Buddhist Perspective #1

Zen Spirituality and Mysticism of Engagement: Emerging out of Silence

Ruben L.F. Habito

In this essay I would like to address the following questions:

1. What is Zen?

2. What are some key features of Zen spirituality?

3. Is Zen “mysticism”?

4. In what way can Zen practice contribute to interfaith understanding and interactive cooperation with adherents of different religions?

5. What can Zen practice offer on the question of tasks of religious leadership in our contemporary multifaith society?

1. What is Zen?

Zen is a form of spiritual practice deriving from the Buddhist religious tradition. Its main expression is in seated meditation, or zazen, whereby one sits with a posture conducive to stillness, pays attention to the breath, and lets the mind come to a point of stillness.

In this formal mode of zazen, every sensation, every thought, every inner as well as outer movement is simply observed and noted, without preference, without judgment, and referred back to the breath as the focal point of one’s awareness. In so doing, a practitioner deepens in samādhi, a state of mind characterized as one-pointed, quiescent, and transparent. In technical terms, it is a mode of awareness wherein the gap closes in between the experiencing subject and what is experienced (as “object”), and one is thereby enabled to “see” everything from this nondual perspective. From a neuro-scientific point of view it can be described as a state wherein the functioning of the inquisitive, analytic, and discursive (left) side of the human brain is brought to a full stop, and the intuitive, integrative (right) side is allowed to open and blossom forth to the full.[1]

Aside from formal seated meditation, zen practice also involves other forms of posture, including the different postures in activity (running, walking, driving a vehicle, doing various chores, doing one’s regular work at the house or at the office, etc.), standing, or resting in horizontal position. In these other modes, what is important is that the practitioner maintain a state of mind of paying attention to all that goes on, from that same vantage point of inner stillness and openness. This mode is also often called a state of mindfulness, to be distinguished from a totally opposite frame of mind of “self-consciousness.”[2]

The heart of Zen practice can be summarized in two words: paying attention. In paying attention, a practitioner is thus enabled to awaken to the dynamic reality of the present moment in all that this entails.

2. Zen as Spirituality

On the term “spirituality,” I take the working definition given by Ewert Cousins in common preface of the multivolume series entitled World Spirituality (Crossroads) as a starting point: the “spiritual core is the deepest center of the person. It is here that the person experiences ultimate reality.” I would like to make an addendum to this working definition: it is at this spiritual core that the human person not only experiences ultimate reality (the “vertical” dimension), but also experiences the interconnection with all beings in this universe (the “horizontal” dimension) in a most intimate way. This understanding of spirituality sidesteps the dualistic oppositions of “spiritual” versus “corporeal or physical,” “inner life” versus “outer life,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “higher realm” versus “lower,” and instead provides an integrative and holistic view of a way of life that is in touch with our deepest center, the core of who we are as human beings, wherein the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of our existence intersect.

As one continues Zen practice in a sustained way in one’s daily life, three fruits come to bear in such a person’s life. The first fruit is hinted at in the description of Zen given above, that is, the deepening of samādhi in one’s day to day life. This is also described as a way of deepening one’s power of con-centration (jōriki). This term con-centration (which I deliberately spell with a hyphen) is not to be taken in the same terms as in ordinary usage, but which more properly entails a “centering” of one’s entire being upon what is going on in each present moment, the here and now. This first fruit of zen practice is about living a more centered way of life, as opposed to one that is dispersed and torn in different directions.

A second fruit is about an experience or experiences of a glimpse into a realm beyond the normal boundaries of time and space, yet a realm that is most intimate within one’s own self, in this very moment, in this very body at this very particular locus and juncture in time. This is called the experience of “seeing into one’s own true nature,” or kenshō in Japanese. The entire Zen heritage looks back to the enlightenment experience of Siddhartha Gautama, who thereby came to be called Šākyamuni Buddha, as the reference point, the archetype and model of these kinds of experiences. There are many published accounts by individuals who describe such experiences, each different from all the others.[3] Zen teachers authorized by their own teachers within an acknowledged lineage are trained in using rigorous criteria for determining the authenticity or non-authenticity of claims to such an experience, usually in repeated one-on-one encounters between the teacher and the individual practitioner. There are a good number of individuals who, whether having gone formal zen training or not, may have been confirmed as having had such an experience, but what is deemed important is not so much the experiences in themselves, transitory and fleeting moments which could last from a fraction of a second to several hours or longer, but how they play out in an individual’s day to day life from that point on.

This is where the third fruit of zen practice comes in as a crucial element in making up what we can describe as Zen spirituality. This is the long, as a matter of fact, life-long, and painstaking process that is no other than the embodiment of enlightenment in daily life, that is, in formal terms, “the realization of the Peerless Way in this very body.” (Mujōdō no taigen). Here we go back to our initial note about Zen as a way of life whose main feature is that of paying attention, and awakening to the dynamic reality of each present moment. Just that, day in, day out. And yet, each moment, beheld in wonder and awe and gratitude. And most important of all, with compassion.

