Over the past year or so, I have somewhat frequently touched on my mindfulness practice and how I have essentially grown into a Zen Buddhist. In my post, From Middle America to Zen Buddhism, I talked about the seeds that were sown throughout my early life and how my mid-life challenges sealed the deal. But one aspect I haven’t covered is, why not seek inner peace through Christianity? After all, it is the faith of my family and my childhood. So first, let’s get this out of the way. Zen Buddhism is not my religion. Zen can be – and is often the case in Asia – practiced while holding true to another, or multiple other faiths. Among many things in Zen Buddhism, the “and” instead of the “or” appeals to me. But not so fast, let’s break it down.
Focus on the mind
Probably the biggest thing that pulled me into Zen is the focus on the mind. While Zen – which is a subset of Buddhism – offers plenty of instruction on behaviors, it is well more focused on taming the wild mind than Christianity. Christianity offers the hope of redemption in the afterlife for believing and following in Christ in this life. Those are admirable goals. However, in my search for inner peace, I was looking for ways to sort out the messiness of my mind in my life right now. The Bible offers learning through parable and the story of Jesus. Zen offers learning and guidance through the direct experience of right now.
A lot of Westerners think that Zen is all about getting blissed out in a hippie dippie fashion. Not at all true. In fact, Zen practitioners rarely talk about enlightenment. It also isn’t about going all Type B personality with a “whatever” attitude to accept things with resignation. Again, not true. Rather, the idea – in my novice words – is to stop putting ourselves through the weekly, daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute torment that our minds are seemingly naturally wired to do. I’ll imply this a lot throughout this post, but I can easily see Zen philosophy and Christian faith working in concert in my inner life.
Writings that don’t take themselves too seriously
The next thing that I appreciate about Zen is that practitioners aren’t expected to believe every single word as the absolute no-questions-asked truth with a capital T. I have a cousin who is a Southern Baptist preacher. I love him dearly, and as we grow older in life, we plan to spend more time together. This winter, he asked me to read a book by Tim Keller called Making Sense of God. The book got bogged down into the historicity of the Bible, among other things. This approach does not appeal to me. I think there are just things we humans can’t know for certain, and that some things should be taken on faith without too much wrangling or backing into facts and figures. It feels cheap to me when I hear these kinds of arguments.
In Zen, practitioners have a concept called “fingers pointing at the moon.” In this case, the moon represents the Truth, which in my novice words, is kind of the individual goal in Zen. The fingers represent the writings and other messages from practitioners. Zen recognizes that some writing is parable, some is fable, some is historical, and some is a mix of all. But the idea is that there is something for everyone. If parable gets you closer to your own Truth, great. If picking apart historical facts and figures are your gig – that’s cool too. Use it all to find what works for you. This aspect of Zen actually helps warm my heart to the Bible when I hear people tell me that Creationism is an indisputable fact and Noah had dinosaurs on the Ark. I respect your right to believe that, but I reserve the right to doubt it.
Finally, what I really love about Zen is that the expectations are compatible with world religions. So practicing Zen – which in my humble opinion is pretty much ancient psychology – can be held in the same head and heart as a devout Christian. This was perhaps the bridging notion for me to delve further into Zen from the secular and generalized “mindfulness” practice. Zen is a peaceful, sensible, and effective practice that doesn’t try to extinguish other Truths.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zen Buddhism, here are some really great resources: