I've been mulling over a conversation I had with a Zen devotee this past weekend. Much of our conversation was concerned with the similarities between Zen and Christian mysticism, the way each values asceticism, self-denial, and service, the parallels between the Ten Commandments and religious vows and the Ten (or Five) Moral Precepts and the commitments a Zen monk makes.
We spoke of the intersection between Christian monastic spiritualities and Zen monasticism and the influence of Christian spirituality on the forms of North American Zen Buddhism. We shared our mutual admiration for Thomas Merton and he told me that a number of the classes he took towards his Masters of Divinity were taught by Catholic religious.
There is a lot that is attractive in exploring these similarities in spiritual discipline and practice, and it is always refreshing to speak to someone about the kinds of self-discipline and moral law that much of modern secular society finds both off-putting and incomprehensible. But we couldn't avoid running into the difference at the heart of those devotional goals, which seems to me to be centrally important to understanding the foundations of Christian personalism.
My Zen interlocutor was happy to talk about Christ as a metaphor or symbol of the Infinite Mind or the Source, but uncomfortable when I pointed out that Jesus is more than that, that Christian devotion is centred on a distinct person (well, three persons, but I wasn't going to get into that!). He admitted that was a topic they'd all very diplomatically steered clear of in their classes with Christians.
This is the thing that sets Christianity apart: God became man for us.
Sometimes I forget how ridiculous and sublime that is. At the apex of all Catholic spiritual practice is the goal of unity with a person.
A person who first united himself with us by experiencing embodiment, birth, a human home, adolescence, self-discovery, hunger, thirst, friendship, loss, sorrow, pain, betrayal, agony, and death.
A God who became man in all ways but sin, who bore our sins into death and promises to raise us up with him to life through His resurrection. A God who loves us and desires communion with us.
There's a relationship at the heart of Christianity. It's so easy for my faith to become cerebral or habitual and forget that. The goal isn't unity with all, or undifferentiation of self and the universe, or even communion with the Universal, though that last resembles on some level the goal of uniting oneself with the Creator of all.