Health Benefits of Yoga Convincing Skeptics in Many Churches

November 20, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian yoga


Like many Christians who practice yoga, I am hardly a purist. You could even call me a “cafeteria yogi.” I pick and choose among the various yoga practices that fit my overall lifestyle, level of fitness and religious beliefs. Fortunately, at every single yoga school where I have studied, without exception, the other students are exactly the same.

They are typical Canadian and American suburban professional types: harried moms, latte-swilling office workers, students, retired folk. The music is funky New Age chanting music, which, quite frankly, I find very relaxing and enjoy immensely. The teachers invariably say “Namaste” after class — which, despite all the hullabaloo among fundamentalists about its alleged polytheistic meanings, is just the ordinary Hindi way of saying “hello” (as my Indian relatives inform me). But beyond that, my yoga classes are about as pagan as an aerobics class down at the YMCA.

More and more people are awakening to this fact. Yoga is not the be all and end all of health. My doctor informs me that, while yoga is great for flexibility and stress-reduction, I still must hit the treadmill or swim for aerobics. If the yoga workout is particularly intense, it may qualify for the strength training that doctors now add to the list. (When are we supposed to do all this stuff, by the way?)

I find that two formal yoga classes a week are just about right for me — combined with brief but intense sessions when I wake up and right before I go to sleep. Yoga gives me something that no other activity does. It provides a systematic stretching and what I can only describe as “liberation” of muscle groups ignored by all my other sports (Aikido, tennis, swimming) and activities (walking on the beach with my wife).

It also quiets me down, physically and mentally, and harmonizes very well with a lifelong meditation practice. For Christians who find little time for prayer and contemplation in the hectic modern world, regular yoga practices literally forces them to quiet down. It relaxes you unlike anything else — and then quiets your mind.

Yoga (or Buddhist) meditation is not the same thing as Christian or Jewish prayer, but they can be a necessary preparation for prayer — even a prerequisite. Without the quiet, stillness and relaxation that yoga provides, many people find it almost impossible to pray. But Christian yogis, blessed with such islands of silence and stillness, inevitably find themselves spontaneously giving thanks and lifting their minds and hearts to God.

So, the bottom line is this: If you’ve been thinking about trying out yoga but are concerned about the alleged “spiritual dangers,” forget about it. The people who prattle on about that have rarely stepped inside a yoga studio in their lives. What you’ll find is probably people exactly like yourself — stiff, overworked, semi-arthritic, stressed-out modern men and women — who are trying to ease the kinks out of their tired bodies and souls. And that is a good thing. Namaste!

Christian Yoga and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

According to rabbinic tradition, the first commandment God gives Adam and Eve in the Garden is to have sex: Pru vehravu, “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s little wonder then that Christian theology has pondered for centuries the place that human sexuality and bodily existence have in God’s plan for the universe. On the one hand, anyone familiar with the Jewish testament knows that sexual attraction (and sexual sin) permeate virtually every book. What’s more, two centuries of crusading secularism has exaggerated Christian pruddery in the early centuries of Christianity and in the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the monastic movement that led to so many cultural and educational achievements in the West did tend to emphasize the negative aspects of human sexuality and bodily existence — if only because vowed celibate monks and nuns inevitably saw sexual feelings as temptations to be avoided at all costs.

Into this tangled history stepped the late pope John Paul II. Raised by his widowed father in Poland during the nightmare of World War II, Karol Wotylwa was a working man, athlete and actor before he became a Catholic priest and a philosopher. His experience with young married couples during his early years as a pastor — combined with his in-depth study of early 20th century phenomenologists — allowed the young priest to see the sexual embrace and life in the body in an entirely new way: as quite literally a way to God.

When he was elected pope, John Paul delivered a remarkable series of 129 lectures during his Wednesday audiences on what has become known as the Theology of the Body (TOTB) — a very traditional, very radical teaching on human embodiment and sexual attraction that papal biographer George Weigel has described as “a kind of theological time bomb” that will have dramatic consequences …perhaps in the twenty-first century” (Witness to Hope, 343).

John Paul’s argument, in essence, is that both secular libertines and Christian pruddery have missed the point. Human beings are radically, essentially physical. Human beings are not “ghosts in a machine,” as Descartes described it.

