Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:
Ruben Habito
DVD  (transcript online below)

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Profiles in Buddhist-Christian dialogue with Ruben Habito

54 Minutes.  1992.
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Buddhists and Christians around the world have entered into dialogue, and as this dialogue has deepened some of them have taken it within themselves. They have not only studied the beliefs of their dialogue partners, but have gone on voyages of discovery that embrace both Buddhist and Christian spiritual practices.

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.

Ruben Habito, a native of the Philippines, was one of the first Catholics to have kensho confirmed by a Japanese master, and he went on to complete koan training under Koun Yamada. He holds a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy from Tokyo University, teaches at Southern Methodist University, and directs the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. Here he discusses his own Zen training and some of the questions at the heart of the Zen-Christian dialogue.


This video was filmed in 1992. Here is a 2006 update:

He is the author of Living Zen, Loving God (Wisdom, 2004), Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World (Wisdom, 2006), and Experiencing Buddhism: Ways of Wisdom and Compassion (Orbis, 2005).

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Online Transcript:

I was born in the Philippines. When I was a teenager I felt called to enter the religious life. I would up in the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, and it gave me a very found foundation for the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, and I am grateful for that. Later I felt called to go to Japan – just a jet-stone’s throw from the Philippines – and there I learned about Japanese culture and spirituality. I was living in Kamakura where the language school was, and that’s where I met Fr. Thomas Hand who had already been doing Zen with Yamada Roshi. He suggested that I do Zen, too, so that’s how it all started.

When I joined there were already some Maryknoll sisters, and of course Fr. Hand, which gave a sense of assurance to other Christians that yes, you can practice this spiritual path which comes from the Buddhist tradition, and yet be continuing as a Christian. Yamada Roshi also saw that, and he initiated us into the basic way of practice, just as any other without making any distinction between who was Buddhist and who was Christian. It is a way of life and a way of practice. He realized we were different because we had a different set of conceptual apparatus, different sets of images, and so he also saw that as an opportunity to learn more about Christianity. That was a stage which was full of possibilities at that point, and so more and more Christians came. When Yamada Roshi saw that, he saw that that was something he had to respect without telling them no, you have to abandon that, because his predecessor, Yasutani Roshi, had that injunction which was, to really practice Zen to its ultimate you have to get rid of your concept of God and so many of your religious concepts, which in a sense is true because you have to set aside concepts because now we are dealing with something that is not liable to being caged in mere concepts. It has to be a purifying experience in that sense. But unfortunately, that was interpreted as having to set aside your being Christian, which are two different things. The concept of God as it is developed in the Christian tradition and all the other concepts, if they become little idols that we cling to, then they can be obstacles to meeting the real God in that sense. Yamada Roshi saw that yes, people can practice in a way that can set aside their conceptual framework but dispose themselves to a direct experience. Those of us who were blessed with that experience in Zen were also challenged by him: now, as you deepen in that experience, your main concern is precisely to continue purifying that experience so it becomes a living reality in your day-to-day life, and then, from then on, as Christians you are called to express that from within your own tradition.

