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Reviewed by:
  • Living Zen, Loving God
  • Robert P. Kennedy
Living Zen, Loving God. By Ruben L. F. Habito. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004. 136 + xxvi pp.

In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine states that non-Christian "seekers of wisdom" may have "said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith," and even goes on to assert that "some truths concerning the one God are discovered among them." Augustine urges that taking the "gold and silver" of genuine moral and spiritual wisdom from non-Christian sources "should not be feared . . . but rather [that these treasures ought to be] taken . . . and converted to our use" (II, xl, 60). As the title of his book implies, Habito believes that "living Zen," and particularly practicing the discipline of zazen, or contemplative sitting, is, for Christians at least, equivalent to the practice of loving God. He addresses himself to Christians—specifically, Roman Catholics—who are seeking to deepen their spirituality, and the book's over-arching purpose is to show that the practice of Zen meditation is both helpful in this quest and conformable with Christian faith. At various points throughout his book, Habito emphasizes that following the path of Zen, if done properly, will in fact strengthen Christians' commitment to their beliefs and, especially, the Gospel's call of loving one's neighbor.

Living Zen, Loving God is divided into ten short chapters. In the first chapter, Habito gives a personal account of his experience with Zen. This opening allows him to demonstrate his authority to speak about Zen Buddhism, to introduce the fundamental experience that he is inviting his readers to share, and to illustrate how, in his own case, the practice of zazen shed new light on his Christian faith. As a former Jesuit priest and practicing Catholic, Habito may dispense with any discussion of his qualifications to speak as a Christian. His claim to speak for the Zen experience is less obvious, and so he relates the validation of his kensho (initial enlightenment) by two Japanese Buddhist masters. This, along with the testimonials in the forewords by John Keenan and Fr. Hugo Enomiya Lassalle, SJ, is an assurance that his presentation of Zen is reliable, despite the cultural gulf between his background and that of his Zen teachers.

What Habito discovered in his initial enlightenment was nothing less than a transformative encounter with reality, an awareness that is irreducible to conceptual knowledge. Kensho is the experience of nothingness that cannot be expressed but only patiently awaited in silence (p. 5). This experience carried with it a new awareness of the Christian doctrine of creation and a renewed commitment to social involvement on behalf of those who suffer.

The nature of Zen is explored more fully in the second chapter, "Emptiness and Fullness." The experience of nothingness involves a self-emptying, a "peeling off " of layers of the false self to find the "depths" in oneself (pp. 13–14). This work of self-realization proceeds by the use of a koan, an enigmatic statement [End Page 193] or story that brings the disciple to an intellectual impasse. The goal of zazen may be indicated inchoately by understanding that the purpose of the koan is precisely to stop thinking and thus to experience oneself as one is and not according to the labels or concepts one habitually uses. Self-realization, the kensho experience, then opens the capacity to relate to others and the world directly, without the falsification of translating experience into thought: "One who is fully emptied in Zen finds himself or herself in everything, literally, and is able to identify fully with everything, to be all things, and thus to act in total freedom, according to what the particular situation demands. Such a one is no longer separated by the illusory barrier between himself and the 'other.' One sees one's True Self in the 'other,' and the 'other' in one's True Self" (p. 22).

The next three chapters develop the themes in this summary through readings of classic Buddhist texts. In chapter 3, on the Heart Sutra, Habito stresses that Buddhist meditation, when practiced genuinely, is not solipsistic, an escape into oneself from concern for...


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