“It is said,” Father Robert Kennedy began, “that Sanghanandi, the seventeenth Indian patriarch, was born speaking. He spoke only about Buddhism. Someone to avoid.”

Kennedy, a Jesuit priest and a Zen teacher, was giving a dharma talk to a small group of his students in the basement of a Methodist church in Manhattan in 1995. I went because I found the idea of a Jesuit sensei exotic.

Ten years after my first meeting with him in that church, I sit with Father Kennedy Roshi in the lobby of the Jesuit community at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey. Along with being a priest and a Zen teacher, Kennedy, who received his doctorate in theology from Ottowa University, is the chair of the Theology Department at St. Peter’s. A tall, quiet man of seventy-one, his white hair is typical of most of his fellow residents: a species of white-tufted Jesuits.

With St. Ignatius Loyola—the Jesuit order’s founder—staring down at us from his place on the wall, Kennedy recalls for me the words of his root teacher, Yamada Roshi: “I don’t want to make you a Buddhist. I want to empty you in imitation of your Lord Jesus Christ who emptied himself.’ Zen helped me with letting myself be emptied.”

It’s not as if Kennedy crossed one river to get to another. He took the river of Christianity with him, immersed it in Zen, and saw it change. Saw everything change.

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