In a dramatic way, the entire Christian understanding of the incarnation means that Christians are and must be “pro-sex” and must celebrate the body generally. I would even say that Christians take the body at least as seriously as the devotees of most religions, including even Hinduism. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection reflects the Christian belief that we are our bodies — that if we are to survive death then it must be a physical survival. A disembodied spirit would not be a human being.

In the Baghavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna the exact opposite of the Christian view of our essentially bodily natures:

As a man discards his threadbare robes and puts on new, so the Spirit throws off its worn-out bodies and puts on new ones… The Spirit in man is imperishable.

While Christianity agrees with the Gita (and with yoga!) that there is an imperishable, immortal essence of the human being, which, for lack of a better word, the west has traditionally called the “soul,” it does not agree that the physical body is merely incidental to that essence — something that can be “thrown off” for a new one.

Rather, in the Christian view, we are embodied spirits or spiritual bodies — and thus it is our bodies themselves that are (or will be) immortal. Thus, the Christian hope is even more absurdly optimistic than people give us credit for: We actually believe that we will live forever… in glorified “resurrection” bodies, not as disembodied spirits. I’ve never been the least scandalized by those radical yogis who claim that yoga can lead to physical immortality of a sort or at least extreme longevity: it seems perfectly plausible to me given the Christian revelation.

That is why St. Paul tells the (male) Corinthians that they should take good care of their bodies and not defile themselves with prostitutes — and why Christian practitioners of yoga celebrate the body and do what we can to maintain good health. That is also why Pope John Paul II, in his teachings on the Theology of the Body, emphasized how incarnate human beings come to God in and through their bodies — and that sex, far from being inherently sinful, is actually a way to God. In John Paul’s teaching, sex (for non-celibate “householders”) is a sacrament (a “sign”) of divine presence because it is the preeminent example of that spiritual intimacy that is the birthright of all human beings.

Lost Jesus Sutras Reveal Ancient Chinese Christianity

November 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Meditation, Spirituality

It’s an amazing story, one only now being told. More than 1,300 years ago, a Persian Christian monk named Aleben traveled 3,000 miles along the ancient caravan route known as the Silk Road all the way to China, carrying precious copies of the New Testament writings (probably in Syriac). Aleben and his fellow Christian monks stopped in the Chinese city of Chang-au (Xian), where, under the protection of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, he founded a CHristian monastery and began the arduous task of translating the Christian texts into Chinese. It was the year A.D. 635. When the Italian explorer Marco Polo arrived in China nearly 600 years later, he was astonished to discover that a tiny Christian community had existed there for centuries.

We know about this amazing Christian evangelist and his genial Chinese hosts because in 1623 graver diggers working outside of Xian dug up a stele weighing two tons and carved with 2,000 Chinese characters. Now known as the Monument Stele and residing in a museum in Xian, It was created in A.D. 781 and tells the tale Aleben and what the Chinese writers called “the Luminous Religion” because it taught of light. Here is what the Stele proclaimed:

The Emperor Taizong was a champion of culture. He created prosperity and encouraged illustrious sages to bestow their wisdom on the people. There was a saint of great virtue named Aleben, who came from the Qin Empire carrying the true scriptures. He had read the azure clouds and divined that he should journey to the East. Along the way, Aleben avoided danger and calamity by observing the rhythm of the wind.

In the ninth year of the Zhenguan reign [A.D. 635], Aleben reaching Chang-an [Zian]. The Emperor sent his minister, Duke Xuanling, together with a contingent of the palace guard, to the western outskirts to accompany Aleben to the palace.

The translation work on his scriptures took place in the Imperial Library and the Emperor studied them in his Private Chambers. After the Emperor became familiar with the True Teachings, he issued a decree and ordered that it be propagated…

… the Emperor issued a proclamation, saying:

“We have studied these scriptures and found them otherworldly, profound and full of mystery.

We found their words lucid and direct.

We have contemplated the birth and growth of the tradition from which these teachings sprang.

These teachings will save all creatures and benefit mankind, and it is on ly proper that they be practiced throughout the world.”

Following the Emperor’s orders, the Greater Qin Monastery was built in the I-ning section of the Capital. Twenty-one ordained monks of the Luminous Religion were allowed to live there…

The Emperor Gaozong [A.D. 650-683] reverently continued the tradition of his ancestor and enhanced the Luminous Religion by building temples in every province. He bestowed honors upon Aleben, declarin ghim the Great Dharma Lord of the Empire. The Luminous Religion spread throughout all ten provinces, the Empire prospered and peace prevailed. Temples were built in 100 cities and countless families received the blessings of the Luminous Religion.

