“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.

Born in Brooklyn in 1933 to devout Irish Catholic parents, Kennedy joined the Jesuit order upon his graduation from high school. In 1958 he volunteered for a missionary post in Japan, where he would eventually be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Years later, in search of spiritual renewal, Kennedy began a rigorous Zen practice under the guidance of Yamada Koun Roshi, a highly regarded Zen master who counted many Jesuits among his students. In the late seventies Kennedy studied in Los Angeles with Maezumi Roshi, founder of the White Plum Sangha, where he met Maezumi’s senior student and eventual heir, Bernie Glassman. Under Glassman’s guidance, Kennedy began teaching in 1991 and became roshi—or master—in 1997.

I ask him to begin at the beginning. “There are many different expressions of Catholicism,” Kennedy explains slowly, carefully. “One expression that meant a lot to me was the apophatic tradition of the Greek Fathers [contemplative priests of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries]. The apophatic tradition is part of our Catholic tradition, even though it is not often expressed in church on Sunday. It says that God is completely ineffable, beyond all words, beyond all theology. We have domesticated God. Most Catholics need a devotional Catholicism, just as most Buddhists need a devotional Buddhism. Zen is different. Zen is the apophatic way.”

Kennedy first arrived in Japan strictly as a Jesuit missionary with no interest in Buddhism. A young man of twenty-five, he was there to teach English and coach baseball at a Jesuit high school. “Zen was there,” he tells me, “but I was not ready for it.” Yet something of Zen must have penetrated his skin despite himself. It was only after he returned stateside, after eight years in Japan, that he began to sit. “I realized something was lacking. A spirit. A depth.”

In the absence of a traditional sangha, he forged a spiritual friendship with Father William Johnston, a fellow Jesuit priest and Zen practitioner who lived in Japan. Johnston had authoredThe Still Point: Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism, which was a big influence on Kennedy. Whenever Johnston made trips to the States to lecture about Zen, the two priests would meet and talk, and though these visits were infrequent, they were crucial in helping Kennedy reconcile his Catholic faith with his nascent interest in Zen. “We both felt that Zen was something that belonged in the Church, that Catholics could profit from it. We also spoke about emptiness. The emptiness of our religious constructs, and the way they were turned into mental constructs.”

In his book, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, Kennedy writes of his return to Japan in 1976: “This time I was not a missionary but a pilgrim, and I sought out those fellow Jesuits who were working with and dialoguing with Zen Buddhist masters.” The Jesuit Provincial of Japan then was Father Hugo Lassalle, a German who had himself been made a roshi by Yamada. Under Lassalle’s leadership, it was a kind of golden age of Jesuit and Zen cross-breeding. Father Kakichi Kadowaki, another Jesuit roshi, introduced Kennedy to Yamada, who in turn introduced him to his first sesshin.

“By noon of the first day, I thought I was going to die. But I was determined to see it through. I did not come all the way from the States to quit.”

Wrapped inside the pain was revelation. His eyes close around the words when he speaks of it. “Zazen was the best way I found of being in the presence of God, in the presence of truth, which is silence. It was not repeating things I already knew and read. In silence, I was able to learn something new.”

Courtesy of Robert Kennedy
Courtesy of Robert Kennedy

A profound irony marked Kennedy’s early days as a Zen student. It was the post-Vatican II period in the Church, and priests were finally free to throw up their hands and question themselves and what they had been taught. Shrinking from this new radicalism (Kennedy admits he came to Zen as a conservative, which he emphasizes he is no longer), the priest was drawn to the authority of Yamada, who told him, “I know exactly where I am going. I know what I experience. And I can bring you there if you follow my directions.”

He had, in short, all the certitude of the pre-Vatican II priest, against which Catholics were rebelling at the time, but with one big difference. “With Yamada, I was finally in the presence of someone who had achieved something, who didn’t just believe in something.”

Kennedy, comfortable as a branch that has grafted itself onto two spiritual trees, laughs when I remind him of the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who once wrote that comparing Zen and Christianity is like comparing tennis and mathematics. The two traditions, Kennedy acknowledges, are after all, parallel paths. “Zen deals with experience, and will not move beyond experience. Christianity embraces eschatological hope, about which Zen Buddhists are silent.”

He is, however, quick to defend Catholicism against charges of dualism. Unlike Buddhism, he insists, which holds that the phenomenal world exists but is not real, Catholicism maintains that the phenomenal world is real but not independent of God. Both faiths are expressions of the same human nature reaching out to the ultimate truth of things.

Did Zen make Kennedy see Jesus in a new light? “After Zen, I saw everything in a new light. Up until that time, I was trying to build a relationship with Jesus. Then, there was a shift from relationship to identity. I am Jesus! Right now! With all my limitations! It’s such a radical statement within Catholicism because many Catholics follow the analogy of relationship. Not that that’s wrong, or in any way inferior to identity. It’s just a different approach. For me, it’s not a question of knowing Christ, or loving Christ as someone outside myself. ‘Who is Christ?’ leads me back to the question, ‘Who am I?’”

With Maezumi Roshi, one of the koans he studied was “Who is the Buddha?” One day, indokusan [a private interview with a Zen teacher] he said to Maezumi, “You are the Buddha!” Maezumi slapped him hard and said, “You too!”

“Now I wish he’d slapped me more. I’d have seen more.”

In the beginning, Father Kennedy saw himself as a bridge: a bridge that only went in one direction, bringing Buddhism to Catholicism. “I wanted to open another door for Catholics. I wanted to bring kensho to the Church. I wanted to bring the gift of Buddhist wisdom to the Church. It is not an enemy of the Church. No truth can be an enemy of the Church.”

Was there nothing of Christianity he wanted to bring to Buddhism? “I came to this with no intention of teaching the Buddhists anything. I had to wonder when I came to Zen whether I should be teaching anybody anything.” The old truths were falling away, and he felt he needed a new vision, a different way of teaching. He studied with Glassman to learn how to sit, how to breathe, and how to live in a sangha. He never gave much thought to being a Zen teacher. As a priest, he just didn’t think it possible. Glassman thought otherwise. One day, he surprised Kennedy by saying, “You are ready now to be a teacher.” He was able, marvels Kennedy, “to separate the Zen teacher from the Catholic priest.”

When Kennedy was made sensei, some sangha members sent angry letters to Ten Directions, the journal of the Los Angeles Zen Center, protesting a Catholic priest’s appointment as a Zen teacher. Glassman responded to the criticism with a challenge: “Are we one, or are we not?” Most of the sangha backed him and supported the Jesuit sensei. “It says a lot about the openness of Buddhism,” Kennedy remarks, “that Buddhists would make me, a Catholic priest, a Zen teacher. I think that would be unheard of in other faiths.”

Kennedy established his Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City in 1991. He would sit every morning in his apartment with a handful of friends who came to join him. As the group kept getting larger, it had to find larger apartments for itself in the Jesuit residence: a migratory Buddhist cell at large among the theists. In the Zendo’s present location, which I visit at Kennedy’s invitation, I find a framed photo of Yamada Roshi, his calligraphy, and a small meditation room, with its double doors leading into the dokusan room.

Are most of his students Christians? I ask him. He says he doesn’t ask his students their religion. He concedes that the majority might be Christians, but he tells me what Yamada told him: that both Christianity and Buddhism are categories to be transcended. “I suppose for some Christians there is a feeling of comfort because I am a priest, and that’s fine, if that’s what they need at the moment. Others may stay away from me because I am a priest.” Kennedy smiles, shrugs. Like any good roshi, he enjoys being caught in the crosshairs of contradiction.

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