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.
In this video we visit Donald W. Mitchell, who is Professor of Comparative Philosophy of Religion at Purdue University. Originally raised as a Christian, he took up the practice of Zen Buddhism as a young man, and then returned to Christianity. This spiritual journey led him to become engaged in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue in the United States, Europe and Asia. He is married with four children, and is the author of Spirituality and Emptiness: The Dynamics of Spiritual Life in Buddhism and Christianity.
This video is the fascinating story of his spiritual journey, and the trials and joys he has experienced from his encounter with both sides of the dialogue.
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More about Donald W. Mitchell:
The Gethsemani Encounter:
A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics.
New York: Continuum Press, 1997. Edited by Donald W. Mitchell and James
I have been teaching comparative philosophy and religion at Purdue University since 1971. Before I went to the University of Hawaii for my doctorate. In the late 1970s I was involved in interfaith relations. Shortly after, I converted to Catholicism, but before that I was practicing Zen for 8 years. I am involved in the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies.
2.21. I was raised in the Congregational Church and had affection for Scripture. I became disillusioned with the faith early on because I came from a family situation where I didnt experience love and affection. There was not much peace and harmony at home. At Church there was family unity and affection, but at home it was the opposite. I came home from the church and was upset. I felt there was something wrong with the church, not home, so I left. I had inner fearfulness, but I also had a deep need for integration, love and some kind of unity embracement in my heart.
4.10. In college I went overseas and got sick and had to come back home. I was faced with life and existential questions. As a philosophy student I was looking for answers in terms of experience, and became depressed because I refused to acknowledge the source of it in the home.
I turned to Zen and practiced zazen - mainly therapeutically, looking for this inner connectedness to life which I understood zen enlightenment to bring about. There wasnt any great success, but there was some impulse that moved me to continue. So I decided to pursue graduate studies in Asian comparative philosophy.
6.01. I went to Hawaii. My San Diego teacher had me go to the Diamond Sangha with Robert Aitken. The first time I went, sitting quietly, with a monk hitting people on the back, bells, incense, I said as I left, "What in the world am I doing here?" But I felt there was something there. Eventually I began to understand what was going on in the zendo, and the different ways zen as a reality is nourished in that environment, and it began to bear fruit. For the first time in my life I began to feel a deep connection with the people around me, and nature. I began to appreciate and savor the present moment, and to realize the fullness of the present moment. I felt a feeling of strength within my own being. I tapped into wellsprings of joy, as well as peace. It was very enriching, and moved into a new mode of being. I was very happy, and yet I had never faced the inner demons of my early childhood, so that was there, too.
9.14. Eventually I graduated from Hawaii and moved to Indiana, and that was difficult. You dont find too many Buddhists in Indiana. The religion, the practice that had brought me a sense of unity and integration in Hawaii did the opposite in Indiana. I felt alienated from the Christian environment. I also had a fear of Christianity. I had heard many stories of how Christians had treated Buddhists in the past, and I had the feeling that maybe you cant really trust Christians. Also part of my story when I was back in college and was sick was I did have a certain mystical experience of God, and God as being connected to that impulse that led me into the Zen world. My feeling was God was going to bring me back from the Zen world into Christianity, and I didnt want to go there. I was afraid of God, and I think I projected onto God things from my father, so I had a fearful image of God, and it would tie into my inner anguish.
11.16. So there was a real struggle going on when I moved to Indiana with God. Finally it reached a head. After a couple of years I had doubts about my career, and suddenly zazen could no longer control these demons I had inside. As they began to surface I felt very hopeless, and my thought was to commit suicide. It was only then that Christianity looked like it might be a reasonable alternative, which shows you how bad I thought about Christianity. This realization happened in the middle of the night.
12.20. So I called a priest friend. My wife was always a good Roman Catholic, so I met a very nice priest through her. And I read Thomas Merton and understood the value of Christian spirituality and monasticism as it flowered in the Catholic tradition. So I had some positive views, and if I was going to jump into Christianity this was the place to go, and if it worked for Merton maybe it would work for me.
12.50. So I called the priest and asked him to come over and baptize me in the middle of the night. While I was waiting, I closed my eyes and had a dream/imagination kind of thing. I found myself walking along, and in front of me were standing Bob Aitken and some other Buddhists who were looking at me, an then they all looked in this direction (to the left) and there was a light on their faces from that direction. Then I thought, "I am going to turn and see the light and understand things." So I turned, but there was just darkness. But I realized I was making a good turn. In the end the connections I had with the Buddhists world had led me to this point, and that wherever I was going along that line I would be in union with my Buddhist friends, and would contribute to a connection between where Im going to go into Christianity, and the Buddhist world, an that would be good for the Buddhists as well as the Christians. At the time I felt I was making the right turn here. This is the correct way to go.
14.10. The priest showed up and informed me that in the Catholic Church they dont just baptize you on the spot, and it led to a process of conversion into the Church, and the conversion eventually began to bear fruit. Somehow in my heart I didnt understand what these realities were: Just what exactly is God. Jesus Christ? Mary? The Holy Spirit? I remember talking about this with David Stendl-Rast, and Br. David said, "You dont have to know all the answers now. What you need to do is live what you do understand and slowly you will move into these answers, and find them in the context of living the Christian life." So thats how I came into the Church and began to live the Christian life.
