Ruben L. F. Habito is a master in the Sanbo Zen lineage, the founding teacher of Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, Texas, and a professor of world religions at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He is also a former Jesuit priest, and as a young ecclesiastic was sent from his native Philippines to Japan, where he encountered Zen and entered formal training under Yamada Koun Roshi, with whom he studied for 18 years. Discovering Zen was epiphanic for Habito (“it pointed to a realm beyond language”), and koan study became for him a profound foil to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a set of meditations and devotional practices for Jesuits that Habito had been practicing since entering the order. During his time in Kamakura, the seat of Sanbo Zen, a fusion of Rinzai and Soto traditions formerly called Sanbo Kyodan, Habito met Maria Reis, who became his wife and mother of their two sons. (Habito left the Jesuits but continues a deep engagement with the religion.)
In 1989 Habito and Reis moved to Dallas, where Habito founded Maria Kannon, named for the Virgin Mary and Kwan Yin [Guanyin], the bodhisattva of compassion (Kannon in Japanese), two figures who became inexorably linked in 17th- and 18th-century Japan, when Christianity was banned; Christian practitioners found a worthy manifestation of Mary in the veneration of the bodhisattva, who became known as Maria Kannon. Habito is the author of several books on the relationship between Christianity and Zen practice, among them Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World and Living Zen, Loving God, both from Wisdom Books.
I first met Ruben in 1990, just one year after he arrived in Dallas from Japan. I was a student at Perkins School of Theology, and in the discernment process for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Texas. Ruben had me from the moment he began his required class, “Religion in Global Perspective,” with a few minutes of silence. For the duration of the semester, I was part of a small group that met in Ruben’s office and breathed, and we visited the place he and his students were using as a zendo and breathed some more.
It was nearly a decade later that my own practice began shifting from a focus on passage meditation to attention to the breath and pure silence. But I was floating around without any guidance. So I made an appointment to see Ruben, and when we met, in the middle of the public gathering area of the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, he gave me the koan “Mu” while we sat at a plastic table, surrounded by academics and religious scholars of all stripes. Over time, working with Ruben has radically altered how I imagine Jesus guiding his disciples. I hear the parables as koans now, solved not by reason but by action. A Samaritan cares for an injured man: “Show me that!” The first will be last, and the last will be first: “Show me that!”
True to form, Ruben took the lead in commencing our interview, first by asking that “we take a few minutes of silence together,” and then by saying, “So we can begin. Ask me questions that will open our conversation.”
—Jane Lancaster Patterson
How did it all start? What led you to Zen when you were living in Japan as a young seminarian? My Jesuit spiritual director then, Fr. Thomas Hand, was studying Zen with a master in Kamakura, and he encouraged me to check it out. I just plunged right in and found it very nourishing and very resonant with what I had learned from my Jesuit spiritual formation. It emphasized the more contemplative aspects rather than the discursive and meditative kinds of things that the Ignatian Exercises, which I had been practicing for six or seven years, are known for. Zen became a way for me to come back to that place of silence, no words, and just find a sense of belonging to the universe.
What kind of training did you receive from your teacher, Yamada Roshi? Yamada gave me the basic guideline on just sitting in a very simple way, but it didn’t stop at that. There is a whole program of koan training in our Sanbo Zen tradition that guides a person deeper and deeper into the intricacies of the spiritual path. Yamada Roshi gave me the confidence that I could remain within my Christian context and practice and at the same time really enter into Zen with full commitment.
So he was open to students from other religious traditions? Yes. His teacher, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, had a different view of Christians coming to Zen. He said you have to check your religion at the door and really come with an open and empty mind to be able to receive the benefits of Zen.
My teacher, Yamada Koun, instead of telling Christians to “check your religion at the door,” said, “Just come and sit and be still and follow the guidelines of Zen.” He realized that it was not so much the religious tradition that needed to be put aside but the concepts that people with a religious background are attached to. He felt there were certain terms in the Christian tradition like God, Holy Spirit, and so on that had enough power in them to point to an experience that is beyond concepts.
Was there any conflict for you in bringing the two practices together in your own life? I needed to go through a struggle for about 10 or 12 years to sort out theological concepts—to weed out the conceptual accretions—and see what in the Christian tradition really leads to a genuine experience but is caged in Christian vocabulary or doctrinal terms. I experienced a very liberating affirmation that what unites us is the experience.