Christianity flourished in China for at least two hundred years. But then, around A.D. 850, Chinese leaders began a purge of foreign religions, including Buddhism. Buddhist temples were destroyed and, according to one source, more than 3,000 monks of the “Luminious Religion” were ordered to return to lay life.

For more than 1,300 years, scholars and missionaries have searched for the lost scriptures that Aleben translated into Chinese — and for his monastery. A breakthrough finally occurred in the late 1880s when a lonely Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered 50,000 lost Chinese manuscripts hidden away in more than 500 caves in Dunhuang. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until about a decade ago, in 1998, that the full story was told. The Dunhuang manuscripts are sort of the Dead Sea Scrolls of ancient China, a cache of long-buried treasures that reveal a tremendous amount about life in ancient China — including the strange story of how the “Luminous Religion” took root there and blended with Taoist and Confucian elements to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity. The discovery of these ancient Chinese texts by western scholars — and their dissemination to museums in France and Britain — along with the many decades it took to get them translated and published — very much resembles the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Of the 50,000 manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, only eight comprise what are now known as the Jesus Sutras. Nevertheless, they clearly show Christian influence. They paraphrase passages from the New Testament and thus provide direct evidence that the ancient Chinese writers of these texts clearly knew the Gospel accounts:

“Do not pile up treasures on the ground where they will rot or be stolen. Treasures must be stored in Heaven where they will not decay or rot.”

“Always tell the truth. Do not give pearls to swine; they will trample and destroy them. You will only be blamed by them for your actions and incur their anger. Why don’t you realize this yourself.”

“Knock on the door and it will be opened for you. Whatever you seek, you will obtain from the One Spirit. Know on the door and it will be opened for you.”

“Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you. You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

The Jesus Sutra texts clearly are attempting to translate Christian ideas and ideals into an idiom that the Chinese people — steeped in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts — can understand. Thus, the Jesus Sutras speak of the “Higher Dharma” that leads to Peace and Joy. “It is the Sutras of the Luminous Religion that enable us to cross the sea of birth and death to the other shore, a land fragrant with the treasured aroma of Peace and Joy,” the Sutras proclaim. “The Sutras are like a great fire burning upon a high mountain. The light from that fire shines upon all.”

Here is how the Jesus Sutras relate the story of Jesus:

The Lord of Heaven sent the Cool Wind to a girl named Mo Yen. It entered her womb and at the moment she conceived. The Lord of Heaven did this to show that conception could take place without a husband. He knew there was no man near her and that people who saw it would say, “How great is the power of the Lord of Heaven.”…

… Mo Yen became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Jesus, whose father is the Cool Wind.

… When Jesus Messiah was born, the world saw clear signs in heaven and earth. A new star that could be seen everywhere appeared in heaven above. The star was as big as a cart wheel and shown brightly. At about that time, the One was born in the country of Ephrath in the city of Jerusalem. He was born the Messiah and after five years he began to preach the dharma.

… From the time the Messiah was 12 until he was 32 years old, he sought out people with bad karma and directed them to turn around and create good karma by following a wholesome path. After the Messiah had gathered 12 disciples, he concerned himself with the suffering of others. Those who had died were made to live. The blind were made to see. The deformed were healed and the sick were cured.

… For the sake of all living beings and to show us that a human life is as frail as a candle flame, the Messiah gave his body to these people of unwholesome karma. For the sake of the living in this world, he gave up his life.

… After the Messiah had accepted death, his enemies seized the Messiah and took him to a secluded spot, washed his hair and climbed to “the place of skulls,” which was called golgotha. They bound him to a pole and placed two highway robbers to the right and left of him. They bound the Messiah to the pole at the time of the fifth watch of the sixth day of fasting. They bound him at dawn and when the sun set in the west the sky became black in all four directions, the earth quaked and the hills trembled. tombs all over the world opened and the dead came to life. What person can see such a thing and not have faith in the teaching of the scriptures? To give one’s life like the Messiah is a mark of great faith.