15.24. A couple of years later I was looking for some kind of Christian spirituality because in Zen Buddhism practice is a daily living. It is not something you just do once in a while. It is the formation of your very being in life. As a lay person I was looking for a spirituality, and I found a spirituality called Focolare, which is a lay spirituality in the Catholic tradition which also has a strong interfaith dimension to it. So it seemed to fit. I took it up as my particular practice. Thats where Ive gone.
16.24. In terms of what I talk about in terms of spirituality and emptiness, about God and emptiness, about ultimate reality, I guess Id have to go a little further in the story I just told you as I evolved in the Christian life and spirituality. I went through a period of time I would call a dark moment. During that time I felt myself more open to Christian contemplation, and through that experience I guess I realized that Christian contemplation is not something you can produce. Sometimes I read in magazines and newspapers articles where people seem to be looking for a magical button to push that opens the contemplative life, and practice meditation this way, or whatever, and I think there are ways that can open us to that dimension, but ultimately my experience is that it is something that God gives you. It is something that is a grace. And maybe someone hasnt even thought about being open to it and, bam, there it is. Its a grace that I think not only brings us to a deep sense of Gods presence in and through the world, which would in some ways be similar to the Zen experience of the inter-relatedness of life, this fundamental original nature of who we really are, and not just we in the little sense, but in the universal sense of this self that manifests as me in the concrete identity that I have.
19.05. So Christian contemplation moves us to understand that depth level of life where we are in a sense from God, and we are spoken together with humankind and life itself. But I think that Christian contemplation also moves us through that experience to realize that there is another side, there is that transcendent dimension. God is imminent in the world, everything is woven together out of His love, held together out of His love - of course this was what I was looking for as a child - and yet it is Gods intimate loving touch that extends through His arm, you might say, to the Trinity, to a reality that grounds our existence where life is an expression of silence, life is coming out of that silence, and yet contemplation can move us through that silence and into that kind of infinite Trinitarian life that is beyond this horizon where we live.
20.50. When I look back at Zen, Zen gives us an indication of that silent mystical horizon as it is played out in the inter-relatedness of life in a way that is transformative, and when one looks at that horizon, that dynamic emptiness, one is encountering the infinite, so it looks like thats it. Yet through the grace of God and Christian contemplation one realizes that that infinite opens up on the other side into the life we will share with God after we have died, the paradise that we call the Trinity. Thats where I kind of came to that fundamental distinction.
22.00. I believe that the experience of Zen is absolutely authentic, it is healing, it is universal, it tells us the existential truth about our being, about life, and yet there is something about God - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the infinite love we call the Trinity expressed in these persons, these three realities in this dynamic that Christian contemplation leads one to. Because of that I cant say that Zen enlightenment and Christian contemplation lead to the same thing. It is the same in the sense that it is God, the divine, but yet Christianity sees a side, a dimension, to the divine life that is for me something extraordinarily precious that I dont find within Zen. It doesnt contradict Zen at all. I think it complements it. I think Zen has a lot to teach us because sometimes I think Christian contemplation looks too much to the transcendent. It doesnt take into account Gods presence in nature.
23.27. I found that after getting involved in the dialogue and working in the dialogue some years ago, God moved me not to understand Him so much, but to begin to understand myself. Those demons from my childhood began to finally surface. My journey into Zen and Christian practice finally led me to myself, to face myself. Here we enter more into psychology. I have not yet really reflected on it, but I think that at a certain point God wants to love us as we truly are and not how we have made ourselves to be by defensive mechanisms and habits and patterns we have developed to respond to to deal with the demons inside of us, or the issues, the anger, the fear, in our hearts, and so therefore He wants to have us face these things, bring it to our awareness, deal with it, feel it, integrate it, so we become truly who we are so He can relate to us truly as we are rather than related to us as we have tried to make ourselves to be in reaction to the things that are going on unconsciously within us.
25.47. This began a journey really of psychoanalysis, a journey of facing these things, letting out the anger, letting out the sadness, all of these things, and slowly realizing the ways in which I have molded myself, the ways in which I have used my mind intellectually to maintain a distance. I found that in this journey of self-discovery I have found even other parallels with Zen, and when I have talked a bit with Zen teachers about this process, they also understand it in terms of their tradition, too, in terms of healing of the self. The spiritual life does not just include understanding some things about God, but it involves a discovery and a becoming of who we really are, and a finding at the very foundation of our life where all of the rawness of whatever this is that we carry, original sin, whatever we carry from previous generations that has this power over us to effect our life, to effect who we are, that there is a healing that takes place, and a freedom, that God really enters into that to overcome it and be who we really are. That is a part of the journey that I am slowly moving through. Maybe in another ten years Ill have something else to say about it.
The spiritual life in Christianity is about a relationship, and it is about both side of the relationship, God, yes, but also ourselves. And a fullness of that relationship in love means that both sides have to be true and authentic. God is by nature true and authentic. We by our nature, by the nature of original sin and what we have made ourselves, need some work. That healing process in our psyche is a big part of the spiritual dynamic. This gets played out in this relational dimension with God that is what I have been looking for since I was a little kid.
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A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs