Buddha altar with crucifix

I come to Zen from a Christian background, so my practice and the motivations behind it have a strongly Christian flavor. I taught myself how to meditate–in those days, I called it “silent prayer” for lack of a better term–the summer of 1989 while at a nondenominational Christian camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In those days I was an earnest “born-again” Christian who wanted to “know God”; by the end of my first week into a month-long stint at camp I fervently wanted to know what God wanted me to do with my life. Not finding clear answers in hours of Bible study, sermons, hymn-singing or praise-and-prayer meetings, I ran away from the hubbub and fellowship of camp to retreat to a distant rocky cove to figure things out.

I remember that I took my Bible and my journal with me that day, and I remember that the day was sunny and I hiked in my bare feet. I also remember wading and climbing out to a large, weather-sculpted rock in the middle of a clear, sandy-bottomed lagoon–to this day I consider that rock to be my first Zen “teacher.” Sitting on that rock awash with questions–Who am I? What should I do? What is God’s will for me?–I sat too awash with physical sensations: the cool roughness of the rock beneath me, the persistent warmth of the sun above me, the shimmering brightness of the water about me. Apart from these simple perceptions, however, I remember little of what precisely happened that day: at some point before day’s end, before hiking back to camp barefoot and at peace, I let go of my questions, convinced that God’s silence was a satisfactory answer.

Sitting on that rock, I came to discover a fact that others had known all along: that where I was at that moment was the precise point in both space and time where I was intended (by God or otherwise) to be. My doubts and questions were not answered but instead erased: although my uncertainty about my future remained, I realized for the first time that the unquestionable truths of the present moment–that this rock is gray and speckled with green lichens, or that the water is crystal blue and cold–were more than enough. Although I had sung many loud, enthusiastic songs affirming that “God’s grace is sufficient for me,” it wasn’t until I ran away and sat on a rock that I realized that God’s grace is made manifest only in the particulars of the present: as Thoreau noted in Walden, “God himself culminates in the present moment.”

Buddha altar

Sitting on a rock is one thing; bringing the practice of the present moment into your life–and using this practice to help people–is another. For months after returning from sitting on the rock, I tried to reenact what had transpired, whatever it was: without yet having read or heard much about meditation, I experimented with postures and techniques and discovered that it was easier to stay awake if I sat on the floor and easier to keep focused if I repeated a single word (at the time, mine was “Father”) over and over in time with my breath. During those first innocent months, my practice was wholly my own: I wasn’t imitating what I had read in books, and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing–I wouldn’t have known how to explain this wordless kind of prayer to other people, and I feared that my “born-again” friends would deem me a heretic.

The danger of such solitary practice, of course, is that it can easily become “me centered”: it’s easy to come to meditation or prayer with a wish list of things one wants to attain–peace of mind, holiness, enlightenment, special spiritual gifts. Luckily, though, I hadn’t thrown away my Bible that day on the rock, so one of my favorite verses–a passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians–helped shape what would eventually become my Zen practice:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!

(Philippians 2:5-8)

Kwan Seum Bosal

The goal of spiritual practice isn’t any attainment that can be “grasped”; instead, a spiritual attitude is one that lays aside one’s own supposed holiness, status, or attainment in order to serve others. The Greek word Paul uses to describe Christ’s incarnation–kenosis–literally means to empty oneself: later, Paul describes his own ministry by writing that he was “being poured out like a drink offering,” a libation sacrifice that required a worshipper to pour out a cup of wine down to the dregs. Whole-hearted service is a matter of total self-emptying: retaining the residue of self-interest or self-glorification makes for an imperfect offering. The only way to become spiritually adept is to lay down one’s desires for and ideas of attainment–when these hindrances are gone, one can become a humble and obedient servant, someone who helps this world.

Thus the mind of Christ and the bodhisattva way are the same: a “bodhisattva-Christ” lays down individual attainment in order to help others. There are many mundane ways that this lofty principle plays out in my busy life as a graduate student, English teacher, and Zen Center resident: some days, it means taking the time to answer the Cambridge Zen Center door or telephone; other days, it means putting aside my work to answer a student’s questions. In my life, spiritual practice is a time and a place to renew and “re-fill” so I can empty myself even more: the simple practice of asking “what is this?” or “how can I help?” as I encounter Zen Center visitors, students, friends and family is an essential part of staying awake to their needs and concerns.

Sitting on a rock some seven years ago, I learned that the present moment–“just this”–is sufficient for me; in the years since, I’ve learned that my being present to others–“just helping”–is necessary for the world. These years of practice have also shown me that this “just this” mind and this “just helping” action are really one in the same–and it seems to me that this mind and action are exactly what our world needs more of.

Copyright 1998 Lorianne DiSabato (formerly Schaub)