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Profiles in Buddhist-Christian dialogue with Thomas Hand SJ
1992. Fr. Thomas Hand died on October 18, 2005.
In this series of profiles we are going to meet some of these inner explorers, hear their stories, and try to catch a glimpse of how they are bringing these spiritual practices into harmony within themselves.
Thomas Hand, S.J., spent 29 years in Japan and was one of the first Western Catholic religious to practice Zen meditation under the direction of Koun Yamada Roshi of the Sanbo Kyodon. He currently teaches Christian and Buddhist meditation at Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. He is the author, together with Chwen Jiuan A. Lee, of A Taste of Water: Christianity Through Taoist-Buddhist Eyes. Here he talks about the origins of Zen-Christian dialogue in Japan and the impact it could have on Christianity.
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I am a Jesuit and a Californian. I went to Japan in 1953 and spent 29 years there. I had no desire to convert Japan. I knew I had to go, but I didnt know why I had to go. I was asked to start a school there. I was a teacher for 8 years, but I felt as a teacher that this wasnt me. After 8 years I went the language school of the Jesuits in Kamakura as the so-called spiritual father of the young people there, and then I began to really learn Japanese.
Spring, 1967. I first attended Zen sitting under Yamada Koun Roshi. A year before I read a book called Zen, the Path of Enlightenment by a German Jesuit, Hugo LaSalle who had been studying Zen for 15-20 years. I tried Zen on my own, but it didnt work, so I started zendo with Yasutani Hakuin Roshi. Why did I start zendo? It wasnt anything intellectual. I had no really clear ideas about why I was doing this. I simply knew that I had to do it. It was a guy decision that went beyond my ordinary mental processes and ways of making decisions.
Yasutani Hakuin Roshi was the great pioneer of this Zen movement that has a profound influence around the world, and his major successor was Yamada Koun Roshi, and he was the one that I made my formal acceptance into the Zen path with so that my first days were very tentative. I didnt know what I was getting into, but I knew I had to get out of my head and into my gut. My first sesshin was under Yasutani, and then Yamada Koun Roshi took over. It was very difficult because of the language. Zen Japanese is difficult, and I didnt really understand everything that was going on, but I went through the six preliminary training with Miasake Sensei, and at that time Yamada Roshi was still Yamada Sensei.
As far as I know I was the first Catholic, especially Christian religious, to enter that Zen group. I was the first professional Catholic to enter the Zen group, and one of the things that helped me to stay was when I made sho-ken (the formal interview with the Zen master for the first time when you are taken into his discipleship.) The first question was what was my intention. I wasnt clear, so I said something about to-go, which means integration. He didnt know what I had answered, and I didnt know, either. I said I was a Catholic and intended to live and die as a Catholic, and he smiled and said, "Fine." He said there are two kinds of Zen. The first is really strict Buddhist Zen. You have all the statues and everything else like that, you follow all the Buddhist teaching and everything, and then there is just pure Zen. He said, "You will follow that, and that will make you a better Catholic." As soon as he said that, I felt completely assured, and that was his policy which he followed very beautifully.
It was hard to learn how to sit, but I persevered, and about six months later I introduced a Japanese nun to the Zen group, and then an American Maryknoll, Sr. Kathleen Reiley, and after that people, especially Americans and Germans, came. The thing that was striking was the number of Catholics, although there were others. Nuns and priests were in the majority of the number of Christians who came to that group. This has resulted in a kind of historical movement because there is now a true movement around the world in which practicing Catholics are engaged in true Zen practice and Zen teaching within the context of their Christian life. The influence of Zen, its insights, its training methods, its whole way of life is, through these teachers, being brought into the Christian stream. Although it is very small at this time, it is having a much bigger influence than the numbers might seem to warrant.
Everyone is working out the problems that have arisen in his or her own way. I would say that everyone who has seriously gone through the Zen training has found their experience, their understanding of the Scriptures, of the sacramental life, of the whole Christian life, has been immeasurably enriched. That has been my experience and my joy. I often tell people I was saved in Japan. I feel we are approaching the Second Council of Jerusalem. First was when the Jewish world opened out to the non-Jewish, Greek, Latin world, and then came this tremendous influence of Greek and Latin philosophy on the formation of the Christian church. It could very well be that now we are approaching a time when the Christian church will have to look at the East and all the tremendous insights and religious practices of the East and become open to them.
When I went down that hill for the first time I went without much thought, but then the problems and questions arose. Pain, the problem of language, and going deeply into another culture. I persevered for 7 years. I did not complete the koans. I never really wanted to go to the zendo. Part of it is it is hard for me to go out with groups. The other is I was afraid of the physical pain because there is a lot of physical pain connected with it, and I was embarrassed not to be able to understand a lot of the Japanese that was going on, but it was also going deeply and truly into another culture. Although it was fascinating, I was letting go of so many things that I felt insecure. Handfuls of threads at a time were being taken away, and so it was never a pleasant experience, but it was a profoundly moving seven years. Then there were reasons why I had to leave the training, so I was never able to complete all the koans. I am not today an authorized Zen teacher. This left me more free to make a certain type of adaptation and experimentation that I couldnt do if I was an authorized Zen teacher going down the Zen line.
Jim. What made Yamada so open?
