity to the contemporary Catholic—particularly for those thousands of Westerners who are drawn to the religions of the East.
In the light of Zen, Christianity can be seen as a way. That is, Zen is a way, and—for the author—the deepest truths of Zen are also the truths of root Catholicism. Many questions immediately suggest themselves. We need to ask: what is a “way”? And if it forms so crucial a part of Christianity, why is another religion needed to show it to us? Is the author saying that the light of Zen may now be needed to reach into hidden places of Catholicism? What could that mean? Can he believe there is some “secret” to Christianity unseen by even the highest members of the Church?
Such questions may fall into place if we try to understand the idea of a religious way.
It must not, surely, be understood only in terms of a way of life. Consider such expressions as “religious way of life,” “scientific way of life,” “artistic way of life,” and so on. So used, a “way of life” is simply a manner or style of pursuing what all men already have in common: our lives, such as they are. The man- who pursues a “religious way of life” finds his satisfaction, let us say, in prayer; a “scientific way of life” brings satisfaction from knowledge; and an “artistic way of life” from self-expression.
The point is that to see religion as a way of life is merely to see it as one mode of life among others. This is a problem that besets Dom Graham’s book. He is often eager to show that Catholicism is more “satisfying” than Zen as a way of life. This aspect of his thinking is puzzling. For, particularly in the first half of the book, he is also alive to the possibility that there may be nothing in man as he is that a religious way can or ought to satisfy.
This is the question as to how and to what degree religion can change man. The more radical and unexpectedly global the change that a religion strives to effect in “human nature,” the more it deserves to be spoken of as a way. In this context, then, we need to speak of Zen and, if our author is right, of Christianity as well, not only as a way of life, but as a way to life. We would need to think of a way as being a path, a method, a vehicle, a means of reaching self-transformation.
A way may thus be understood as an instrument. If Zen is irrational and seems bizarre, it is because it is an instrument of thorough change. And we might expect that any religious way will appear equally “strange” as long as it rigorously maintains its instrumentality: that is, as long as it mercilessly resists all attempts by the ordinary mind to clutch hold of it and secure it as an end-state in which a man can remain—satisfied.
Conceptualization can be and often is an attempt to be satisfied, a purely functional reaction to other, perhaps emotional or physical, processes that are all part of what a religious way seeks to change. Thus, the koan and the mondo and other “incomprehensible” aspects of Zen point to the radical instrumentality of a religious way. If it is not being used, a way loses most of its value.
A way to what? Dom Graham says:
Here in fact we are on the brink, according to an age-long wisdom, of humanity’s chief source of trouble. Deep distress inevitably occurs whenever we identify what may be called our true self (the “I”) with the assertive, separative ego. . .: when, in other words, we allow our lives to be immersed in a private sea of feelings, perceptions, desires, and aversions, . . . This can involve us in a kind of counterfeit self-awareness, so vivid that we may mistake its contents for our very being. . .(p. 25).
This statement, for the author, circumscribes the Christian notion of original sin. The Christian and the Buddhist diagnosis of the human condition is that man is potentially more than these many “little selves” which appear and disappear in his daily affairs or in his critical moments, or which he proudly lays claim to in his most triumphal states and in his most “intense” experiences.
Which is simply to say that our ordinary (fallen) condition is these moods, perceptions, moments, these triumphs, feelings, loves, hates, insights, and the I does not yet exist; or, at least, that it is always and everywhere swallowed up and eaten by these same passing states of being that pose as myself, as me.
We must take it in the simplest possible manner: a way is a path toward being. We are not: that is our “sin.” Inwardly, we don’t exist: that is the human condition. A way tells us: we can exist, we can be. But it tells us this in a manner that is meaningless unless we need it and use it. Its pronouncements to the world at large are like the aromas of food: they are truly interesting only to hungry men.
We must assume that there is a thinking and a kind of speech that emerges from a genuinely religious way and that is sometimes brought to the world at large. If so, it would be ridiculous to expect such thinking or speaking to fall in with our ordinary way of thinking. Even the very first tentative contact with a way must be of the same instrumental order as is experienced on the way. Christ said: “Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.”
The deepest thesis of Zen Catholicism is that Christianity is, like Zen, originally and primally a way. The “secrets” of Christianity are thus the “secrets” of radically instrumental knowledge. It is intriguing to speculate that this may be what scripture is, and that all the myriad arguments about interpreting our Bible overlook the prime function of this kind of literature, which is: to serve as a tool for self-study.
Clearly, in the last two decades Zen Buddhism has been the most widely talked about example of radically instrumental knowledge. We may even speak of it as esoteric Buddhism, which is to say that it is Buddhism in its primal function as a discipline, a way. Therefore, to examine Catholicism in the light of Zen Buddhism can only mean to search for a primal Christianity, esoteric Christianity.
Dom Graham’s book is not entirely convincing in its assurance that such Christianity does exist. And yet, having made this suggestion he then begins to measure various utterances by “authorities” on Zen against the precise theological writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He disregards almost completely the essential difference between the instrumental speech of a new way of thinking and the satisfying philosophical formulations of a system of thought.
The question: What can Zen do that we (Catholicism) can’t do better?, completely absent at the beginning, comes back to haunt the book’s later chapters. Zen is not emotional enough, it is amoral, it is too Eastern, and so on.
These are surely demands placed upon a way by the intellect in its usual ordinary state. In this state, we may think of ourselves as religious, but what we engage in at such times is no longer a religious way, since our religion then satisfies the very questions that need to be struggled with and experienced.
Perhaps “Zen Catholicism” is a sign in the life of contemporary man as well as in the life of contemporary religion. There is in our day an increasing interest in comparative study of the principal religions and traditions as a means to renewed understanding, and the results are mainly bad, tending towards homogenisation. And yet, as in this book, the higher level, the radically instrumental, can and does at moments break in upon the more ordinary framework. This contact, both inwardly and outwardly, is a psychological miracle. Our innate religious sense, as feeble as it is, directs us to search for that miracle and to ponder the possibility that for those who seek there may in fact exist such a discipline as radically instrumental Christianity.