We were trying to learn the posture, and we were also given very good direction by the Roshi, and some of us started making the so-called breakthrough. That was when things started to change. Before that we were considered by the Buddhists as "out of the way" practitioners. We were not in the path, itself, but we were just doing it in our own interpretation so we could gain merit to go to heaven, etc. We were labeled as "Gedo Zen" - "heretical zen." We were practicing like the others were, and some of us began to see the point, and began to be transformed by Zen practice and that whole experience. In 1971, November, there was a sesshin (Zen retreat). I was not participating in it, but was going to dokusan (interview) with Yamada Roshi then. It was at that period when somehow all those preliminaries that we were initiated into somehow made sense to me, and all of a sudden while I was sitting quietly in my room after an afternoon of Zen, I was just relaxing, doing nothing in particular. Suddenly, it just dawned on me that, "Yes. This is it!" Well, that something led to a kind of explosion and I just burst out laughing. "Why didn’t I see this before? Now I know why the Buddha has that smile that covers the whole universe." And so I ran from my room and knocked on Tom Hand’s door, and said, "I got it. I got it. I got it. I have to call Yamada Roshi." So I did, and set an appointment for dokusan with him. During that time I just could not help laughing, and the laughter led to tears of joy, and so on. That kind of inner tremor remained for about 3 days or so. That evening I went to Yamada Roshi for the usual checks of such an experience, and he said, "Well, you need to ripen it a little bit more." I knew that I had it, but there were just some questions I needed to get clear on. So I asked for another appointment the next day. The next day I was able to cut through those questions he posed before me, so he confirmed that yes, this is an experience that we call in Zen the enlightenment experience. From now on your practice is going to be from a different angle, now to be able to fathom the height and depth and breadth of all that through which is known as koan practice. It is like having gotten hold of the master key. With that key you have now entered that vestibule or that new dimension, but now the thing is to have that key and try to work at all the possible doors to that so you can also lead others into it freely in your own way. From then on the koan practice continued. There are about 500 or 600 koans, and people take their own time. I was able to go to dokusan 2 or 3 times a month, and it took me about 15-16 years to complete the whole set with a lot of good guidance from Yamada Roshi. Some were able to go to more sesshin than I was able to do because I was studying and teaching. More and more people came from Europe, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Right now there are close to 20 people who have gone through that formation and have been given that kind of permission by Yamada Roshi.

Did you have any presentiment of what this would mean to the Church?

I had to continue questioning what this implies for my own understanding of what I had been calling God, or the place of Jesus Christ, or what is the message of Christianity to the world. That was a very, very critical period in my life wherein I had to look anew at those basic expressions of what I had learned from the Christian faith and tried to see them in the context of this new experience I was being led into. Are they the same, or is it something different? Fortunately, I was also given a lot of help because I was in my theological formation process at the same time. So I got all the help from Scripture scholars and from systematic theologians. Not that I got them in classes, but with the questions I had I was able to approach individuals and also do a lot of reading on my own and really try to fathom what this Christian message is all about. That kind of questioning within me somehow enabled me to read Christian Scriptures from a perspective that somehow leads to experience – not just interpret them theologically.

Reading the letters of Paul, for example, especially Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, somehow they were also expressions of something that triggered a very similar experience in me, an experience similar to what I had been blessed with in the experience of awakening in Zen. When Paul, for example, talks about being in Christ from the beginning of creation, and that Christ was also at the fount of all who will become the core and the head – the summit of creation, the ground of creation before the beginning of time, the Alpha and the Omega – all these mind-boggling terms which were in these letters of Paul, not just as concepts but something that pointed to that same dimension that I somehow felt overwhelmed by in that Zen experience.

So reading those passages became new triggers to me to reenter that same experience, so I say boldly for me it is the same, although conceptually people ask, "Well, don’t you have to distinguish?" But within the same person those words of Paul, or the Sermon on the Mount, or other scriptural passages, somehow also triggered again a new experience that was based on that original one that started with the Zen awakening experience. In that context I began to really appreciate the Christian message as it is expressed in the New Testament in a way that somehow refers to a basic experience, and a basic way of seeing reality. And so those terms, for example, "in Christ," or "the reign of God is at hand," have a change of heart, metanoia, a change in your way of seeing from one that is centered on the ego that always wants to aggrandize itself, "I, me, mine," and let the ego die with Christ on the cross and open it to the newness of life. All these terms that we use in the Christian tradition came to a new life based on that experience, so now it is a reappropriation of the Gospel message and of the New Testament message based on this experience that has been through 1,500 years of this oriental tradition. So it is now a meeting of those two spiritual traditions in those persons who find also their source of self-understanding and identity in the Christian expressions. That is a journey I am continuing at this point, to deepen that experience and purify it. Anything that would mar it or cloud it would always be polished off, a daily process. One has to continually come back to that source, just as God is a living God, the God Who is leading us now toward the greater fulfillment of God’s reign. It is not just something that happened in the past and now we have to carry it as a memory. The hope is that this encounter of these two spiritual traditions will lead to a new birth where more and more we can see that yes, we are living in a reality that escapes our conceptualizations and our verbalizations, but which we have to refer to by our word and by our concept. Zen has a principle that does not rely on words or concepts, but makes use of them. The reality that Zen practice leads us to, awakens us to, is something that can never be caged in words. But being human, we are condemned to using language. But the language can be very, very crucial in opening us up to that reality. So those who have been living in a Christian tradition but now are beginning to feel constricted by the institutional forms of ritual and practice and belief, and they are being fed with a lot of dead material in terms of not living faith witness but simply concepts and repetitions of rituals, and so on, they feel no longer nourished by those things because they are looking for something living. It is simply a matter of reconsidering what has been there all along which has been covered by a lot of the human elements of the ritualization, so I believe this encounter with the Zen tradition will reopen to Christians the wealth that is found right within our own tradition.