Fascinating stuff, no? To see this early form of Christianity — delivered by means of a Nestorian monk in the 6th century — through the eyes of the poetic, Taoist-influenced Chinese translators and scribes is to go back in time. It is yet another reminder of the universality of the Gospel message, how it transcends all culture and language and philosophical concepts. Christian yogis, above all, who seek wisdom from the East as well as from our own traditions, should appreciate this.

As the Apostle Peter tells the righteous Roman centurian Cornelius, following his vision: “I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10: 34-5).” We Christians who seek wisdom from the East.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can discover more in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore (Berkeley: Seastone, 2003). A much more scholarly work, and without the frequently anti-Christian tone of Riegert and Moore, is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001).

10 Ways Meditation Can Change Your Life

November 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Health Benefits, Meditation

Many people see meditation as something that is ‘new age’ or ‘alternative.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Meditation, which has become more and more popular in recent years, is actually a lost art form, which has been practiced for thousands and thousands of years. So, how can the lost art of meditation improve your life?

1.Through meditation, you can build confidence. The best way to build confidence with meditation is through guided meditation, which means that you use a recording to lead you through the meditation process. While this is happening, the recorded messages are actually building up your self confidence. It’s absolutely amazing.

2.With meditation, you can seriously increase your energy and your strength.
Because stress has so many profound effects on us mentally and physically, when we use meditation to eliminate or better control stress, we almost instantly have more energy – because our minds aren’t weighed down with problems, and more strength, because stress can literally affect your immune system, which affects everything else.

3.Meditation has proven to reduce stress, and many find that they experience less instances of stress when they practice meditation on a regular basis. It’s a proven tension reliever.

4.Meditation helps to keep you in a positive frame of mind, by actually increasing the levels of serotonin produced by the brain.
This will alleviate headaches, tension, depression, and numerous other problems, and give you a great sense of well-being as well.

5.With regular meditation, your blood pressure will remain normal.
This is largely due to the stress relief that meditation provides, but there is also an impact on how blood moves through the body, and how the blood vessels react in such a positive way to meditation. So, in this sense, the result of normal blood pressure has both mental and physical origins.

6.Through regular meditation, you will find that you are better able to focus, that your memory is better, and that your mind simply ‘feels’ stronger and better able to handle the trials of everyday life.

7.Meditation helps you to reach a higher plane, where you are able to see things much clearer. No matter what problems you may have, when you meditate, solutions for those problems simply become clearer in your mind, and then you are able to take action to clear away the problems.

8.Studies have shown that meditation helps you to lose weight. Those who diet and exercise, in an effort to lose weight find that they get greater results faster, and with permanent results, when they throw regular meditation into the mix. Stress has always been a hindrance to losing weight, which is probably why meditation does indeed help.

9.Other studies have also shown that meditation lowers the risk of heart disease. The research done at the Georgia Prevention Institute found that the blood vessel lining was better able to relax in subjects who included meditation on a regular basis. This relaxation of the blood vessel lining can be achieved with medication as well, which is how heart disease patients are currently treated.

10.People who start out the day with fifteen to thirty minutes of meditation find that they statistically have a better, happier day.
They are able to handle anything that comes up with ease, with no stress – or at the very least minimal short term stress, and move easily from task to task, with complete focus.

The numerous mental and physical benefits of meditation should be enough to convince everyone that meditation is one of the elements of a healthy, happy, peaceful life. Unfortunately, there are many people who feel that they are too busy to learn meditation, much less to practice it. The good news is that meditation isn’t at all hard to learn – and if you really take a look at the benefits, the real question should be how can you afford not to make time for daily – or at least weekly – meditation?

Eckhart Tolle and The Power of Now for Christians

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” — Matthew 6: 34

I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle and his groundbreaking book, The Power of Now. Some people find it a little New Agey but I think it’s a modern spiritual classic well worth a close look.It helped me a lot during a crisis I faced in my own life. I wasn’t a bit surprised when the socialite Parris Hilton was photographed clutching a copy of The Power of Now (along with the Bible) when she was preparing to spend three weeks in jail for what amounted to a traffic ticket.

For Christian yogis, there are many similarities between The Power of Now and such spiritual classics as my personal favorite, Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence – and many important differences as well.

Unlike many “New Age” authors, Eckhart Tolle is very much a part of the “reality based community.”

