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The Zen Roots of Christianity


Pope Francis, in his latest Apostolic Exhortation “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”, says holiness is not just for a chosen few, but everyone everywhere is called to be holy. Acknowledging there are many ways to Holiness, he writes:

It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our lives in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.

As I read Pope Francis’ call to holiness, particularly the call to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, I could not help but draw parallels between Christian ideologies and Zen. Pope Francis’ call to holiness reminded me of a famous Zen koan: Does the dog have Buddha-nature?

The Zen and Christian Way to Holiness

What is holiness? The Zen Way does not favour one path over another. Zazen, the practice of sitting in meditation focusing on the breath, may also be practised walking (walking zazen). And it could also be practiced while engaged in activity – cooking, washing dishes, or mowing the lawn. Pope Francis says all of these are forms of prayer.

Zen does not encourage taking off into the mountains to “attain” holiness. There is nothing to be “attained”. Zen considers everything holy and un-holy – the non-dual mind.

And so, Pope Francis’ exhortation that it is not healthy to want peace while avoiding activity rang a bell. Yes, everything can be accepted and integrated into our lives and are paths to holiness.

But what is holy and what is unholy? Why has “unholiness” seeped into every vein of society? And does the dog have buddha-nature?
The more I thought about it, the more I found myself venturing further back in Christian teachings until I arrived at the very beginning – the Genesis, the first book in the Bible.

Genesis and Zen

Genesis begins with the creation of the universe.

“The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Fast forward to the beginning of John’s gospel in the New Testament.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made.

Right there, in the beginning of these two books of the Bible, is the core of Zen. Zen thinking is non-dual thinking – the breakdown of boundaries. A formless void, a gateless gate. The Word with God and simultaneously is God. Through the Word, all things were made. There’s no differentiation here between human beings, animals, the plants and other elements of nature. All things were made through and with the Word.

Modern scientific thinking also supports this idea of the creation of the universe. Every element known to humans – from the carbon, magnesium, and iron in our bodies to all that surrounds us, was forged in the core of a star that itself arose from a single Big Bang.
We can easily see the analogy of the Big Bang and what the Bible calls the Word. What was before the Word / Big Bang? The Zen Mind – don’t know.

Adam and Eve and the Dual Mind

Moving further in the Genesis account of the creation story, we get to the story of Adam and Eve – the first humans. We are told everything moved along just fine until they ate the Forbidden Fruit.

When tempting Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit, the serpent set this bait:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 2:4-5)

The distinction between good and evil was not until Adam and Eve ate of the Fruit. Once they did, every distinction became clear. The Zen Way is devoid of distinctions – the non-dual mind, the mind of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The mind when they roamed the Garden in harmony with God.

Once they ate the Fruit, the account goes on:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Gen 2:7)

On eating the Forbidden Fruit, their eyes were opened, and they realised they were naked. This was the first time Adam and Eve could see themselves as distinct – me and the other, the Separation of self from the rest of creation.

The Fall from Eden and the Separation of Self

That is the heart of Zen thinking. In the Zen Way, there is no I, no you, no other, no boundaries, no distinctions. The Zen Mind is a non-dual mind where everything “just is”. We don’t grasp the concept with the mind. It goes beyond human thinking. The Genesis account talks of the point when human thinking separated from the eternal Oneness. The point when we began to blame the other, considering ourselves as separate beings.

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 2:12-13)

That was the first sin of separation. Genesis then goes further and talks of the separation of Adam and Eve from God:

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. (Gen 2:22-23)

We understand here, after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil and so became “like one of us” (like God). That resulted in God banishing the two out of the Garden of Eden – what Christianity calls Original Sin.

In the next sentence, God is stated to have said: He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. This is best discussed in a separate article.

Zen Lessons from Genesis

So, if we are to break it down to its core, Original Sin was the point when Man first distinguished between good and evil. Dual thinking arose in the mind of man. The central focus of Zen is to arrive at what is and has always been – the Non-Dual Mind – the mind of man before the Fall in Eden.

We also understand that God cursed Adam and Eve and Sin came into the world. Think about it, as a result of that sin – the distinction of I vs them, humanity has seen all kinds of strife, jealousy, hate, wars, and every kind of “sin”. Take away all ideologies, all religiosity, all rituals and arrive at the Non-Dual Mind where the distinction of I versus other dissolves into nothingness. Sin itself is banished in this state. That’s when we arrive at the Zen Mind.

Christianity begins with Zen in Genesis and shows us how man separated himself from everything around him. Unfortunately, Christianity evolved by continuing to expand the gulf between God and Man instead of going back into the Garden of Eden. Therein lies the bigger Fall.

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