Why was Yamada so open to doing this when his own teacher was less than enthusiastic?

Well, I believe it is just meeting living Christians who were serious about their faith commitment, but yet wanted to experience their faith genuinely and not just concerned with clinging to its concept and so on. He met Christians who were really sincere in this practice, and realized that yes, I have to take this seriously also. So in that sense he was open because of that living encounter in living persons whom he felt he was called to respect, and so when he guided those of us who were practicing in that way he realized maybe there is something here that goes beyond the stereotypes he had had of them before, and so he was able to go beyond those stereotypes in meeting living personalities who were able to resonate in the very same dimension that he was directing others in Zen.

Can you tell us the story of when he met with you and Fr. LaSalle and asked you some questions?

I was interviewing him, and he asked, "When you Christians do Zen, is there something lacking in Christianity that makes you come to Zen, something outside, literally, of your own tradition?" The response to that would be that no, it is not that it is lacking. Fr. LaSalle had his own response, saying he began to study Zen in his attempt to understand about Japanese culture. When Fr. LaSalle came to Japan as a missionary, he felt he could not really fathom the depth of this culture unless you also participated in the very religious dimension.

I, myself, gave a different answer, saying for me in my own journey, having been initiated into spiritual practice through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, I felt that seeing how this practice of making oneself still in one’s posture and breathing and focusing one’s mind to a point of stillness, which is the basic structure of Zen practice, somehow also enables me to just open my whole being to that dimension I had felt I was already being led to through the spiritual exercises, but this in a more direct way. So that hunch that I began with literally came to its fruition, so my answer to Yamada Roshi was that not that they Christian tradition is lacking so we have to turn to Zen, but that as we meet this way of practice, somehow the treasures in our tradition are opened up in our encounter with what Zen offers to us.

His second level of challenge was, "Now, as Christians, I invite you to try to express what you have experienced in Zen – of course realizing that it can never be simply expressed in concepts or words – yet in your own language I invite you to develop that and present to those who would be at home in that language precisely to be able to go beyond that language and reach a point of experience." I think that many of us who are now teaching Zen in their own places are trying to respond to that challenge. It is still an ongoing process at this point.

Did he ask you a question about the origin of God?

A koan is a question or a puzzle or an anecdote that challenges the practitioner to crack through rational inquiry and open oneself to experience. If you try to just work at it by reason, you will just get into a corner where there is no way out. We have to just literally explode that whole situation and see it from an entirely different perspective.

One of the koans that has been helpful to so many in opening to that experiential dimension is the so-called "mu" koan. A monk asked Zen Master Joshu, "Does a dog have buddha nature?" Joshu’s answer was, "Mu." The practitioner is invited to answer, "What is "mu"?", but "mu" not answered as an intellectual question, but "mu" that comes right out of the heart of your own Zen experience. Working on that koan can take years. Fr. LaSalle said he was working on it for nearly 30 years before he finally got some inkling of what it was, and before he was passed on the koan.