Aside from his admittedly weird concept of the “pain body,” there are no grand theosophical speculations from him. The Power of Now rings out with the power of common sense. Also, Tolle is remarkably deferential to the western Christian spiritual traditions and few practicing Christians will find much to be offended about in The Power of Now.

What I like about the book is Tolle’s willingness to think through the entire enlightenment process from scratch – and, in a sense, provide a new overview of the human situation outside of traditional (either Eastern or Western) spiritual categories. In a sense, he invents his own synthesis and his own vocabulary. That is probably why people find it such a powerful book. (Tolle does make references to other spiritual traditions, such as Avaita Vedanta and A Course in Miracles, but mostly as a point of reference.)

Another thing I like about it is the radical way Tolle presents his ideas.This makes them very clear and they hit you with incredible force – even if, when you think about things a bit, you’ll probably end up wanting to qualify Tolle’s ideas.

Let me give you an example. For Tolle, time is an “illusion.”He says that over and over again, almost like a mantra.The past no longer exists. The future is not yet. The only thing that actually exists is the Now, the present moment .His entire book is centered around this idea. But of course, even if the past doesn’t exist in the present, that doesn’t make it an “illusion.” An “illusion” is something that appears to exist but doesn’t and never did. The past impacts the present and shapes it – as does the present.But Tolle knows all this. He isn’t speaking philosophically but pedagogically.

Another one of his extreme declarations is that the thinking is a form of mental illness. Like Gurdjieff, Tolle believes that the human mind is almost literally deranged. It spends most of its time dwelling on the past or imagining the future, to the detriment, in Tolle’s opinion, of life in the present. That’s why Tolle can say that, strictly speaking, there are no problems. Most of what people spend all their time worrying about are imagined possibilities for events that may, or may not, occur sometime in the future. In the actual here and now – life as it is lived at the present moment – there are no problems.

One tip: I listened to The Power of Now on CD and I highly recommend it in that way. (I also bought the book to follow along and look things up after listening to the CDs.)Tolle’s gentle, eerie voice – with a tinge of a German accent – is mesmerizing.

For those of you who want a taste of his approach, I am posting a VIDEO of his now-famous talks he gave at the New Age retreat center of Findhorn, in Scotland. It’s really worth listening to.

Yogic Mudras in Christian Iconography

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian iconography, Spirituality

For Greeks and many Christians, Lent is a time for restraint, reverence, and reflection. In the 40 days leading up to Easter, Greeks practice fasting as a means of physical cleansing that also aids in our mental preparation for the holiest day of the year, that of the resurrection of Christ. Many of our restraints are similar to the yamas (ethical restraints) of yoga, and during Lent—ahimsa (non-harming) and bramacharya (chastity), are especially important.

As a Greek Orthodox Christian, this is a time to be pure of heart, mind, and action. During Lent, I always find myself more attuned to my innermost thoughts—the regular fasting brings thoughts about my religion, my own beliefs, my actions, other religions, the afterlife, and related topics to the forefront. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about hand mudras, and while searching for images of mudras, discovered quite a bit about my own religion in the process. Since we are in the midst of Lent, I thought it a perfect time to point out, especially for those Christians who feel conflicted about the yoga/Hinduism connection, that Hinduism, mudras, and yoga aren’t as far from Christianity as one might think. Read more

Yoga and the Cross

November 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Hatha Yoga

yoga for christians

This morning during my Vinyasa Flow yoga class, once again the chain to the cross I wear on my neck got caught on my chin as I went into downward dog, an inverted pose. As I progressed through the rest of vinyasa, I realized I was distracted and I lost focus on my practice. My mind was instead fixated on why I continue to wear an adornment that always gets in the way during yoga. I wondered if it had something to do with wearing a symbol of my chosen faith while engaged in a spiritual practice of another.

As a progressive Christian, I find no contradiction in practicing yoga and honoring its ancient spiritual traditions. Chanting in Sanskrit and giving myself fully to meditation does not deter me from my Christian faith. Indeed, what I appreciate about yoga is that it is a physical spiritual practice. To me, yoga is a form of worship, even if I am a Christian rather than Hindu or Buddhist. My friend Alex Souto, a yogi and founder of Yogactivism, as well as a United Methodist minister, describes yoga as “full body prayer.”