Yes, compassion, as one who lives in this way sees that to be alive, to be able to breathe, to be aware, just to be, in its simplest and barest terms, is to be interconnected with all that partakes in this “to be,” in other words, all that there is, and especially with all that breathes (“sentient beings”), and to realize this interconnected way of being in the most intimate kind of way.

The Zen life is characterized by paying attention from moment to moment, and thus being able to live as one who hears the sounds of the world, such that the pains and sufferings, as well as the joys and hopes of fellow sentient beings become one’s very own. Incidentally, “One who hears the sounds of the world” in Japanese is Kanzeon, or Kannon for short (Guanshiyin, or Guanyin in Chinese), the icon enshrined in many Zen temples or centers of practice.

In sum, Zen is a path of spirituality that entails living at the core of one’s being, where one comes in touch with ultimate reality and also experiences interconnectedness with all beings. It is a path wherein these two dimensions (the horizontal and the vertical) inform and shed light on one’s day to day life.

3. Is Zen “Mysticism”?

A Zen practitioner is readily tempted to offer a flippant answer in a way similar to the question “what’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?” (Answer: I don’t know, and I don’t care.) Zen tradition proclaims, among its four cardinal principles, a “non-reliance on words or letters.”[4] Is Zen Mysticism or not? Is Zen a religion or not? Is Zen what or what not? These are kinds of questions that a Zen practitioner would be tempted to simply ignore or consider lightly and feel not worth giving an answer.

We live in a global community where people have widely divergent views about the nature of human beings and about the nature of the world and ultimate reality, differing views that can often lead to misunderstanding and alienation and conflict and animosity and even violent warfare. Given this fact, the question about Zen and mysticism deserves at least to be considered and addressed with seriousness by Zen practitioners, lest they become smug and complacent about their own practice.

The question, “Is Zen Mysticism?” can cut two ways. The term “mysticism” is after all one that is used in derogatory and dismissive ways, synonymous with muddle-headedness, or inability to give a rational and understandable account of things. In this context, to say that Zen is Mysticism is to dismiss it as a form of irrational discourse. Reading certain accounts of Zen in popular writings certainly may give one that impression.

In contrast to this derogatory usage, I take as a reference Dorothee Soelle’s observation, noted in her work The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, that “the mystical” entails “a feeling of being one with all that lives, an immersion or diving into a hitherto unknown whole, a cessation of the ego and a simultaneous discovery of the real self, amazement, and an intensive, unfathomable joy.”[5]

A Zen practitioner is indeed susceptible to such a “feeling of being one with all that lives,” in the experience of interconnectedness with all sentient beings. She can identify with “immersion or diving into a hitherto unknown whole,” as she enters into a realm of stillness that is beyond time and space, and is also beyond words. He can nod in agreement that Zen practice can open one to an experience of cessation of the ego, that is, the disappearance of the “conscious subject” that thinks of itself as existing independently of those “objects” out there, and the emergence of a realm that is beyond this “subject-object dichotomy,” whereby things are seen “just as they are.” This is an experience of discovery of what can be termed “the real self,” an experience of amazement and wonder and gratitude that opens out to an intensive and unfathomable joy.

Two points need to be highlighted in the above description from a Zen perspective. First, the “feeling of being one with all living things” is not a “mere feeling” or emotional state, but arises from “seeing things as they are.” To see a piece of bread, for example, is to see the wheat out of which it is made, as well as the wheat fields, the Earth out of which the wheat emerged, the sun, the rain, the organisms and everything else connected to the Earth, in short each and every thing that exists. To “see” this piece of bread is to see all that is. To eat the piece of bread is another level of experience of that “oneness” with all things, living or not.

Second, the “immersion or diving into a hitherto unknown whole” is a plunge into the heart of a Mystery that is beyond all that I can ever conceive of with this discursive and rational mind of mine. This may be readily dismissed by those who take this rational mind of ours as the ultimate arbiter of everything, but this is where the Great Divide begins, one which can only be bridged by the free will of an individual to acknowledge and accept and trust that “hitherto unknown whole,” making a plunge and immersing oneself into the heart of it. But it is not at all a blind plunge into the irrational or the occult, but rather an entry into a realm that can shed new light on our human capacity for discursive thought, rationality, and scientific inquiry, a realm from which these human gifts can be appreciated and brought to full force.[6]

4. Zen and Interfaith Encounters: Toward Healing a Wounded Earth

Does Zen practice lend to a favorable attitude toward interfaith understanding and cooperation with people across religious traditions?