The next question is, "What, then, is the origin of "mu"?" For some Christians Yamada Roshi would present a variation of that, asking, "What is the origin of God?" For me it took me some time to wrestle with it, so I had to keep coming back to Yamada Roshi because I tried to keep working at it through my intellect. There is a point where you see the utmost limit of what rational inquiry can lead you to. It is only when you reach those limits that you can see what lies beyond those limits. So the answer to that koan, "What is the origin of God?" can only be genuinely understood after you have gone through that process of rally working it out through rational inquiry and realizing that that will not lead you anywhere. It is like trying to scratch an itch on your foot without taking off your shoe. The thing is to try to take off your shoe, and finally you are relieved. "Aha." It is reworking your whole perspective entirely, and Maria (my wife) relates to me that she was given that koan at a sesshin, and she was literally overwhelmed by it when she discovered what it means. She realized how simple it is, and yet we block ourselves from it because of our pride in our own intellect. It is not that we abandon our intellect because we need to see things in terms of their connections while respecting its function as far as it can go, yet at a certain point we have to realize that it has to reach that point precisely where we have to leap beyond it, and only in leaping as such can we be able to see what grounds that intellect, itself. So that is a crucial question that wants to kill off the ego, that wants to know, in a sense, that fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is the temptation that presented itself to Adam and Eve. They wanted that fruit, and when they ate of that fruit they became separate from God and from their own true selves, and from the rest of creation. In a sense it is our wanting to know, which is natural, but without realizing where it came from and without realizing where it is going, if we just cling to that as a way of aggrandizing our ego, that can prevent us from being in touch with its own origin. In a sense it is overcoming that separation that the fruit of the tree of good and evil has wrought upon humankind.

How can we relate our mystical tradition to this other tradition which is so similar and yet doesn’t always seem to coincide?

I met a Japanese Sunday School teacher in the early 70s who became a good family friend. She shared with me aspects of her own faith journey and how she was helped by a lot of missionaries who came from the West. She said that if she was with these missionaries looking at a sunset, they would always say, "Ah, what a beautiful sunset. Thanks be to God who created that sunset." But for us, she said, that second sentence is entirely redundant. While we are there beholding the beauty of the sunset, that already speaks to us of that dimension, and we don’t have to verbalize it, and when we do verbalize it, it somehow cheapens that reality that we are experiencing. So maybe that’s the difference between the Japanese intuitive approach to reality, and a Western approach that has to verbalize certain things in that way. Otherwise it is not satisfied with the way things are. From a different context, the very act of verbalization somehow puts the awareness on a different level, so just to be able to stand and behold the sunset together, then perhaps have some tea together, and just be basking in that presence. To say, "Now I am in the presence of God" already puts the awareness on a second level of reflection that separates you from that primal experience. Words in many ways can be masks for things that are not clear in us, so we use words to muddle up things. We have to try to continue purifying our experience. For example, when we look at a flower, the very next moment when we are able to say, "I am looking at a flower," we are no longer looking at the flower. We have to continue to treasure those precious moments when we are really looking at the flower.

Jim: How can we situate the Zen experience between our own metaphysical experience and our mystical experience?

