Zen and Christianity: Like tennis and math?

Kim Boykin 96T 09G, author of Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide

I’m Christian, and I practice Zen Buddhist meditation.

When I say that, people tend to assume that I was Christian first and then got interested in Buddhism, but actually it was the other way around.

My upbringing was essentially secular, and I didn’t give much thought to religion until college. During my senior year at Vassar College in upstate New York, my Buddhism class took a field trip to Zen Mountain Monastery in the nearby Catskill Mountains, and I was intrigued. A friend and I spent our spring break as guests at the monastery, following the rigorous monastic schedule of work and meditation.

The summer after I graduated, I had an existential crisis. I became suddenly and painfully aware of my mortality and finitude, my smallness and powerlessness in the universe. I realized that sooner or later I would die, and that I had no choice in the matter. I felt as if now I really understood the existentialist philosophers I’d read in college and the story of the Buddha—a pampered, sheltered prince who was in his twenties before he discovered the fundamental realities of human existence: suffering and death.

That fall I entered the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I quickly discovered that philosophy was not going to address life’s big questions in a way that would satisfy me. Seeking to devote some time to single-minded, wholehearted spiritual practice, I returned to Zen Mountain Monastery for residential Zen training.

Afterward, though, I was struggling with my Zen practice, and felt as if I needed spiritual guidance. My fiancé, Brian, whom I’d met through Boulder’s Buddhist community and who is Irish-Catholic, knew a nun who worked at a retreat center and thought I would hit it off with her. I did. Every few months, I went on a retreat and met with her for spiritual direction. It was okay with her that I wasn’t Christian, and it didn’t feel like a radical shift to me, to be talking about my spiritual life with a Catholic nun instead of a Zen teacher.

Drawn to learn more about Christianity, I decided to give graduate school one more try. In 1993 Brian and I moved to Atlanta so I could start the master of theological studies program at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. Brian and I sporadically attended Catholic mass, and we went to graduate student dinners at the Emory Catholic Center. Eventually I decided it was time for me to make a formal commitment to Christianity; I was baptized and confirmed in Cannon Chapel at the Easter Vigil Mass.

Around the same time, I started to return to Zen practice. Along with several people from the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, Brian and I helped to start the Emory Zen group, which still meets weekly for meditation.

Brian and I now live at Green Bough House of Prayer, a small ecumenical Christian retreat center in Middle Georgia. We pray and worship with the Green Bough community and also at a Catholic church in the area, and we practice Zen.

It may seem impossible for one person to practice in two religious traditions without diluting or mutating at least one of the traditions beyond recognition, and perhaps that is true for most religions. But Zen is a peculiar religion. Some people wouldn’t call it a religion at all. Zen, especially in its contemporary Western incarnation, is not a belief system. It is essentially a practice—something you do, something you experience. Zen is not theistic, but it isn’t atheistic either, or even agnostic. Zen simply doesn’t address the subject of God. In Zen, the Buddha is not understood to be a god or any sort of supernatural being but simply an ordinary human being who taught a way of liberation from suffering. Zen practice is a way of cultivating compassionate awareness of all reality and realizing that the joy and freedom we long for are available here and now, in the midst of the messiness and pain and confusion of our lives.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, said that comparing Zen and Christianity is like comparing tennis and mathematics. I think Zen and Christianity are more similar than that, but I would say that practicing Zen as a Christian is like playing tennis as a mathematician. If you’re a mathematician and you want to play tennis, you just keep on being a mathematician and you also play tennis. There’s no special trick to it. You don’t need to wear shorts and tennis shoes while doing your mathematics, and you don’t need to ponder differential equations while working on your backhand. Likewise, if you’re a Christian and you want to practice Zen, you just keep on being a Christian and you also practice Zen.

Or, in my case, you keep on practicing Zen and you also become a Christian.



 © 2006 Emory University