On the Tatami of Zen-Christian Monastic Fraternity

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This is not a travel journal or a chronicle what I lived in Japan together with four other Christian monks and nuns from 17 September to 4 October 2011. It is only a chain of spiritual insights collected during our spiritual exchange with Zen monks, trainees and masters during our monastic stay in three Zen Buddhist monasteries.

Ichigo, ichie, “Every moment, an occasion”. This is the first spiritual insight that touched my mind and my heart even before setting foot on Japanese soil. I met it for the first time written in the tourist guide that I read during the plane trip to Japan. This insight stayed with me through of our experience in Zen monasteries: I found it hanging on the walls of the places visited, I found it several times behind the words and the faces of people we talked to.

Everything is here, in the smallest portion of every thing, every experience, every time. And every moment is always new. Even our Christian faith and our Christian monastic tradition speak much about this and place great emphasis on attention, vigilance, care for every detail. The Bible and monastic literature speak of this in abundance. Let me cite just a few quotes: 

 Now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).

Abba Poimen said about abba Pior
that he was starting [to be a monk] every day.
(Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetical series, Poimen 85)

Abba Moses asked abba Silouan saying: “Can a man start every day?”.
The elder answered him: “If he is industrious, he can even start every hour.”
(Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetical series, Silouan 11)

An abba once said:
“A senior monk was asked, ‘Abba, what are you doing here in the desert?’.
The abba replied: ‘We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise,
we fall again and still we rise!’”
(Anonymous saying of the Desert Fathers)

This rediscovery of the importance of keeping a “beginner’s mind” is the most important gift I carry with me on my return home. The words of some rōshi have expressed these same insights.

I have been touched by the words of one of them, because for the first time I heard about happiness from a Buddhist master: “My way of being happy, of enjoying life, is to take care of this moment, of every moment” (Oba rōshi). Buddhist monks and Christian monks are both in search of happiness and both seek happiness in the fight against the ego and in the quest for unity: the word “monk” literally means “one”, “unified”, “one who has only one goal”. The abbot of the monastery of Manju-ji, saying that he saw the happiness on our faces, summed up the monastic life in the pursuit of happiness: sanmon shifuku, “the gate of the monastery leads to the greatest happiness”. We can say the same after seeing many serene faces during those days. To recognize that we can stimulate each other in our journey to happiness by seeking inner unification was a great gift to us all.

Brother Irénée (forefront) and Brother Matteo at zazen.

Brother Irénée (forefront) and Brother Matteo at zazen.

Two things have made me live this intuition in a very concrete and at the same time very deep manner. I will tell briefly how these two things have enriched my Christian monastic life.

First, zazen. One of our group of five Christian monastics once put a witty question to a rōshi: “Buddha taught freedom of suffering, so why should I suffer such a terrible pain when practicing zazen?”. The answer was enlightening for my understanding: “If your legs hurt, zazen becomes practice. When you sit and get pain you really see who you are”.

Through the hard everyday practice of zazen I learned the importance of having our body and breathing aligned with our mind. In this way I can now better understand the Biblical passage that says that our “body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), the place where God dwells. I understood that zazen helps me to keep in the right direction. It helps me to be attentive to what I am doing, to be firm in my spiritual focus. Certainly it helps me welcome what I receive from God, be open and ready for receiving his Word again and again. The Rule of St Benedict begins with the words “Listen, open the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue). I understood how zazen can be a very useful tool for opening the “ear of my heart” and of my mind. For this reason I am convinced that it is able to deepen my Christian prayer.

Second, rules or discipline. While living in a Zen dōjō for a few days I realized that the schedule is arranged strictly and I therefore came to know that “whatsoever kind of monastic life you are living, no minute should be wasted”, as I heard from a rōshi. That is the best, the most practical way to stop living according to the ego and to develop a new attitude according to the common rules. “The more rules you have in the monastery, the deeper and more interesting can monastic life become!”, the same rōshi told us in a provoking tone. Because I know that the same rōshi has spent many years in putting the rules into practice and because I saw his peaceful face as a result of this hard and long practice I will consider it as a precious advice for my Christian monastic practice.

I similarly view the practice of sanzen, in which the rōshi checks the state of mind and the spiritual progress of the practitioners. We have a similar practice in Christian monasticism, which is called “opening of the heart” to a spiritual father. While seeing the Zen monks assiduously leaving their cushions for sanzen, the importance of the spiritual discernment through a personal sharing with a master who is able to transmit the true teaching through words and, even more, without them, was confirmed for me.

I would like to conclude by quoting a last few words that we heard from a rōshi: “The teaching of each particular religion has its own understanding of things. Each religion is complete in itself, but each religion has to face and examine the same state of mind. If we do not continue deepening our own religious experience – particularly a true and powerful practice of zazen and a true and powerful practice of prayer –, the dialogue has no future” (Harada rōshi). I was personally convinced of that already before this exchange, but this exchange led me to be more deeply aware of it. For me this is also the true purpose of interreligious dialogue: through dialogue we can deepen our spiritual life and our monastic practice.

Through this exchange I became more aware of what a rōshi called “parallelism” as another form of interreligious dialogue (besides inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism), a form that a spiritual exchange such as the one we lived explores and performs: we maintain our own religious experience, but we try to learn as much as we can from another religious tradition. I realized this not on the basis of theoretical investigation, but in a very practical way, the only way in which a true encounter takes place: sitting for a while – a few but intense and unforgettable days – on the same human ground, being welcomed for a time in the spiritual house of the other, sharing the same tatami of monastic fraternity.

As a farewell gift from the abbot of the Rinzai Zen monastery of Manjuji I received a piece of calligraphy by the abbot himself. The word written on it is kizuna, which means “a tie, a connection”. This spiritual fraternal link is indeed what I experienced in those days of shared life with our Zen fellow practitioners, they and we both in search of the way of liberation from the enslaving ties of a self-centred life and longing for a deeper, mutual “liberating tie” whose name is fraternity.

Matteo Nicolini-Zani

Source: www.dimmid.org


The Author

Matteo Nicolini-Zani is a monk of the Community of Bose and coordinator of the Italian Commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. In 1999 he graduated from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice with a degree Chinese language and literature; his thesis was on the phenomenon of “cultural Christians” in contemporary China. During the years 1996-2000 he studied for a few months in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. His main field of research is the history of Christianity in China. In recent years he has also studied the history and literature of the East Syrian Christian missions in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe during the second half of the first millennium.