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Zen Wisdom for Christians, by Christopher Collingwood

12 February 2021

Buddhism is very different, Marcus Braybrooke says

IN THIS beautifully written book, Christopher Collingwood, a Christian priest who has also received “Dharma transmission”, gently introduces the Christian reader to Zen practice.

After an interesting introduction to the often tragic history of Christianity in Japan, he asks the reader to sit quietly, concentrate on the breathing, and notice the thoughts that arise in the mind. This exercise, he claims, “brings us to the inescapable and incontrovertible fact that we cannot escape from ourselves” (his italics). Zen is orientated to “one thing alone: to enable us to see into our true nature and to awaken to who we truly are”. This, in Zen, is called “raising the bodhi mind”.

After a chapter that retells the story of the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, Collingwood explains that the purpose of the puzzling stories — known as koans — is to transcend our usual rationality, and in the stillness of zazen (sitting) to experience “the self as empty and discover this emptiness to be a source of energy and compassion”.

Towards the end of the book, Collingwood addresses the criticism often made of Zen, that it has not been much concerned about the injustices in the world. The primary virtues of Zen, he says, are “wisdom and compassion”. He also draws attention to Thich Nhát Hanh’s “Engaged Buddhism” and organisations such as Zen Peacemakers International.

Collingwood is a Christian priest as well as a Zen teacher. He recognises the parallels between Zen practice and contemplative prayer. He also looks at some passages of the New Testament from a Zen perspective. For example, the Prodigal Son’s return home is “an awakening to himself”. Particularly moving are his reflections on Jesus’s words from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Collingwood writes that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world because he is totally at one with its pain. . . He is compassion in the true sense of the word: the one who suffers with the whole of creation, and in so doing redeems it.” There is little, however, about a personal relationship with Jesus.

The emphasis on parallels obscures the real differences between religions. More than 40 years ago, John Dunne, in his seminal book The Way of All the Earth, spoke of “passing over” into another culture as “a shifting of standpoint . . . to another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back’.”

This, no doubt, is true of Collingwood, but I wonder whether the parallels obscure the “otherness” of Zen and our need to rejoice in our differences of colour, creed, and race. More than a century ago, George Matheson, in his hymn “Gather us in”, recognised the need to value our special gifts as well as what we share:

In diverse forms a common soul we see,
In many ships we seek one spirit land. . .

Each sees one colour of thy rainbow-light,
Each looks upon one tint and calls it heaven;
Thou art the fullness of our partial sight;
We are not perfect till we find the seven.

The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths.


Zen Wisdom for Christians
Christopher Collingwood
JKP £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

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