Email to HDS Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership Class Participants

This is the text of an email I sent last week to the students in the Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership course I’m co-leading at Harvard Divinity School with the amazing Liz Ruqaiyyah Lee-Hood.  I’m posting it here because this course has offered me the opportunity to reflect a bit more upon my experiences in both the Christian contemplative tradition and the Zen tradition, as well as some of the similarities and differences I see between them.  I remain deeply appreciative of, and still feel intimately connected to, the Christian contemplative tradition, even though I’m firmly grounded (and only engaged) in Zen practice today.  Note that I asked our students to read Markings, the (posthumously published) spiritual journal kept by Dag Hammarksjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations.



I hope you’re having a great experience so far in the Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership course. I also hope to see you at the end of your October 3rd session, when I plan to visit again.

I began this note on a return flight to Boston, having spent the past week in Jerusalem. I am thinking of all of you, and about our brief visit a few weeks ago. I did not manage to say most of what I intended to say, so I thought I would send this email with some follow-up thoughts. I was supposed to talk mainly about contemplative practice, and I particularly wanted to follow up with a few more thoughts on that topic.

Picking up from where I left off when we were together . . .

Don’t Spare the Dharma Assets

I shared with you a verse from my Zen community’s version of the Shorter Precepts Recitation. This is the series of vows one traditionally makes when one becomes a committed practitioner on the Zen path. In my community, we also have a Longer Precepts Recitation, but its content is essentially the same, and both the shorter and longer versions of the precepts are recited by lay people and priests alike. Monks and nuns in Asia typically must make a much longer series of vows, but my emerging western Zen school does not currently have a true monastic element – and, in any event, we find these more compact sets of precepts to be sufficient expressions of our core commitments.

The precept I shared with you has been a living koan for me for many years:

Using all the ingredients of my life, I vow to take up the way of not sparing the Dharma Assets.

“Dharma” variously means teachings (as in the recording teachings of the Buddha), truth, and “ants, sticks and grizzly bears.”

(Stop and think about that for a moment.)

Or, as the towering 13th century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen said,

Entreat trees and rocks to preach,

and ask rice fields and gardens for the Truth;

ask pillars for the Dharma,

and learn from hedges and walls.

The Dharma Assets are simply “all of the ingredients of my life.” As you travel together in (and beyond) this course, I encourage you to take up one of the following questions (which are just different ways of asking the same thing):

  • How can I best make use of what’s here, now, including what’s inside me – whatever troubles or confounds me; whatever seems risky and real to me; whatever I genuinely would care to do that is not for show?
  • You’ve read Dag Hammarskjold’s reflections. What would/does living this precept look like for you?
  • If, as Hammarskjold claims, the path to holiness in this era necessarily leads through action, what action(s) do you feel compelled to take?

Contemplative Practice

“Contemplation” is a term that initially was associated most closely with the prayer practices and theology of the Christian mystics, as it arguably still is today, at least within academic circles. Because the practices, experiences, and ideas about which some of them wrote have analogues in other traditions, however, the term is often used to describe similar, and sometimes even very different practices, outside Christianity. For example, the silent prayer practice described by the anonymous 14th century Christian author of The Cloud of Unknowing is very different from Sufi dance and many of the practices of the Jewish Kabbalists, but you will hear one describing all of these practices as contemplative today. Of course, Islam and Judaism have their silent prayer practices, too.

As I explained when we met, I initially learned to meditate nearly 30 years ago from Tibetan Buddhist monks, and I continued to use various Buddhist meditation practices outside the Zen tradition for perhaps two years. I was still a Roman Catholic, but I was not attending mass regularly during that particular interlude. Somewhat ironically, I learned about Christian contemplative prayer in 1992, while reading a book by D.T. Suzuki, who introduced a generation of westerners to Zen. I soon sought teaching in Christian contemplative prayer from the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating, who (with others) has done the Christian world an incredible service by exposing non-monastics (ordained and lay) to contemplative prayer through the organization Contemplative Outreach.

I still cannot believe I did not initially learn of this wonderful practice by people in my own birth tradition. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, the Christian tradition of contemplative (i.e., silent) prayer was kept alive for centuries in monastic communities (Trappists, Carmelites, etc.), and most Catholics (and perhaps even most priests) never spend a significant period of time in a monastery or otherwise interacting with monks. Second, there are many other types of prayer practice in Catholicism (e.g., petitionary prayer, prayers of adoration, and praying the rosary) that are universally known and accepted, and there have been times and places in both the pre-modern and the modern eras when contemplative prayer has been discouraged or even challenged by some church leaders. Some Christian mystics write about direct communion with God or even the possibility of union with God, and this notion is theologically contentious for some Christians.

I practiced Christian contemplative prayer for roughly the same period of time (about 15 years) that I have practiced Buddhist forms of meditation, including Zen. I know both the Catholic and the Zen traditions well, and draw inspiration from both. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, there are some Christian Zen practitioners, and even some priests who have become fully authorized Zen teachers, like the Jesuit Robert Kennedy.