So, if I am not conflicted, why wouldn’t I simply remove my cross before yoga class, especially since it continues to hinder me? Certainly, I would never wear heavy, bulky earrings that would threaten to fall off or catch on my clothing. Nor would I wear rings that would compromise a posture or my safety. Could “forgetting” to remove my cross before yoga be an unconscious act of resistance? Was I really worried that in leaving my cross at home I would be leaving my faith as well?

I don’t feel taking off my cross would make me disloyal to Christ. In reality, removing my cross for yoga would be practical. Yet, I almost always wear my cross. During a “procedure” some years ago I had to take it off and I remember thinking, “If ever I needed reassurance close to my heart…” I sleep and swim wearing my cross and I even wear it with other necklaces. At one point, I would only wear gold earrings to match the gold chain and cross. (I’ve since become more relaxed, in a large part due to yoga.)

The cross I wear is a symbol of my faith and it does bring me comfort. Yet, cross or not, I am a Christian. Not wearing my cross during yoga would allow me to practice without distraction (as well as prevent me from someday snapping the chain). Still, more importantly, when I put my cross back on after class, I have an opportunity to reaffirm my faith.

Discover Christian Zen

November 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian Zen

Like a Christian who discovers that one of her grandparents was Jewish, I unexpectedly have found that I have a mixed religious identity. Only in my case my ancestry is not Jewish but Buddhist, and not by bodily but by spiritual DNA. If I had to say what my religion is, I might say Christian Zen. And that is not all—I have also found that I have some cousins out there.

I know the Christian side of my heritage well. I was raised a Roman Catholic Christian, and but for a half dozen years in my early adulthood have continued in the Christian tradition, studying the Bible, praying and engaging in other Christian practices. During that early hiatus, I explored other religions and took up the practice of meditation. Discovery of the contemplative tradition of Christianity (which utilizes meditation) led me back to my birth religion, but I continued to occasionally read about Buddhism or visit various Buddhist groups because of my interest in their experience of meditation.

Two years ago I was listening to a cassette tape of a teacher from the Zen tradition, when something changed inside of me. This change has had a powerful effect on my life since then, one of the minor effects being that I am now deeply convinced that there is truth in both Christianity and Buddhism; thus my mixed identity. That Zen teacher was Adyashanti, an American lay teacher from the lineage of Taizan Maezumi, the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

In exploring further into this lineage, I have discovered interlinking roots with a number of other Christian Zen practitioners, including several Catholic priests and members of religious orders who have been approved as Zen teachers. This article traces that lineage and reveals those interconnections, and concludes with some thoughts about the meaning of all this for interreligious dialogue.

From the Buddha to Zen

“Zen” is a Japanese word that means meditation. It has become a shorthand phrase referring to elements of the Zen Buddhist religious tradition that modern Westerners have found attractive or intriguing. For example, a focus on meditation and the experience of enlightenment, the embrace of paradox, and a simple yet powerful style in arts such as painting and poetry.
Any Zen lineage must start with the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in Northern India during the fifth century BCE.

According to the sutras (the Buddhist sacred writings), Siddhartha left home to become a spiritual seeker, trying many teachings and practices before he settled on his “middle way” of avoiding extremes.

He became known as the Buddha (Enlightened or Awakened One) after attaining supreme enlightenment during a night of meditation, and in his subsequent career as a spiritual teacher drew primarily on his own experience rather than adhering to any previous tradition. The Buddha left behind memories of his example and teachings, as well as the monastic way of life he had organized. The Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma migrated to China about 470 CE. and became the First Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

“Chan” is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word for meditation; the Chan tradition emphasized meditation and “direct pointing into the mind” over study of the sutras and philosophical discussion. It holds that its teaching lineage ran from the Buddha through his disciple Mahakasyapa directly down to Bodhidharma. A key figure later in Chan was Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Chan and one of its most revered figures. In the Platform Sutra Hui-neng is depicted as a poor illiterate who came to enlightenment and then spent thirty-seven years teaching from his experience. One of the major themes of the Platform Sutra is that knowledge of the scriptures without wisdom is another source of delusion. (Christians should take note!) Inherent “Buddha-nature” is source of wisdom, but it is obscured in most people because of attachment to thoughts, desires and other mental phenomena. By detaching yourself from such phenomena—not suppressing them as some taught—Buddha-nature reveals itself. (This teaching is similar to that of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western Christian mystics, who see the human soul as being created in the image of God but needing purification to fully develop “the mind of Christ” within. The Chan tradition subsequently developed various schools, two of which are of particular importance.

