Zen for Christians: Living Life Fully, Moment by Moment

Kim Boykin is a Christian practitioner of Zen and an experienced workshop leader and teacher of Zen practices and contemplative prayer, to both Christian and non-Christian audiences. She holds the M.T.S. degree from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Religion at Emory. She has written for a number of publications, including Shambhala Sun. She and her spouse live at Green Bough House of Prayer, a Christian community in Scott, Ga.

The Dalai Lama once said that being a “Buddhist Christian” is like trying “to put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.” Kim Boykin’s new book, Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide, isn’t about trying to produce such a hybrid. Her book is a wonderful introduction to real Zen, written for real Christians who are looking for a way to incorporate meditation into their spiritual lives.

Boykin takes a “cookbook” approach to the subject. Her book contains practical meditation instructions, interspersed with personal stories as well as more theological chapters. She does a great job addressing theological questions about doing Zen practice without compromising one’s Christian faith. Her explanation of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is one of the clearest I’ve ever read. She takes complex philosophical concepts and makes them very easy to understand, but without “watering them down.” Zen for Christians is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism.

Whosoever: How can Christians benefit from practicing Zen?

Boykin: Well, you might say that the fundamental benefit of Zen practice, for Christians or anyone, is being freed from the tyranny of our usual “How can I benefit from this?” approach to life, being freed to live in a way that’s less constricted and self-centered and fearful, more spacious and compassionate and joyful. Zen meditation can do nice things like lower your blood pressure, but that sort of benefit is not a goal of Zen practice but simply a welcome side-effect. Zen is ultimately about liberation from suffering, about discovering joy and freedom in the midst of each moment exactly as it is, whether we are stressed or relaxed, happy or sad.

Whosoever: Why should Christians go outside our own tradition for a spiritual practice? Isn’t Christian prayer enough?

Boykin: I don’t think there’s any need for Christians to go outside Christianity for a spiritual practice. Even Christians who want to learn a meditation practice don’t need to go outside Christianity. The Christian contemplative tradition includes practices like “centering prayer” that are similar in many ways to Zen meditation. But some Christians are intrigued by Zen, and I wrote my book for them.

Whosoever: But aren’t there some major contradictions between Christianity and Zen? For example, Christians believe in a creator God; Zen Buddhists do not. And most Christians do not believe in reincarnation; Zen Buddhists do.

Boykin: Zen is fundamentally a practice, something you do, something you experience. It’s not a belief system. Zen isn’t theistic, but it isn’t atheistic either, or even agnostic. Zen simply has nothing to say on the subject of God. And while I guess some Zen practitioners do believe in reincarnation, that may have little to nothing to do with their involvement in Zen. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Zen teacher express any definite opinion about what happens after we die.

Zen is very pragmatic. It’s completely focused on the practical matter of liberation from suffering. Zen isn’t into metaphysical speculation. So whatever your beliefs are about things like God, the origin of the universe, or what happens after we die, well, whatever. Zen won’t agree or disagree. Zen just isn’t in that business.

Whosoever: How exactly does the practice of Zen liberate us from suffering?

Boykin: I stared at this question for a while thinking, oh gosh, I am so far from liberation from suffering myself that there’s something ludicrous and embarrassing about my expounding on this. Let me note that I’m no Zen master or enlightened being or anything. I’m just a student of Zen, and I’m a lot better at writing about Zen than practicing it. But I can say, at least, that I’ve had enough little tastes of how the Zen way of liberation works, and I’ve had enough glimpses of how it works in other people’s lives, to feel confident that the Zen masters really do know what they’re talking about. So:

Life is full of ups and downs. And our usual, commonsensical strategy for trying to reduce our suffering is to try to have more and higher ups and fewer and not-so-down downs. We work and plan and scheme to shape ourselves and our situations and our world to suit us better, which is all well and good, and sometimes we have some success with that. The problem is that we tend to believe that our joy and satisfaction in life depend on our success at increasing the ups and decreasing the downs. And the thing is, we never do get as many ups as we want, and we never do manage to get rid of all the downs, and we wear ourselves out in our anxious and never-ending quest for a life that will meet with our complete approval.

Sooner or later, often in response to a major life crisis, we come to the frightening realization of the futility of our attempts to make our lives suit us perfectly. In particular, we eventually realize that no matter how well we shape our lives to suit us, eventually we will die, and that doesn’t suit us at all (though at the lowest of our down moments, we may sometimes feel that being dead would suit us very well thank you). We realize that the strategy of increasing the ups and decreasing the downs will not ever, and cannot ever, bring us freedom from suffering. But we may try hard to repress this knowledge if we don’t know of any other strategy.

