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  • The Enlightenment of Zen Buddhism and the Hesychastic Vision of the Divine Light
  • George C. Papademetriou (bio)

Zen Buddhism, divine light, hesychasm, Athos, Eastern Orthodoxy, Gregory Palamas, yoga, enlightenment, mystical theology, transcendental meditation

My intention here is to present the religious phenomena of Zen and Hesychasm, analyzing similarities within the mechanism of prayer and movements within the respective faiths. There is a common way that the transcendent light is exposed in Zen Buddhism and Hesychasm, but at the same time there is conflict between traditional Eastern Christian ideas on the communion with God and the Western approaches to God that are manifest in the Eastern and Western understanding of God.

The divine light in the Christian tradition and enlightenment in the Oriental religions are two different experiences. The common characteristics of the breathing exercises in Hesychasm and Zen make the study of these common religious phenomena interesting. Byzantine monks in the East were free persons and at the same time obedient to traditional authority. The bishops were elected from the monastic community. The Byzantine society respected monks who were completely devoted to God and who engaged in unceasing prayer, fasting, and restraint. This unceasing prayer was very important for the monks, who adopted a variety of techniques and theories developed in relation to it. Traditionally, there are two schools of thought on the matter within Christianity: (1) The school of Evagrios of Pontos (Asia Minor), which is based on Platonism, with an epistemological approach to purify the “mind” and unite with the divine spirit; and (2) the school of Makarios, leading toward Neoplatonism, with an approach of purifying the heart.

The monks of the fourteenth century leaned toward the Makarian school of thought. They emphasized that the human being is body, heart, and spirit that participate in the blessed vision of the uncreated light and especially in prayer. In this way the whole human being is transformed and deified, a process known as “theosis.” The purpose of the monks in prayer is literally to attain communion with God.

The “light” is a universal symbol of God and God’s Reign, in contrast to darkness and its misery. The symbol of God as “light” was commonly used in Greek philosophy and religious tradition in the mystery religions (“enlightenment”: as vision of god or goddess); this was also true in Gnosticism, in the heretical sects of Judaism and Christianity. In the Christian creed Jesus Christ is the Son of God, viewed as “Light of Light,” and the entire Christian theology, ethics, and liturgics are imbued by this symbolism of “light.” It is true that some Eastern writers speak of God in apophatic terms and symbolism. This is true only in a few neoplatonic theologians who speak of God in an absolute apophatic way. For them, God is beyond, as described in the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and others. However, according to the claim of the apophatic way, “God is light” more than darkness.

Especially within the Christian life and theory, it is in the “Uncreated light” that the symbols of the “light” are manifest in the created world. This is also evident from the Hebrew Bible. This transcendent light is manifested in Jesus Christ, [End Page 57] through his whole life and teaching, and especially in the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and his Resurrection. In this light, all the faithful participants in their daily life will participate in the eschaton, in the End of Days. The hesychasts of the Holy Mountain make every effort to attain exactly this type of life. This type of theological language concerning God and communion with God always had a real and symbolic taste of the transcendent now, as well as the hope for a more complete taste and fulfillment of God in the future. The hesychasts introduced an intensive realism and a time of completeness in relation with the divine light and filled with God; this fulfillment was realized in their own practice of prayer and in their expectation that during prayer they participate in true uncreated light and are therefore transfigured by the light of the holy transfiguration.

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pp. 57-65
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