The Lin-chi school developed a system utilizing kung-ans, paradoxical statements meant to trigger enlightenment.

In the late twelfth century Lin-chi was introduced to Japan, where it became known as Rinzai Zen (Zen is the Japanese form of the word Chan; koan the Japanese form of kung-an).

The Ts’ao-tung school of Chan emphasized zazen, sitting in silent meditation; this school was introduced to Japan in the thirteenth century, where it became known as Soto Zen. The aim of both these schools was to foster the experience of kensho (“insight into one’s True Self”) and the deepening of this insight into full enlightened living.

The Harada-Yasutani lineage

Lay practioners have been around since the beginning of Buddhism, and periodically there have been teachers who have worked to make monastic practices more accessible to lay people. However, the involvement of the laity in Japanese Buddhism changed dramatically in the Meiji period (1868-1912), during which the government was attacking the Buddhist clergy as corrupt at the same time that Western intellectual influences were spreading in Japan.

As a result, some Buddhist religious leaders attempted to modernize and reform Buddhism in order to meet these challenges and increase lay support. Although he received inka (certification as an heir within a teaching lineage) from a Rinzai master, he had studied with both Rinzai and Soto teachers and in his career as a Zen master sought to bring both traditions together.

Despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, his retreats attracted numerous monks from both lineages as well as Japanese and foreign laypeople.

Unlike many other Zen teachers, he believed kensho was within reach of anyone, layperson or monk, who was motivated enough in their practice. Although ordained as a priest, Yasutani married and worked as a school teacher for several years before obtaining a position at a small temple. Around that same time he met Harada, and a few years later attained kensho at one of Harada’s retreats. He received inka from Harada in 1943. Like Harada, Yasutani’s emphasis was on students experiencing kensho, and he was increasingly critical of the Zen establishment for allegedly letting ritual and intellectualizing get in the way of the attainment of awakening. He travelled widely and trained many foreigners, among them the later-to-be prominent American Zen teachers Philip Kapleau and Robert Aitken.

Despite his break with Soto, Yasutani gave inka to several students, among them Yamada Koun (1907-1989), a layperson who was to succeed him as the head of Sanbokyodan in 1970, and Taizan Maezumi (1931-1995), the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Christian Zen teachers Yamada Koun, like his teacher Yasutani, travelled widely, teaching and giving retreats.
Interest in Zen Buddhism among Westerners had spread throughout the twentieth century, fed by the migration of Zen teachers to the West and the influence of writers such as the famous Catholic monk, Thomas Merton.
Under Yamada the lay orientation of Sanbokyodan grew even stronger, and among his many foreign students were a number of Catholic priests and religious (both male and female).

Sanbokyodan training dispensed with most of the ceremonial aspects of monastic training, retaining primarily koan study and zazen practice, and presented attaining and then deepening kensho as the “true Zen” which could be practiced within any religion. Today, the majority of authorized foreign Sanbokyodan teachers are members of Catholic orders, and they lead affiliate Zen groups in the Philippines, Singapore, India, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Taizan Maezumi was ordained a Soto priest at an early age, received Dharma transmission from his father in 1955, and was later approved to teach by Rinzai lay teacher Koryu Osaka as well as Yasutani.

He thus stood within three lineages, although his teaching style owed a great deal to Yasutani. He emigrated to Los Angeles in 1956 to serve at a Japanese- American Zen temple, and by 1967 formed the Zen Center of Los Angeles to serve the many non-Asian Americans he was teaching. Maezumi gave transmission to twelve successors, many of whom affiliate with the Soto headquarters in Japan. One of his Dharma heirs, Bernard Glassman (founder of the Zen Community of New York), gave Dharma transmission to the Catholic Jesuit priest Robert E. Kennedy in 1991.

(Maezumi also gave an American laywoman, Arvis Joen Justi, permission to teach, who in turn later gave permission to the American lay teacher Adyashanti, mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The proliferation of Christian Zen teachers and practitioners will inevitably continue as current teachers give approval to others. For example, the aforementioned Jesuit priest and Zen teacher Robert E. Kennedy has named five Dharma successors already.

Christian Zen and interreligious dialogue.

