Thursday, 8 October 2015

Christian Meditation

In the late 40s, a British Colonial Service officer named John Main began to frequent a Hindu ashram in Malaysia. There, in meditation, the devout Catholic finally tasted his life's ambition: to sit in the presence of God. At length he approached the abbot about converting to Hinduism. The guru's reply astonished him:


Like most Westerners, Main assumed all religions were about signing people up. But Hinduism (and Zen) actually discourages conversion. One's path is an invaluable, hard-won treasure; throwing it away to start all over again is a bad strategy, if you can help it.

Instead, the guru told Main to find a Christian way of meditation. The idea intrigued the Anglo-Irishman. Was there such a thing? He returned to the UK, became a Benedictine monk, and spent the rest of his life researching and resurrecting a form that had indeed, he discovered, once been central to Christian practice.

As one might imagine, there was some blowback. Notwithstanding Main's watertight historical case – the Desert Fathers, a prominent early Christian lineage, made sitting a pillar of their monastic practice, as did such seminal Church figures as John Cassian and John of the Cross – many insisted that meditation was unChristian by definition, on the well-worn pretexts that "I've never heard of it before" and "non-Christians do it." (For the record, they/we also pray, though I've yet to hear any Christian call down the Lord on prayer.)

And then came 1962. In that year, Pope John XXIII convened his now-famous Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, otherwise known as the Second Vatican Council. The goal of this historic in-house revolution was to modernise, democratise, and personalise the Church. Main's reconstituted meditation lineage, envisioned as a loose œcumenical affiliation of small, often lay-led groups, fit the bill perfectly. He was given the Pope's blessing and a building in Montréal, and told to make it happen. The result was the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), or Christian Meditation for short.

There being no Zen centre nearby when I began my own practice, I sat with the local Franciscans, who led a WCCM group, for almost two years. (Nor was I alone; one of my brothers there was a Vajrayana lay practitioner.)

There I discovered that WCCM-model sitting is virtually identical to zazen. A typical weekly meeting starts with a few minutes of teaching from the group leader – generally a brief elaboration on some point of mindfulness, with supporting Bible references – and then a few bars of soothing music, ceding to silence. (Some groups use a Buddhist-style singing bowl instead of music.) Group members repeat the mantra "Maranatha" inwardly, by way of stilling their thoughts and letting God get a word in edgewise. Afterward the music comes back up, or the keisu rings, and meditation ends. There may be shared commentary, or the session may simply disband, amid smiles and "see ya next week"s. The entire ritual takes an hour.

Some groups sit Asian-style, on zafus and zabutons, while others sit on chairs, as mine did. Lotus-sitting groups may follow the Tibetan aesthetic, or Japanese Zen; somewhere there may be a Hindu one. How these matters are decided I don't know, but it's just cosmetic; the practice remains the same.

I remain a major fan of Christian Meditation, and recommend it to the many Christians I meet who voice interest in Zen or meditation. The teaching is indeed œcumenical; there are no specifically Catholic elements in it, and no need for anyone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of denomination. (And you got that from two Buddhists.)

So Christians who hunger for a meditation practice should check out the WCCM. Sadly, there are not as many groups as the lineage deserves, but most large cities have at least one. A good place to start is the WCCM website.

Failing that, contact your local Catholic parish. You might have to insist a little; even among Catholics, Christian Meditation has yet to become a household word. If it turns out there is in fact no group nearby, talk to the priest about starting one. (You don't have to be Catholic to talk to a priest or to ask him for help, yea though Protestant eyes sometimes grow large when I suggest this.)

Any road, if you're looking to "be still and know that I am God", this-here'll get it done.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

WW: Screamin' Eagle

(Emphasis on "screaming".)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Street Level Zen: Keepin' It On The Corner

Feral pigeon -Empire State Building, New York City, USA-31Aug2008

What does the universe expanding have to do with you?
This is Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is not expanding.