Some Christians may claim that you jumped ship when you started Zen practice in earnest, and on the other hand, some Buddhists may say you are only dabbling in Zen so long as you remain a Christian. So let me ask you: are you Buddhist, or are you Christian? If you put “or” there, then I have no answer. If you ask me, “Are you a Buddhist?” I would say that I am seeking to live in a way that is modeled by the Buddha, the Awakened One—with wisdom to see things as they are, and with a compassion that comes out of seeing the way things are; namely, that everything is interconnected. I’d like to be that.
Are you Christian? I have tried to live in the way that Jesus taught us to live—to live in the love of God, and share that love with others. So if you ask me, “Are you Christian?” I would say that I would like to be, and I am doing the best I can to be worthy of that name. But if you ask me, “Are you Buddhist and Christian?” I would be hesitant, because that would compromise the two traditions, to suggest that they can just be mixed.
Many people I encounter in Western Buddhist sitting have rejected Christianity because they have suffered under a very punitive form of it. Some people feel wounded by the very language of the faith. Even a word like “salvation” can be painful. Right—the hellfire and thunder and so on. “If you don’t take Jesus as your savior, then you’re damned forever.” But if you look at that word itself, it comes from the same root as the Spanish toast ¡salud!, which means “to your health; well-being.” In Latin, it’s salus, and the Greek origin is holos, which means “whole.” The wholeness that we are all longing for, that we are all meant to arrive at, is what we would correctly understand as salvation. We all need that kind of salvation.
Related: Bible Belt Buddhism
In your experience—both in your own practice and in working with students—does something different happen in Zen meditation in the mind for a Christian from what happens for a Buddhist? If we take the mind according to the Zen context, as that which leads us to what is beyond words and concepts, then I would say that whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or an atheist or a Buddhist, what happens in Zen practice should not be different. It’s an immersion into the silence and an appreciation of all that’s there. And all that’s there is not something we can limit through our thoughts and concepts and our restricted notions of being or nonbeing.
With a student, then, you’re listening for whatever concepts they’re holding on to, and inviting them to put them down? When a student comes to me—whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or atheist—I just deal with the matter at hand. Now, if the student comes with questions and expressions that come from a religious background, then I try to help them use those very words to lead to the realm of mystery. A person’s own worldview and background and vocabulary can be the gateway to that.
So you are trying to find out whether someone’s concepts are going to be in the way, or whether they’re going to be part of the path? Yes, precisely. It’s very difficult to discern, but really important, because otherwise we might also be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If we unskillfully reject or ignore a concept or term just because it comes from a particular culture or philosophical or theological matrix, then we might be missing an opportunity to go beyond the concept. One needs to be very sensitive. A listening ear is really important for guiding others in walking this path.
Is the God you know now the same God you walked into Zen practice with the first time? Over time, my sense of God would have shifted no matter what. It started happening in my mid-teens, even before I entered the Jesuits. I had this experience of sitting in a classroom, in an English literature class. I was only half-interested and I started looking out the window, at this clear, blue, empty sky. And then it came to me: that the universe is finite, but unbounded. Suddenly the notion of God “up there,” up in the sky, didn’t make any sense for me. There was no place for it anymore. I felt relief, but at the same time, a sense of anxiety. What do I do if there’s no such thing? How do I live my life? The notion of God that I had as a child had to die first, and the death of that God is what led me to the God that is beyond words and concepts.
In the way that emptiness is beyond words and concepts? If you really look at what the term shunyata is trying to say, it’s another mind-boggling thing that cannot be caged in a strict rational form. In one sense, there’s nothing left. But you can also say that’s where everything begins. I was doing this kind of mental gymnastics when I was preparing for ordination. Reading the Pauline letters [in the New Testament], the notion of pleroma[fullness] in Paul, and ta panta en pasin, the “all in all,” caught my attention. The Greek expression struck me: fullness in a way that there’s nothing more that can be filled. Ultimate fullness corresponds to emptiness.