Fr. Hand. Yamada Roshi was a big man, physically and psychologically. I think it was the Holy Spirit. It was that factor that made it easy for myself and many Westerners to train under him. He hadnt had a lot of contact with Westerners. I remember my friend, Bill Johnston, never did enter the Zen group in Kamakura, but he went a few times, and I remember him saying that Yamada Roshi was "swimming in the Holy Spirit." One time Yamada Roshi gave a talk at the language school where I was, and it was very clear he was talking in terms and with an openness that everybody could accept. The things that he said could easily be put into the Christian mind-set that those people had. He was a providential being.
Jim. Did you ever get a sense that he was aware of the kind of departure he was making by being so open? Did it cost him to do that?
Fr. Hand. Yes, he was clearly aware of what he was doing. He wanted to open out Zen to the West because he felt Zen was gradually dying in Japan, and that it would be saved and continued by Christians in the West. He felt that it was his mission to teach Zen to Japanese, but especially to foreigners. He was very clear, and it cost him a lot. His own teacher, Yasutani, was open to the West and came a number of times to the United States to direct sesshin, but he was not quite as open to the West, and he was almost anti-Christian at times, but Yamada Roshi was always very open to Christianity. Neither one was accepted by the general community of Japan.
As we look forward to the way this movement can develop, there is no doubt there will be profound problems and opposition aroused by Christians I am going to speak now just as a Catholic by Catholics espousing and practicing and teaching Zen because although it is true you can speak about pure Zen without making it anything Buddhist, the actual fact of the matter is that Zen is closely connected to Buddhism, and it is hard to totally separate the two, and so that with Zen comes a profound influence from Buddhism, itself. That is going to create problems in the Catholic circles.
One of the greatest will be the problem of the personal God so there are going to be dogmatic theoretical problems, and there are going to be problems that arise simply out of the whole Western mind-set, and thats harder to pin down. There will be problems connected to dogma and devotion. One will be the whole question of how God is personal, and that brings you to the devotional, devotion to God, to the Trinity. Another profound problem is the great Christian Catholic devotion to Christ Jesus, and the preeminent and all-embracing place of Christ Jesus and the Christians entrustment to His influence and His power as a living power right now. How does that fit into a Zen context? That is one of the greatest problems that arises and will continue to be a problem because Zen in its way is to seek for the true self within yourself, your own self, whereas the Christian path is to seek for the true self within Christ Jesus, so you look at and learn of Christ and find yourself. In Zen you look at yourself and find yourself. There is a kind of fundamental difference in approach to finding your own true being, finding reality. That hasnt been adequately solved as far as I can see in Christian-Zen circles, so much so that you have, especially with the Zen teachers of Germany, Catholic priests and nuns, two types of retreats that they will direct. One is called "Christian Contemplative Retreat," and the other one is the "Zen Retreat," and they keep them separate. The fact that there are now authorized Zen teachers who are also in good standing as priests, religious and Catholic Christian lay people, that fact gives this position of Zen much greater credence among people in general. At the same time since many of the people like priests and religious are highly trained already in their Christian faith in all its aspects, the chance for a gradual development of a true Christian Zen is very likely. I dont think its going to take 50 years.
It is perfectly obvious that there is far more Christian interest in Zen than Zen Buddhism interest in Christianity. Theres no question of that. You can ask what kind of influence Christianity will have on Buddhism and on Zen in particular. Up until now it has been pointed out that you have the paths of devotion, good works, and wisdom. Christianity has certainly developed the paths of devotion and good works, whereas the path of contemplation and wisdom is there, but especially in modern times has not been followed all that much. One influence of Christianity is that Buddhists have become more interested in good works and helping people.
What will the influence of Christianity have on Zen, itself? I think that if there is a true Zen developed in Christian countries, it will have a profound effect to put more spontaneity back into Zen because the Zen that has been brought around the world has for the most part been Japanese Zen, and Japanese Zen has taken the volumes of koan and go one by one. It is all very structured. It is quite highly formalized as the Japanese do things. I dont think Western people are going to be able to stay with that, and hopefully, as Christians start to develop truly Christian-Zen practices, Christian-Zen koan, there will be much more spontaneity and not so structured type of Zen recreated in the West, which is more like the Chinese. The Chinese Zen masters were not so fixed with going down the list of koan. They would simply take what was right there and make the koan. The question for the disciple for the koan would come right out of the circumstances. I hope that Western Christian Zen can bring more of that back into Zen.
I think there will be two types of Christian koan just as there are two types of Buddhist Zen koan. One would be when you take things directly from the Scriptures like "Show me the kingdom of God." That is actually a Christian koan. The force of it will depend entirely on the Zen master, and whether that person is able to recognize through the spontaneous response of the student to enlightenment a real experience of the kingdom of God. That would be one type of Christian koan, and there are quite a number that we could use right away.
Another type of Christian koan would simply grow out of the experience that is happening right here and now. You might ask a person, "What is your name?" and from that the person says something like, "My name is Andrew," and then say, "Who is Andrew?" Then using a lot of Christian images and basic Western mind-set you cold produce the spontaneous response from the student that is essential to any kind of real koan practice. The problem, of course, with the West is it is so easy for us to answer these questions with our minds, and the deepest problem of all is the power of discernment of the Zen teacher.
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