- Reclaiming the Integration of Body and Mind
The week before New Year’s Day has often spurred me to evaluate my personal path. I courted my own permission to apply to graduate school, charting scenarios, figuring options, but still I held back. Browsing the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School website, I found a unique course offering: Deepening the Heart of Wisdom: Buddhist Christian Contemplative Practice and Dialogue. I knew I had to take it! Class was going to start in a week and as yet I hadn’t even applied to the school’s graduate program. In a flurry I requested transcripts, garnered recommendations, and considered childcare options. My desire to engage this particular dialogue grew through my Christian practice of Centering Prayer1 and my Episcopal parish’s contemplative interfaith Vital Conversations program.
These vital conversations began with an intentional time of silence in which we prepared the “eye of the heart” to perceive the conversation at a deeper level. Our rector invited a guest from a different faith tradition each month.2 He engaged the guest in questions and dialogue regarding his or her spiritual practices and personal story. Then, the guest received questions from the group. After hearing a Buddhist guest and visiting the local Zen center, I knew my own spiritual formation would be broadened and deepened by taking the two-week, intensive format course. Because actual spiritual practice from both traditions comprised a significant portion of the class, I surmised this course would foster a more complete, integrated form of understanding the two traditions.
This essay will explore the contemplative pedagogy of this course, wherein the instructors hoped “students [would] walk away with a visceral understanding of these traditions as full-body disciplines for transforming the mind and heart.”3 First, I will give a brief description of the class participants and discuss the types of spiritual practices we encountered from each tradition. Then, I will share my experiences related to those practices and how the structure of the course supported an integrated epistemology. Finally, I will consider the phenomenon of Christian interest in Buddhist practices and what that implies about popular Christianity and its potential to become a fuller version of itself. [End Page 101]
The student population of this class was largely Christian, with some Unitarian Universalists, a pagan, and an agnostic as well. That said, the spectrum of Christians reflected mainline denominations as well as some persons with roots in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As might be expected from a varied group, the Christologies of participants varied from creedal to acreedal. This group came together to participate in a variety of Christian and Zen Buddhist spiritual practices.
The class engaged the following practices according to Sōtō Zen: zazen, contemplative walking as a group, and, near the end of the course, Rev. Dr. Hickey led us in a portion of the Sōtō-shū morning service. Every class began with at least fifteen minutes of zazen, which gradually increased as the class progressed. Daily practice of the same meditation technique allowed us to enter that particular practice in a sustained way.
In contrast to our Zen practice, we experienced a different type of Christian spiritual practice with each class session. This approach acquainted students with a variety of traditions but did not allow experiential depth in any one particular mode. The students and instructors took part in Taizé chanting,4 chanting of the Psalms from the Daily Office, lectio divina,5 praying with icons,6 the Jesus Prayer,7 the Rosary,8 and two guided reflections: an Ignatian9 meditation on a gospel text, and a meditation developed by Christian contemplative Anthony De Mello. I wondered how our experience of the class would have changed had the Christian practice focused on one or two types, in a sustained, daily manner. Perhaps the rationale for surveying a wide variety of practices reflected the need for Western Christians to gain familiarity with their own contemplative traditions.
I consider Christianity’s analog to zazen to be Centering Prayer, because it is also based in no-thought. However, Centering Prayer was not included in our experience of spiritual practices. If we conceive of two...