Zen offers another strategy. The Zen way of liberation from suffering can seem kind of strange and counterintuitive, but as far as I can tell, it’s a way that can actually work.

John Lennon said in a song that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In Zen, we practice letting go of our incessant planning for a perfect life, and we practice experiencing fully the life we’re actually living, appreciating the wonder of reality as it actually is, moment by moment. It turns out that freedom from suffering is found in living and embracing all the ups and downs of life. It can all be okay, not necessarily pleasant or fun, but okay. All the ups and downs can be part of a life of joy and freedom, a truly satisfying life. Like I said, it’s kind of counterintuitive. And it’s hard to explain. You really have to experience it.

Zen is a practice. Understanding or believing the teachings of Zen isn’t likely to do you much good. To fully experience reality exactly as it is, moment by moment, is easier said than done. It takes practice. In basic Zen meditation practices, you attend to the physical sensations of your breathing, something that’s always happening right here and now, and you notice all the busy little thoughts that carry you away from attending to the breathing. You do this over and over and over: notice the thoughts, return to the breathing, notice the thoughts, return to the breathing, notice the thoughts, return to the breathing. You practice returning to full engagement with each moment.

Whosoever: Those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Christians sometimes have a difficult time, spiritually. Many in the Christian church consider us “sinful” because of who we are, and many in the GLBT community can’t understand why we remain in a tradition that, to a large extent, marginalizes us. How might Zen benefit those of us who walk this sometimes-difficult path?

Boykin: Regular Zen practice can help us respond to difficult situations with wisdom and compassion, instead of giving in to knee-jerk reactions that create more suffering for ourselves and others. (I’m borrowing this distinction between reacting and responding from my husband, Brian, who’s also a Christian Zen practitioner and who also teaches and writes about spiritual practice.)

Ordinarily, when thoughts and feelings arise, we either grab onto them or push them away. We cling to pleasant thoughts and feelings, and we try to ignore or evict unpleasant thoughts and feelings. We get all tangled up in them. In Zen meditation, we practice doing something different. We practice simply observing our thoughts and feelings: noticing them, letting them go, and returning our attention to the breathing. When you spend a lot of time sitting and watching multitudinous thoughts and feelings arise and pass away, arise and pass away, you start to be less controlled by them. You discover the space around them, space in which you can move, space for freedom of response.

So when your feelings get hurt, like when you feel marginalized, misjudged, or misunderstood by someone in your own community, you don’t get so tangled up in your hurt feelings and dragged around by them. There’s a little more space to just notice what’s happening in you — the angry thoughts, the feeling of deflation, the clenched jaw, the imagined retorts — and to choose an appropriate and helpful response instead of just reacting. Again, this takes practice.

To approach your question from a different angle, your average Zen center is likely to be a lot more welcoming than your average church to folks who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The Buddhist precept against “misusing sexuality” has generally been interpreted according to the norms of the local culture, and since Western Zen practitioners are an exceptionally liberal and well educated bunch, the culture of Western Zen is quite accepting. Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t individual Buddhists who are intolerant, but I personally haven’t run across any that I’ve been aware of.

At the monastery where I lived for a while, Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, the abbot has performed commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. Residents of the monastery are expected either to be celibate or to be in a committed relationship, and that relationship can be with someone of the same or the other gender. In a book called Queer Dharma, a Buddhist scholar reported that to his knowledge no Westerner had ever been denied Buddhist ordination due to their sexual orientation.

Whosoever: What should we expect if we decide to visit a Zen meditation center?

Boykin: There’s usually some sort of beginner’s session offered regularly that you can attend to get basic meditation instruction. You’ll want to wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes for sitting on the floor. You’ll be shown several different cross-legged and kneeling postures, but if those don’t work well for your body, there are usually chairs available too.

A typical meditation session includes two or three periods of sitting meditation of about twenty-five to forty minutes each, separated by brief periods of walking meditation, and the session might begin or end with a little bit of chanting. Usually at least once a week there’s a talk by a Zen teacher or another member of the community, and there may be opportunities to meet one-on-one with a teacher to talk about your practice.

There may be a Buddha statue up at the front of the meditation hall, and there may be times during the chanting when everyone bows toward the Buddha, but don’t worry: it’s not idol worship. In Zen, the Buddha is understood simply to be a human being, a great teacher and example, not any sort of god or messiah or superhuman, and the bowing is an expression of gratitude, not worship. You may also bow to your fellow Zen practitioners, to the teacher, and to the cushion where you sit.

If you’re looking to meet some new people or looking for a community to be a part of, Zen centers aren’t necessarily the best place for that, since mainly what people do at Zen centers is sit together in silence. But if you’re looking for support for serious spiritual practice, Zen centers are a great place for that.