What do these developments mean for interreligious dialogue? For one thing, they demonstrate the difficulty of determining who is a “genuine” representative of a particular religious tradition.
Sanbokyodan teachers have been very active in Christian-Buddhist dialogue conferences and retreats around the world, and Sharf alleges that “sometimes one and the same foreign disciple of Yamada would find him or herself representing Christianity one day, and Buddhism the next!”15 As farcial as that sounds, there are now numerous people who can claim to be both ordained clergy and/or vowed religious within an established Christian tradition, and certified Zen teachers within a lineage going back to recognized Buddhist teachers.

Are they Christian, are they Buddhist, or are they yet something else? What are the criteria for a genuine representative of a religious tradition? Another question involves the aim of interreligious dialogue. Insofar as some participants already have or are creating blended religious identities, those who want to preserve separate and distinct identities for different religions will at some point find their aims diverging.

Discovering similarities between traditions can create a pull toward blending and merging them, while identifying differences challenges adherents to defend their tradition against such blending tendencies. Conflict within traditions between those in one camp or the other may very well be sharpened. Both of these issues are grounded in a more fundamental question raised by the modern encounter of different religions, and highlighted by Sanbokyodan’s activities, which is the relation between religious forms and religious experience. Do religious forms—institutions, texts, teachings, practices—have value in themselves, or are they only of importance insofar as they lead people to some type of religious experience? Do religious forms help distinguish true from false, or shallow from deep, religious experience; that is, do they have authority over religious experience? Or is religious experience the authority, giving licence for reformers to reshape and perhaps even jettison religious forms?


The questions raised by this examination of the development of Christian Zen are both extremely important and very difficult, so I would not presume to attempt a definitive answer to them, if such a thing is even possible. However, I cannot avoid having a position on them due to my own experience. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have had dual (or even multiple) religious influences on my own spiritual life.

The context of my experiences has made it impossible for me not to privilege experience over form, but it has also forced me to see the relation between them as more complex than that might imply. Shortly after I first began practicing meditation, during my ‘hiatus’ from Christianity, I had some “awakening” experiences which were difficult for me to interpret due to my standing outside of any particular religious tradition. I had learned meditation initially from a book about how to improve your eyesight, and subsequently took a weekend seminar that used guided imagery meditation but did not have any clear religious affiliation. Later on, after reading about and speaking with people of different traditions, I found that my experiences seemed to have common features with both the kensho experience in Zen Buddhism and the “born again” experience of evangelical Christians.

The experiences left me with an unshakable sense of there being a reality larger than my “self,” and in other circumstances might very well have made me either a committed Buddhist or a committed Christian depending on the context. As it turned out, I met a spiritual teacher not long after that who introduced me to the Christian contemplative tradition, and I came to accept the central Christian teachings about the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. But it still seemed to me that there was something valid in the experience of other religions such as Buddhism. If I had committed to the Christian tradition first and had the experiences afterwards, I might have seen the experiences as confirming the tradition, and been less open to other possible interpretations.

But even as I immersed myself within my home tradition of Christianity, I remained open to the idea of other religious traditions being important vehicles of religious experience. About twenty-five years later, still a practicing Christian, I was at a point of personal crisis related to a sense that my spiritual life had become stuck against some insurmountable barrier. That was the point at which hearing the Zen teacher Adyashanti caused a dramatic internal shift to what I can only describe as a new form of consciousness.

As a Christian I might interpret this change one way, but because it was seemingly instigated by a Zen teacher I could also interpret it another way. In short, it is impossible for me to accept either tradition as the religious form uniquely responsible for that experience. While these experiences have made it impossible for me to think of religious form as having ultimate authority over religious experience, they have also impressed upon me how complex the relation between the two is.

The earlier experience gave me a sense of having a superior vantage point from which to judge religious forms, but the later experience was more significant and I do not think it would have come to pass without both the subsequent years of shaping in a particular tradition and the stimulus of a teacher who also had been shaped by a tradition—although not the same tradition! In sum, religious forms serve both to provoke an initial religious experience, and to deepen it into a more mature stage of development.

On the one hand, if a religious form has come to impede religious experience, or if it is being given ultimate value apart from religious experience, reform is clearly needed. On the other hand, attempts to reshape a time-tested religious form based only on an initial religious experience are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Ironically, Sanbokyodan may prove to have served more for a revitalization of Christian spirituality, than for its intended reform of Buddhism.

The HeartAwake Center