Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 183-186
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Zen Gifts to Christians. By Robert Kennedy. New York: Continuum, 2000. 131 pp.
Though Robert Kennedy's recent book Zen Gifts to Christians (2000) is intended for Christian readers who may be "temperamentally inclined" (i) to learn about Zen to spiritually augment their lives, it also succeeds as a work that defines the Western Buddhist community and as an introductory text for those interested in Zen Buddhism. Drawing on his experiences as a Catholic priest and Zen master, Kennedy's work contributes much to the ideals expressed in the Second Vatican Council's conciliar decree Nostra Aetate (as well as the Thirty-fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus): to preserve and promote those universal elements of truth that manifest themselves in different cultures and societies, through dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions. Kennedy achieves this monumental goal by organizing the book around the ten ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism (also known as the ten bulls) so as to better illustrate to Christians what Zen Buddhism has to offer through the narrative of spiritual growth common to all Zen Buddhists. Each ox-herding picture (or "bull") is elegantly expanded into a chapter detailing each step in the path of the spiritual quest. Kennedy richly supplements the lessons and ideas contained in each bull with references to Western poetry and prose, making the bulls more accessible to the reader by presenting the information in different ways.
For both Christian and non-Christian readers, Kennedy's introduction to Zen may come as somewhat of a surprise, because he begins with the lived components of Zen Buddhism: discipline and practice. Though Zen does have speculative features and theories (as evidenced by koans), it is primarily concrete in its approach. Unlike Christianity, Zen is also a physical skill: it must be attentively practiced for enlightenment to occur. As Kennedy notes, if it is practiced sporadically or by rote, the student cannot make any spiritual progress, thus destroying the goal of the exercise. Moreover, Kennedy indirectly echoes a Platonic critique when he warns the [End Page 183] prospective student that time alone will not produce results, let alone Enlightenment! As with the perfection of any skill, discipline requires that the student give up strengths to concentrate on weaknesses. Kennedy's anecdotes and citations beautifully illustrate the points he wishes to make. However, he is cognizant of the fact that failure is part of any spiritual growth (in fact, it is the hallmark of discipline!) and is careful not to paint Zen in overly rosy colors.
While the first chapter (Kennedy's commentary and explanation of the first bull) introduces readers to the concrete aspects of Zen, the second chapter on "not-knowing" explores the application of the abstract or mental component of Zen in one's attitude toward daily circumstances. Kennedy skillfully builds on the lessons he presented in the first chapter to express several ideas, many with implications for Christianity today.
Two of these ideas are "letting go" and "the loss of God."Though Zen Gifts to Christians was written well before September 2001, these twin themes have become applicable to the contemporary situation for Christians and Buddhists alike. The theme of"letting go" allows Kennedy to subtly explore how old habits (characteristic of rigidness and inflexibility) not only prevent students from realizing their Buddha-nature, but also destroy the possibility for spiritual growth and progress of any sort. This serves to highlight the second theme: the loss of God. Though the book is open and inclusive, the reader is reminded anew that Kennedy wrote the book with a Christian audience in mind. While Kennedy holds that the experience of "losing" God is common to fervent Christians (30), the student, rather than focusing on how distressing that can be, should take it as a reminder of the most primal Christian belief—namely, that a person need not adhere to any single doctrine to be able to accept God. Moreover, such an experience should jar students out of their complacency and allow them to grow further.