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Searching for wisdom in other faith traditions

14 November 2014

Inter Faith Week begins on Sunday. Can other faiths teach us to be better Christians? Christopher Collingwood thinks so, and has taken to practising Zen

FIFTY years on from the liberalisation of spirituality which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, driving many from the West towards the East in search of what they perceived as unable to be found in their own culture, East now meets West on its home ground. In some parts of the UK, for example, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras sit comfortably alongside churches and synagogues, reflecting a diversity that, in some cases, is little different from what can be found in parts of India. Some churches have welcomed this with open arms, and inter-religious dialogue has become an important part of their mission.

There is much to be welcomed and gained. I myself have been practising Zen for the past five years. To sit on a cushion and a mat for 25 minutes at a time, just being aware of your breath, seems on the surface to be a fairly pointless thing to do, but just sitting has a great deal to teach. After a while, perhaps after a period of seeming desperation, you have little alternative but to let go of the attempt and simply accept that thoughts come and go, and just keep coming back to the breath.

This is the beginning of coming home to yourself, because you begin to lose the habitual sense of division that characterises much of our lives and creates the illusion that you are separate from other people, from the material world, from everything other than you as a separate self. A relaxed acceptance of what is begins to take root, and this acceptance extends beyond yourself to others, to circumstances, to what life presents.

Even a sketchy description such as this will, I hope, evoke resonances between Zen and Christianity. The breath, for example, is significant in both Zen and Christianity, since in the latter it is most readily associated with the Holy Spirit. Zen could also be characterised in part as being about waking up to the reality of life.

As in Zen, the Psalmist encourages the practice of stillness: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46,10); but it is here, perhaps, that a certain unease might be felt; for there seems to be nothing about God in Zen. Certainly, Zen remains conceptually silent about God, but then Christianity itself reaches a point where words and concepts become inadequate. It is precisely here that Zen can help; for it encourages you to discover the "mind before knowing". In Christian terms, the living reality of God is beyond words, thoughts, and concepts, before which we can only fall silent. In Zen and Christianity alike, though, this silence is not a vacuum, but a place of energy, love, wisdom, and compassion.

If Christians can find in the practice of Zen something to help them make this real in their own experience, they will have fulfilled the aspirations of Yamada Roshi, who said to his Christian students: "I am not trying to make you a Buddhist, but to empty you in imitation of your Lord Jesus Christ. I just want to make you a better Christian."

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster.

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