Woody Allen

(Bird's eye vista of the non-elastic side of the East River courtesy of Wikimedia and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

WW: Buddha's footprint

(In a downtown sidewalk. Dude gets around.)

Thursday, 24 September 2015

3 Things I Need To Stop Doing

Tibetan - Phurbu-cum-chopper - Walters 511448 - View A
Decrying the forms of others. (Inwardly, I mean; at least I don't do that market preacher thing, where you call down others aloud, as if that's going to advance anyone's programme.) Sadly, some don't share my life experience; they cling to forms I find fatuous and unproductive. If only they were as insightful as I, they'd stand a chance of being as enlightened as… (wait; where was I going with this?)

Exactly. I hold my practice to a high standard; I crop out stuff that sets me back, and embrace stuff that works. But there's this annoying corollary: others realise similar progress doing things I've thrown off, or never fell for in the first place. The fact that these forms make no sense to me is immaterial. Zen is a results-based religion.

But critiquing others provides that power rush we monkeys crave. It's heroin we distil from the opium of ego.

Confusing form with practice. When I sit for a long time, I feel like a good monk. If the session is unsettled, or short, or I don't maintain a schedule, I begin to feel like a sham. To some extent, this is useful; it keeps me on the path. But the fact is, enlightenment is non-attachment. And playing look-how-Zen-I-am is attachment to approval, if only your own. Throw in onlookers, and you multiply the delusion exponentially.

Zen is about acceptance. Sometimes you can't sit as well, or as often, as you'd like. Others you can, but you don't. But sitting is just a form. Practice is looking deeply, understanding cause and effect, adjusting what can be adjusted, and letting the rest go.

I can only do what's humanly possible, whether that's limited by outside obstacles or my own shortcomings.

Confusing religious conviction with political or social values. Like everyone, I selected my religious path largely because it complemented my existing beliefs. Zen practice has helped me grind off some sharp corners, but my principles are essentially the same ones I was born and raised with.

Fact is, morality is human and individual; religion can influence it, but is powerless to establish it, even in the ostensibly devout. It's too easy to mine scripture for self-justification, or sign your liability away to some charismatic leader who will, you implicitly believe, take the karma hit if her teaching turns out to be unskilful. (She won't. It's like your tax return: you can't sign away liability.)

Yet I tend to view those who cause suffering while espousing some other religion or theory as benighted; if only they possessed the Awesome Buddhist Truth, like me.

So what am I to do about Asia? Buddhism's been going on there for 2500 years. In many Asian countries it is, or was historically, the dominant faith; it packs at least swing-vote sway in virtually all of them to this day. So nirvana on earth must have been established somewhere in Asia by now.

Go on, Google it. I'll wait.

Right understanding means distinguishing between virtue and religion. Zen doesn't recognise any secret Masonic handshake that gets us out of dutch at the hour of our death. You either practice, or you don't. What you choose to call yourself while doing so is immaterial.

Thus the world is full of satanic Buddhists and angelic nonbelievers. When everything goes to hell, I'd rather answer to a Dietrich Bonhoeffer than a Saw Maung.

This is the irony all seekers must meditate upon and transform into insight.

(Photo of Tibetan delusion chopper courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Walters Art Museum.)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

WW: Largest and oldest chestnut in the US

(The plaque below lays out the basics of the story. This American chestnut [Castanea dentata] is thought to be the largest, and possibly the oldest, left on the continent, after an introduced blight killed off virtually all of the once-ubiquitous trees. Because they're not native to the North Coast, this one had no peers to communicate the fungus. Today it's the centrepiece of a cemetery in Tumwater, Washington.)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Buddha's Practice

"In the morning, I take my bowl and robe and go into the village to beg for food.

"After my meal, I go into the woods, and gather some grass and leaves to sit on. I sit with legs crossed and a straight back and arouse mindfulness.

"Then, far from sense pleasures and bad states of mind, I do jhana."
The Buddha, according to the Anguttara Nikaya 3.63 (1).
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