We also call it “mystery,” that which makes our mouth just shut in holy wonder. And I believe that that’s what Zen opens to us, that sense of mystery, that sense of awe that what is, is. Form is form, and yet we know that that form is also emptiness. I’m saying nonsense here, perhaps. But that’s the kind of holy nonsense that Zen comes from.
It seems that Zen is a practice of experience of the mystery, not talk about it, though it may result in some talk. The New Testament, likewise, is the words left by people who had an experience. They wanted to find a way to talk about that experience. But it isn’t really like normal talk. Your new book, Zen and the Spiritual Exercises: Paths of Awakening and Transformation, discusses this parallel. St. Ignatius proposed a series of meditative and very discursive exercises for examining your sinfulness, checking out your day, seeing what you did that was according to God’s will and what was not—a very left-brained kind of approach to spirituality. Zen is a more direct way of inviting people to “just sit and behold in the silence.” Can those two go together? For me, it is the “Contemplation on Divine Love” [the final contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises] that is the summit of the exercises. That’s exactly what happens in sitting in stillness in Zen. You’re simply soaked in that divine love that is beyond words, and you allow it to fill you, inundate you, and move you so that you can live a life grounded on that, offering yourself to others.
We don’t usually use the word “goal” in Zen, but can you discuss how we may arrive at a kind of goal? I would rather call it the fruit or outcome of practice. In spiritual paths in general, there seem to be three stages that have distinctive characteristics but that are related in a developmental way. First there is the stage of purification or purgation: when a person begins to receive the impulse of the infinite. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it the bodhi mind, when you begin to ask, “What is this all about?” “How can I live my life in the most authentic way?” In Zen, I would say that’s the stage when one begins to realize that there’s a big gap between one’s true self and where one is right now. From a Christian perspective, it might be a sense of being separated from the ultimate reality that we call God, a sense of sinfulness.
As one goes through the purification stage, one gets to a sense of illumination, where you have these insights: “Ah, I need to do this,” or “That’s a wonderful realization of this or that reality,” and so on. The stage of illumination gives us a clearer sense of where we’re heading, that we’re on the right track. Then it culminates in the stage of union, where one experiences that one is not separate at all. Those three paths seem to have congruencies: purification, illumination, and union. That’s what I try to map out in my new book, taking Zen on the one hand and the Spiritual Exercises on the other as parallel paths of transformation.
What kind of person results from this practice? One becomes an ordinary person, but in an extraordinary way. Your words are still there, your hang-ups may still be there, you still have to deal with all your karmic baggage and so on, but you see it in a totally different light. You’re at peace with yourself, at peace with the world. Not in a complacent sense, but in the sense that you can simply devote yourself to a life of compassion. From a Christian perspective, we use the word perfection, but it’s not that now I’m perfect. It really means living as Christ did.
Becoming Christlike? Yes. And what does that mean? Emptying oneself—kenosis. This happens not in any abstract way, but in really giving yourself utterly in the service of others, so that you may be of benefit. It’s like the Buddhist chant “May all beings be at ease”—there’s a congruence there. I won’t use the word same, but you can see how Christianity and Zen resonate with one another.
I think this is actually where there’s the deepest point of contact, but contemporary Christianity doesn’t promote it very much. Sometimes I wonder whether Zen has attracted the number of Christians it has because it’s the corrective needed for the way we’ve been living with our Christianity. It speaks to those who want to live authentically. The emerging church movement, where Christians are trying to live in a way that is different from the so-called institutional forms of Christianity, is an indication that those institutions are not living up to the task of providing spiritual nourishment. That calls for deeper reflection and self-critique on the part of the managers of that institutional church. There you go—you’re one of them!
Yes, I’m one of them! So it seems that the use of koans in the Sanbo Zen lineage has made using traditional scriptures for teaching a natural move for you. Oh, yes, indeed. Right now, I am looking at scriptural passages—Psalms and Proverbs and so on—to see how they might also be material for koans that can provoke an experience in the practitioner right here and now. In this way, Christians might find that Zen practice can enhance an appreciation of what was already there in the Christian Gospel. It might also invite people in Zen practice to consider that it doesn’t just have to be the Buddhist vocabulary that they can use in order to go deep into Zen, but that there are other fingers pointing to the moon. These passages might lead us to a full revelation of that moon.
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