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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 263-265

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Book Review

The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Monk

Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life

The Silent Dialogue: Zen Letters to a Trappist Monk. By David G. Hackett. New York: Continuum, 1996. 157 pp.

Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life. By Robert E. Kennedy. New York: Continuum, 1997. 144 pp.

Two very different books recently published by Continuum seem to complement each other in unexpected ways. Father Kennedy, Catholic Zen Teacher, Jesuit Priest, openly shares with us his own journey into unknowing and self-emptying. As he notes in his preface, "what I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience . . ." (p. 13). David Hackett, now an associate professor of religion, freely shares his youthful search for genuine spiritual experience. His book is drawn from correspondence from the 1970s with Father Thomas Keating and the monks of the St. Joseph's Abbey during his two-year stay in Japan. Hackett says in his Prologue, "I became a Catholic through Zen meditation . . ." (p. 17). In both cases, rather than threaten or diminish their Christian faith, Zen practice served as a wonderful "can-opener," prying off lids of rigid ideas and concepts, allowing the depth of the spirit to be more deeply experienced.

Part I of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, addressed primarily to the Christian reader, offers an excellent introduction into Buddhism, Zen, and the essential elements of practice. In this section Kennedy has reflected the questions Christians have asked during the years he taught at the Zen Community of New York. His teacher there, Bernard Tetsugen Glassman Roshi, clarifies in the foreword Father Kennedy's position as a lay Zen Teacher who remains a Catholic priest. Kennedy weaves a consistent thread of Christian contemplative teachings side by side with the Zen teachings, making very visible the fact that Zen reminds us, as do Eckhart, Merton, and many other contemplatives, that the highest point of our Christian mysticism is reached not in the experience that I know God or that I love God--not in any I-Thou experience--but in the experience that God lives in us (p. 36).

The book has been structured according to the four stages of human growth: knowledge, love, purification, and union. These stages have been likened to the stages of alchemy: lead, quicksilver, sulphur, and gold--these four elements provide Kennedy with his titles for the four parts of his book. This very structure makes clear that the goal of both Christian mysticism and Zen practice is transformation of being. With a firm foundation of knowledge and teachings from both traditions, then it is time to actually enter the fire of practice itself. I am reminded of the stages of practice outlined in the ancient Chinese Zen ox-herding pictures. The herdsman sets out with some knowledge, longing for his True Nature. He sees traces--footprints in the sand--and a deep yearning, the quicksilver of desire and inspiration, begins to ache in his heart. As he begins to see and experience his own True Nature, he must pass through the fire of struggle, surrender, deep letting go, until finally both herdsman [End Page 263] and ox disappear, self-emptying is complete in Union. There are no shortcuts. Jesus and Buddha both have invited us to practice radical poverty. Kennedy states, "The poverty of not clinging, not projecting, not finding shelter, and not seeking parallel lives, can lead us to the deepest intimacy of all" (p. 114).

Kennedy received his early formative Zen training under Koun Yamada Roshi, a beloved and deeply appreciated teacher, in Kamakura. His Roshi offered a style of practice which utilized the koan (rationally unsolvable question or paradox) to provoke the student into a direct experience rather than an explanation or idea about it. Kennedy Sensei has shared his insight into many...