Midweek Mysticism: Christianity could benefit from Zen’s school of hard knocks
Christianity is in the doldrums. It has settled into a comfortable old age, soothing rather than challenging its adherents.
Young people are not replacing the old as they pass away. Its trajectory is all downhill.
But need it be this way? Here’s a radical plan for waking it up to the modern age using the example of Zen Buddhism.
Zen arose out of Buddhism because the Chinese eye spotted what it saw as a major weakness in the older Indian Buddhist system.
The flaw was a tendency to formularising. As in other religions, the basic principles, intended to help the novice towards understanding, had lost their original force. Now they were just familiar phrases for chanting and disputation.
What had once contained a powerful meaning for unlocking the truth had degraded to mantra, a repetitious, magical formula for inducing a trance-like state. Think familiar prayers and hymns. There really is no difference.
The very sound of well-loved passages from ancient Buddhist texts produce in the faithful a soothing reassurance, a warm, self-satisfied glow that makes them feel good, and even spiritual.
The Christian Church has the same problem today when trying to change from the old known texts to modern versions in the vernacular. A storm of protest from traditionalists greets every textual alteration as if the very doctrine were at stake.
The feelgood factor is a strong motivator in popular religion, which is often a branch of the entertainment industry.
The intention of the Buddha, however, was not to make people feel comfortable and secure, but to shake them out of their complacency and force a reassessment of the world in the light of the reality of Buddha-nature, read “God.”
This inevitably meant inducing a lot of bodily and mental anguish in the aspirant. The Buddha never intended his followers to sit around discussing the Twelve-Point Chain of Causation, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Signs of Being or the Ten Stages in the Progress of a Bodhisattva.
Instead, he asked them to confront themselves directly, with soul-shattering insight, to look at the absolute centre of themselves without shrinking from the truth.
It was a bravura performance indeed when a student achieves this measure and comes through into the light of the Buddha-mind (God-consciousness).
A careful reading of the New Testament shows Jesus had the same problem and a similar solution: overturning the tables in the temple was just a start.
Master Rinzai’s apparent violence now becomes more explicable. When the intellect picks up the truth and starts to conceptualise (kill) it, that concept is best slaughtered with a sharp blow, thought the master.
An unexpected whack with a fly-whisk on a mesmerised student’s head brings him back to reality like nothing else does. Strange though it may seem, sudden pain, or shock, transcends the intellect and can liberate the spirit.
This is why suffering is the spiritual forge of many religions, and why the samurai warriors adopted Zen training methods when they were introduced in Japan.
Western New Agers have the same problem when seeking a romanticised spiritualism.
For Zen, the sound of a stone on bamboo, the wafting scent of spring flowers, or a sudden blow are all real, and have been enlightening factors to many a Zen novice. Thinking about them is not. When Zen is at its fiercest, it is precisely at its most honest and direct.
While I can’t see the Church of England introducing fly whisks into its services, it may well be essential to change or die.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Coming soon: Practical Mysticism: A different way of looking at the world.