A Dialog on Zen, Dualism, the Trinity, and Creation

October 27, 2006

The following is an email exchange between the host and a good friend who is a strong and faithful, theologically sophisticated evangelical Christian. It begins at the bottom with a quote I sent my friend from Robert Kennedy’s Zen Gifts for Christians. My friend responds and then I respond to his comments. What do you readers of this blog think about these issues? What is your perspective?

Response to my friend:

Hi there, thanks for these thoughts! You are surely right to highlight the disunity of the world, the reality of sin, and what has been called the “already but not yet character” of the present world — these should not be ignored. It’s a strong point, it seems to me, that this disunity has provoked a divine judgment and radical divine intervention. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent some of these points can be understood in a way that is harmonious with zen.

While zen does not understand sin in the way that Christians understand it (principally as an offense against God), it does recognize that we commit transgressions and it also recognizes that we are full of delusions (the last point has parallels to the Christian concept of original sin). Zen does not just accept the brokenness of our world. On the contrary, one of the four great vows in zen is, by attaining enlightenment, to “save all beings.” Enlightenment means, principally, an experiential knowledge of the unity of all things, both the relative and absolute. Vowing to save the world may sound a bit presumptuous — after all we Christians believe that Christ is the unique savior. Yet there is no doubt that Christ has joined himself mystically with his Body the Church and its members. Moreover — and I have a perception that Catholics are generally more open to this idea than Protestants — Christ invites us to share and even play a part in his saving mission. So in a way each Christian is called to save “all beings” provided that this call and the power to follow it can never for us be separated from Christ and our mystical union with him.

Zen does then recognize a need for salvation, but it sees the way to salvation as awakening to the true nature of reality and of course it does not recognize (at least not in the Soto and Rinzai schools–the “Pure Land” school may be different) a heaven that is separate and apart from the rest of the universe. Of course zen’s understanding, lacking the knowledge of Christ and the Triune God, must come up short, yet there is also much truth, it seems to me, in some of the teachings that illuminate some truths found in Christianity.

Regarding creation, that is a hard subject. I always thought I knew what it was — in some eternal moment God suddenly formed the universe out of nothing, gave it its principles and laws, set it in motion, and sustains and governs it forever. God is “in eternity,” whereas we are “in time.” This must be right–as far as it goes. Moreover, I see your point about the disunity of the world, on the one hand, and the unity of God. In other words, how can the world be one with God when we know of God that he is perfection whereas we know of the world that it is far short of perfection?

Yet Scripture says that God is pleased with his creation, that man is made in the image and likeness of God, that Christ himself is present in the poor and disadvataged, in the Eucharist, and in the church, that St Paul says it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him, and in the end Christ will be “all in all.” All of this suggests a very strong identification of God with his creation. I agree that it does not mean God is not creator and we his creatures. However it does indicate that some of the dualism in ordinary Christian practice may be unscriptural and indeed that true orthodox Christianity may have more parallels with a Buddhist or Hindu understanding of creation that we would have expected.

I’m trying to understand zen on its own terms even as I try to deepen my understanding of Christian theology. Stephen Covey says that one of the key principles for effective communication is to begin by seeking to understand the other fully on his or her own terms. I appreciate my fully orthodox Christian friend, though, raising certain objections and arguments when it may appear I am wandering too far off the reservation. 🙂

Friend’s response to quote from Robert Kennedy:

” How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us?”
The question contains the answer. If God created us, then we are separate from him as a creation is separate from its creator.

“Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity. ”

There is a difference between a creation of God and a manifestation of God. And God is not pleased with everything that occurs in the world so there is a disunity. Even the roshi’s urging to acceptance of a supposed unity seems to betray an admission that there is not unity. The unity that we have with one another has a possiblity, an ideal where we are in unity with one another as the persons of the Trinity are but that is not something which actually exists in fullness no0w, it is something we hope and wish to see attained and our dependent upon the intervention of a separate God for it to even be possible. The one position contains a radical judgement on the way the world is; the other seeks to passively accept all that is in the world and see no evil, it seems to me.

My original email, with the quote from Robert Kennedy:

Some interesting thoughts on dualism, zen, and the Trinity. This passage is from Zen Gifts for Christians, by Robert Kennedy, SJ, who is a theology professor and zen teacher in New Jersey. When I read books on zen, I find myself continually reflecting on readings of St. Augustine on the Trinity. Yamada Roshi, whom Kennedy mentions in the passage below, was a zen master in Japan who taught Kennedy and many other Christians.

“Having experienced the Zen belief in the unity of the absolute and the relative, Yamada Roshi of Kamkura once told us that he could believe in God. What he could not believe was that God could make a dualistic world. So steeped in the unity of all things, so at one with this world, Yamada Roshi could not imagine a world of separate realities. . . . We ask ourselves, why ever would it be necessary for Yamada Roshi to have to believe that God would or could create a dualistic world? Why would Christians, of all people, who believe that God is a Trinity, that is Three Persons in one reality, present their faith in a dualistic fashion? We believe we are made in the image of God; we know we are one with God, not identical but not separate. How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us? We do not believe that God is only in heaven and we are on earth, and that we relate to God as one who is outside ourselves. Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity.”


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