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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 51-53

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Buddhist? Christian? Both? Neither?

Ruben L. F. Habito
Perkins School of Theology

An expanded version of this article will appear in a book, Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2003).

I was in my early twenties when I was introduced to Zen practice, under the guidance of Zen Master Yamada Koun, less than a year after I had arrived in Japan as a Jesuit seminarian preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

My earlier Jesuit training in the Philippines had already initiated me into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a monthlong rigorous program of meditative and contemplative practice that culminates in what is known as the Contemplatio ad Amorem. This is a feature of the exercises whereby one simply basks in the presence of that Divine Love that undergirds each and every element in this universe. This practice brings the exercitant right at the core of the very mystical experience of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Each Jesuit undergoes these exercises soon after entry into the order, and is thereby oriented to a form of spiritual practice that can nourish one's entire life from that point on, enabling each one to dispose of oneself totally to the beckoning of this Love. The Jesuit then takes vows of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience to one's superiors, offering oneself toward the service of one's fellow beings on this earth through the Church. This was all in the background as I encountered Zen.

In my first formal meeting with Yamada Roshi, I was given the koan Mu as the keystone for my practice. Shortly after, I was sitting in my room one afternoon at the language school in Kamakura, relaxing after coming back from a daylong Zen session at San-Un Zendo and having had a dokusan (formal interview) with Yamada Roshi earlier that afternoon. All of a sudden, something flashed through my whole being and overpowered me, leading to loud bursts of laughter and tears. I remember going out of my room and running up and down the corridor and to the next floor, knocking on Father Hand's door, wanting to tell him excitedly, but not knowing exactly what to say, unable to control the laughter. One way I can describe what happened at this point is that in one flash of an instant, I understood, in a rather direct and intimate way—that is, from within— what was behind the intriguing half-smile of the Buddha figures we see in sculptures and paintings. I called Yamada Roshi's [End Page 51] home to ask for a dokusan, and he gladly obliged. He called in Brigitte D'Ortchy, a longtime Zen practitioner from Germany living in Kamakura at the time, to be with him in the dokusan room as he asked me the usual checking questions, and then proclaimed that I had indeed experienced what in Zen is known as kensho (seeing into one's true, or Buddha, nature).

From that point on, my practice of Zen followed a program of koan study offered in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage, which I completed in sixteen years tunder Yamada Roshi's guidance. These koans are geared to polishing one's inner eye, to keep that experience of mystery alive and fresh, to deepen it, further clarify it, to be able to see through the pitfalls that can come in its wake. Through the years, Zen practice came to be for me a way of simply embodying the ineffable, infinite mystery, with every breath, with every step, every thought, word, and deed. To put it in a Buddhist context in the words of the Heart Sutra, it is a way of embodying emptiness in every form. Putting it in still another way, it is a mode of being and way of life wherein the Buddha's smile is manifested as none other than my own, expressed in all the events and encounters throughout my entire life.

As this experience in Zen became...


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