Centering Prayer, as the particular form of contemplative prayer taught by Contemplative Outreach is known, involves returning to a chosen sacred word or to one’s breath when one is lost in thought. The first form of Zen meditation most people encounter involves returning to one’s breath when one is lost in thought. Needless to say, these practices are very similar in terms of what one does during a prayer/meditation period. Generally speaking, one is attentive to whatever arises, and one gently returns to a reference point, like the breath or a sacred word, when one discovers one has been focused exclusively on a thought or sensation. In my form of Zen practice, one eventually drops the reference point device, adopting a form of practice called “shikantaza” in Japanese, which is often translated as “just sitting.”

The main difference between these practices is how they are conceptualized, or theologized, in each tradition. Christianity obviously is a theistic tradition, and Zen is nontheistic (my word). You will hear some Christians (including Father Keating himself) say that Zen meditation is a practice of attention, whereas contemplative prayer is a practice of intention (to be nearer to God and to “let go and let God,” as Centering Prayer practitioners often say). Having practiced intensively in both traditions, I do not think that is quite right. We sit with a particular orientation, if not exactly an ardent intention, in the Zen tradition, too. And we also “let go”; we eventually come to sit without expectation, or even use of a device, like a word or the breath.

Zen is a relatively “concept light” tradition, at least compared to the Abrahamic religions, but there is a central metaphor: We live in a realm of the Relative (teacups and tears, jazz and joys) and the Absolute (?), of Form and Emptiness, and, as we hear in the Heart Sutra, “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form.” (Even this ? is too much.  Nothing extra.  And, yet, our questions are part of the Dharma!)  Or, as Zen folk say, the nature of reality is “not one, not two.”

Zazen (sitting meditation) is one practice in which we non-discursively meet this reality; we attend to what arises here and now not just to cultivate a more calm, undistracted mind (for whatever utility that might have psychologically or in daily life), but because we may find that we begin to lose that sense of separation between ourselves and the rest of life – that sense of isolation that drives so much manufactured earthly suffering – and because we believe that the here-and-now is (to borrow a theistic word) sacred. Utterly mundane, and utterly sacred.

We are marinating in the stew of life-and-death. Learning to savor the stew and accept that we are the stew/one of its ingredients.

A Zen practitioner walks through the mist. At what precise moment does her robe become wet?

And more: A Zen practitioner sits inside on his cushion. Another Zen practitioner walks through the mist. At what precise moment does the first Zen adept’s robe become wet?

I mentioned the Ten Ox Herding Pictures when we met. These are a famous series of drawings in the Zen tradition that, together, are a metaphor for the spiritual journey. The ninth picture is often labeled “The Unity of Form and Emptiness.” As my Zen teacher, Josh Bartok, explains this image, we realize:

The source. And yet . . . and yet . . .. Though form is indeed emptiness, form is also form. The one bright pearl manifests through the myriad things. From the beginning, just this has always been it. Time after time, there is nothing but this. This universe of emptiness arises thus.

The final picture is “Returning to the Marketplace.” Again in Josh’s words:

Returning. Here, we dive back into the great fertilizing muddle of life-and-death. We partake and participate. Our debt to the Buddhas and ancestors, and to our own teachers, can never be paid back – all we will ever be able to do is pay it forward.

Although the contemplative orientation to spirituality sometimes is criticized for being solipsistic and quietistic, here we see (in its Zen expression) that it ultimately points us to the here-and-now, but with a vivified perspective on it. The here-and-now matters all the more, and it is no longer self-referential. Mystics in other traditions make a similar case. I provided a bit of background reading on one of my favorite Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, as one example.

We can debate whether or not Zen is a strong expression of the Via Negativa/apophatic theology. I will tell you to make your bows and chop wood, carry water.

As you know, we encourage you to take up and maintain a contemplative practice during this course, if you do not have one already. It does not need to be a silent prayer/eastern meditation practice, but it hopefully will not be a purely cognitive/discursive form of practice either. Thinking is important – and cannot, and should not, be stopped! – but thinking alone seldom “marinates” one well from a spiritual perspective. Our critical/cognitive capacity is an incredible gift that is useful in all sorts of important ways . . . and, yet, thinking often reinforces that sense of existential isolation that seems to be a “default mode” feature of the human condition. Thinking is very useful for pulling Humpty Dumpty apart; less useful for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again – or, rather, realizing that Humpty Dumpty is always, everywhere together in its distinctions. Contemplative practices can help us make contact with life in ways discursive practices seldom can.

So, take up a contemplative practice, and alongside it, take up the “koan” Dag Hammarskjold offers us: If the path to holiness in the contemporary era necessarily leads through action, what action am I called to take?


In closing, I will share one final thing from the Zen tradition. It is our evening/bedtime gatha (prayer), which one hears on sesshin (retreats) at the end of long days of meditation practice:

Let me respectfully remind you,

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Each of us should strive to awaken . . . awaken . . .

Take heed: Do not squander your life.

I look forward to seeing you all again soon.