Historically Zen belongs to the Buddhist family of religious traditions, and as such gives premium to conceptual frameworks, ethical injunctions and ritualistic practices deriving from Buddhism. However, as noted earlier, Zen proclaims non-reliance on words or letters, and is thus at its core not about a doctrine to be adhered to or believed, but is rather a form of spiritual practice and a way of life centered on paying attention, and awakening to the dynamic reality of the present moment.

In this regard, an invitation and challenge given by my own Zen teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, comes to mind. “I invite the Christians among you,” he addressed his students, “to go all the way in this Zen path, and live in its light. And having tasted and lived what Zen practice has to offer in your own lives, go to your Christian communities, and communicate your experience in terms that members of your community can appreciate and understand, taking your own Christian Bible as a guide.” In short, the Buddhist Yamada emphasized that Zen is not to be identified with a set of doctrinal propositions that may or may not be compatible with doctrinal beliefs of Christians or Jews of Muslims or atheists for that matter. It is rather an invitation to a form of practice cultivating stillness and paying attention, to “taste and see” a realm that individuals with differing mindsets and doctrinal beliefs may be able to share. And having found the “ground we share,” we can then engage one another in conversation from our respective conceptual and doctrinal frameworks, and work out ways of appreciating our differences in a spirit of mutual acceptance and friendship, not only to highlight our similarities and or differences, but toward cooperative ventures in healing our wounded Earth.[7]

5. Religious Leadership in the Twenty-first Century

Our twenty-first century global society is laden with serious challenges, including the kind upon which our very survival as a species hangs. One key feature of our global society is our increasing acknowledgement and appreciation of the religious diversity within our human community. A major challenge that faces us is thus whether this diversity can be taken in a direction of mutual understanding, appreciation and cooperation, or whether it will serve to continue to divide us into segments or warring factions based on differing convictions about the nature of ultimate reality and the role of human beings in this light.

Religious leadership in the various faith communities with widely divergent views about the nature of things is more than ever a crucial factor in making this difference. There is much to ponder and many facets to address related to the momentous tasks of leadership, but I will conclude this short essay with a few open-ended remarks.

First, our religious differences become highlighted as we look at the widely divergent ways in which we articulate our beliefs about ultimate reality, the ways we undertake our religious rituals, and the ways we relate to and conduct ourselves vis-à-vis Religious Others based on those beliefs. As members of the different religious traditions cultivate their respective spiritualities that entail their listening to “the deepest core of our being” in silence, they may be able to find a ground we share across our religious differences.

It is when we enter into a reverent and prayerful silence that we can see through our differences, respect them, accept them, and accept one another as standing on shared ground coming out of the experience of silence. Religious leadership that can encourage their respective communities to value and cherish silence from within the parameters of their own doctrinal and devotional formulations will be more likely to lead their communities of followers in a direction of openness and mutual cooperation with those from other religious traditions in tasks of healing our gravely wounded Earth community.

Second, having entered into the silence and having tasted and basked in what it has to offer, an “experience of oneness with all that lives,” we are thereby empowered to live and carry out the implications of that realization, in bearing the pains and sufferings of our fellow sentient beings, and giving ourselves to the tasks of alleviating and healing those pains, in the multitudes of ways we are called to do so. A spirituality that cherishes silence enables one to hear the sounds of the world, the cries and groans of those in pain, empowers one to emerge out of that silence into a mysticism of engagement toward alleviating those pains and working toward the well-being of all.

These are the directions toward which religious leaders can guide their respective communities, for the religions to be able to offer a vision of human flourishing in our broken world, for our very world to survive.

As a form of spiritual practice centered on paying attention in silence, listening to the sounds of the world in that silence, and emerging out of that silence in a life of compassion toward healing the world, Zen practice may have a small contribution to offer that can cut across our religious differences.


[1] See Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Viking, 2008), and also her video lecture on the topic, available at www.ted.com

[2] See Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, for a lucid description of this state of awareness.

[3] See for example, Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965, especially the section giving accounts of various individuals and their so-called kenshō experiences.

[4] The four principles that characterize Zen, based on a longstanding tradition said to derive from Bodhidharma, the legendary sixth century Indian monk who brought Zen (Chan) to China, but which scholars deem to date to the eleventh century Song period, are as follows: a) No reliance on words or letters b) a special transmission outside of Scriptures, c) Direct transmission from mind to mind, and d) Seeing one’s true nature and becoming Buddha.

[5] Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 20.

[6] A very illuminating account of this point can be found in the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, scientist, humanist, and mystic in the true sense, as presented by Ursula King, in Toward a New Mysticism:Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religioons, Seabury Press, 1980.

[7] An example of this can be found in the conversations of Robert Aitken, Zen Master, and Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine Monk, in The Ground We Share: Everyday Pracrice, Buddhist and Christian. Boston: Shambala, 1996. See also Ruben L.F. Habito, Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World. Boston: Wisdom, 2006.