Ruben: That is really a hard one, and I have to sort out a few things there. When you use the word faith, I would like to understand that not so much as believing here at the top of my head that there is a God, or that this proposition is true, but I would like to understand it more in the Johanian sense, that sense of entrusting, and so it is a way of opening my being which disposes me to know, or maybe in the Augustinian sense that in order to know, one must first love. In that context faith for me is a basic stance already of openness and trusting. That opening of myself disposes me to really know in a direct way. It is akin to what you might call mystical knowledge. That stance of knowledge is presupposed in any kind of knowing we can call mystical. The kind of knowledge that is spoken of is through a glass darkly because it will not fall under certain ways of expression in very matter-of-fact propositional language, because as Kant has shown, there are certain antinomies that we run into. We can say opposite things about that reality, and yet somehow those opposite things have their grounds for being said, and so we come to a coincidence of opposites, so to speak. That direct knowledge with that stance of faith inevitably comes to a point where that opposition has to be maintained. If you just take one side of the opposition, then you are already one-sided and somehow being in danger of idolatry. That distinction certainly has to be maintained. It is a kind of knowledge that what we know as metaphysical knowledge can only try to point to by clarifying the distinctions beyond which or really with which we use language. For example, the analogy of being is precisely a way of pointing out real Being with a capital B, which must be distinguished from the beings with a small b – those beings that can be objects of our perception, and it is only when you have seen that the ground of being is not just that being, but yet also envelops that being, so one has to go through it through a process of negation, and that’s when you can get that sense that, yes, that ground of being cannot just be equated with any being. That kind of dialectic is what we have to undergo. But the very term, itself, easily lends to a lot of pitfalls, and that’s why in the orient we have the term "absolute nothingness." It has the advantage of precisely being less susceptible to conceptualization. For me, that term absolute nothingness is more like a critical principle that challenges us to continually negate our concepts, even the concept of absolute nothingness, or God, in order to be able to touch that which it is trying to point to. That knowledge that you ask about can come only with the dialectic of negation, affirmation, and further negation. Where does that leave us? With the realization that our language and our conceptual frameworks can never exhaust the reality that we are always invited to behold. Whether you come to it from the Western philosophical tradition where it has all the terminological apparatus that you would need to be able to point to that, or whether you come to it from the oriental tradition with its own very direct and intuitive way of pointing to that, maybe these two traditions need not be seen as diametric opposites unable to relate to one another, but precisely in undergoing that dialectic in their own distinctive ways we can see that we are resonating in certain areas, and we are talking about a certain dimension that we are expressing in diametrically opposite terms. From the orient there is the notion of emptiness, whereas from the Western tradition there is the notion of fullness. When one has reached that fullness, then one has to go beyond the logical categories that one would naturally feel one has to follow, so those two terms which look so opposite – emptiness and fullness – somehow point to that dimension, and so let’s converse and see whether there are resonances in what we mean by these different terms. I believe that is an ongoing task. I think we are able to widen our own field whereby more and more of us can see that we need not divide ourselves by our terminology, but we can realize our connectedness beyond language and see that language does not have to be something that divides us at all, but we can see there is something much deeper and much bigger than what we can contain in our little minds.

Is the awakening experience different from Christian contemplation or infused contemplation, or are they the same?

That kind of questioning is a question from the outside on the analytical plane, and I am not prepared to answer because the question presupposes a certain framework that I have to assume. Speaking from a more direct approach to things, when I am just here, as I sit, from the very fact of be-ing, what is involved in that? The very attempt to try to express it in this way would put me into a certain mental framework that is now different from speaking directly from the experience.

When one sits in Zen, the question of many Christians is, are they praying? I think that’s a valid question, and that has to be taken in a very matter-of-fact way. For many Christians the question of prayer is something crucial to their life of faith. I point out that Paul invites Christian to pray without ceasing. What does that mean? To pray without ceasing, 24 hours a day, my whole being, then, is invited to be a prayer, so prayer is a way of being and no longer just an intentional act of something. So I would answer affirmatively to the question, when one just sits, am I praying? Or when I just take a walk, am I praying? The crucial point is am I disposed in a way that my whole life and my whole being is offered to God as a prayer? Everything I do or everything that happens to me is a prayer. Everything I do, my whole life, is not separate from my life of faith. How can my whole life be a prayer? And for me Zen practice is a very, very powerful way of opening myself and enabling my whole being to be emptied in a way that God can fill that and God can take over my life, rather than my ego wanting to control and direct even my whole prayer life.

Jim: How are Christian Zen practitioners going to deal with the central role of Jesus, and the question of a personal God? Can you reflect on the kind of difficulties you see in integrating Zen within the Catholic church?

Ruben: These are central questions that have to be addressed, and each one has to address it in one’s own way. To be Christian implies a self-understanding that comes from the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has to have a central position, but do you put Jesus Christ in a central position in a way that identifies it with just a historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, unrelated to the present, or when you say, "Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow," does that bring that reality into our everyday life here and now so we can say with Paul, "To live is Christ?" We all live in Christ, and so that Christ has to die – that Christ in a box of its own little concepts – has to die on the cross in order to be able to live again.

The notion of God is no longer seen as some being out there, but the very ground of our being, as we breathe in and out, the very source of everything that happens. We need to untangle those very limited boxes. We have to untie those knots we have put on those words, God, and Jesus Christ, and enable them to come back to a living reality.


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