I was born into a Catholic family and have never left the Catholicism of my birth. This is the starting point and the basis of my religious life: I was born a Catholic, I did not choose it or make myself into such a thing. As long as I don’t interfere with this inheritance, my Catholicism feels empty in the spiritual sense. Its connections to Zen Buddhism are primal, absolute, and have nothing to do with belief.
I am not a Catholic because of what I believe or because of rules I follow. I used to think that way, and even today, when people hear what I have to say about the soul, so pagan and so tolerant of humanity, they ask dubiously: “Are you a practicing Catholic?” My guess is that they find it difficult to believe that I could think the way I do and still be a Catholic.
There are many Zen Buddhisms and many Catholicisms. Emerson said every church has a membership of one. I don’t feel compelled to be a Catholic in the style of my local priest, my bishop, or my pope. They are authorities whose job it is to help me author my spiritual life, not emperors or sadomasochistic dominators, though some seem to feel that way. I don’t seek their approval for my Catholicism. Their job is to help me find my Catholicism, not theirs. I respect them, but I don’t pin my salvation, as my spiritual friend and namesake Thomas More of England said, to their sleeves.
Generally, the Catholic press has been highly critical and dismissive of my work. I think they must sense how far I am removed from the preoccupations of contemporary Catholics. But that doesn’t mean that I am not a Catholic. I feel more Catholic now than when I lived in a monastery. But it’s a subtle Catholicism and not a little influenced by the Zen writings that have inspired me for thirty years.
Zen plays the role of janitor in my religious life, and if my understanding of Zen (pardon the expression) is right, that is a compliment. The Zen I know pulls the rug out from anything I land on as the truth and blissfully blows away dangerous moments of intelligence and understanding. It inspires me to laugh at the way segments of society have identified me with the word “soul.” The idea of caring for the soul is not mine in any way: the phrase was used frequently for centuries, and I found it often in Plato, Jung, and many other writers. I learned so much about it from James Hillman, who has focused on soul in all his writings, that some of his followers hate me for plagiarizing him. The New York Times Magazine once published an article, in which I fully participated, thinking it was a paean to my friend Hillman, saying that I made money on his ideas. I understand these painful exposures as lessons in kenosis, a cousin idea to shunyata, the ongoing process of emptying one’s whole basket of intellectual and moral achievements.
If you dig deep enough into Catholicism, you will find Zen.
My readings in Zen have allowed me to empty my Catholicism, which is to say, to keep it alive in me. I think my Catholic critics don’t like that emptiness, but to me it makes all the difference. It allows me to remain a Catholic. Without it I’d be worshiping the church or serving its membership or converting others to my views. I have Zen in mind when I tell people, quite honestly, that I have no message and that I’m not trying to accomplish anything with my words. Of course, I can’t be pure about all this. If I were, I’d have no choice but to enter a Zen community.
So, you see, the tie between my dalliances with Zen and my inborn Catholicism is intimate, profound, essential, and extremely subtle. I have no interest in comparing the religions, and none in trying to show how one is the same as the other in any way. I’ve never been in favor of the idea that all religions are one. I think they are all very different from each other, and their diversity is the basis of their richness.
I believe that to the extent I can practice essential Zen virtues, I can be a good Catholic. The truth is, I don’t want to be a Catholic. I certainly don’t want to be a Buddhist. I don’t want to be anything. But I have this situation that I was born a Catholic, and I think I should not deny or resist what I was given at birth. How could I know better what is right and good? I accept the teachings and example of my parents. I see what good people they are. I feel their love and their deep intelligence. Their Catholicism is not mine by choice but by birth. I’m genetically Catholic.
I don’t think I have to bring my Catholicism much into life. I’m a practicing Catholic, but my practice is almost entirely invisible, and it isn’t shaped by rules and authorities. I’m interested only in the soul of Catholicism. I don’t see it as in any way distinct from my humanity. All my life I have believed strongly in Catholic humanism. It makes no difference to me or to anyone that I profess or don’t profess my Catholicism. It’s all a matter of being, and that beingness is not mine but one in which I participate. It’s all grace.
One of my favorite verses on this point, among many, comes from eighteenth-century poet and Zen monk Ryokan:
A quiet night behind my grass hut.
Alone, I play a stringless lute.
Its melody drifts to the wind-blown clouds and fades.
Its sound deepens with the running stream,
expanding till it fills a deep ravine,
and echoes through the vast woods.
Who, other than a deaf person,
can hear this faint song?
(From Between the Floating Mist, © 1992 trans. Dennis Maloney and Hide Oshiro, Springhouse Editions)
Zen inspires me to keep my Catholicism silently musical, much the way my Catholicism keeps my Buddhist tendencies quiet and completely without form. I admire and even envy those many friends who do have form in their practice. After many false starts and failures, I know that, at the moment anyway, I am not called to form. I do practice a little Catholic liturgy, which I love in essence, but I have distance from it even in the practice, just enough to be out while still being in, but not enough to make it false.
I appreciated the image in these pages recently of Bernie Glassman wearing a clown’s nose. That’s the Zen I like, and that’s the Catholicism I trust. Last year I lived in Ireland with my family, and many Sundays we went to Mass at a downtown Dublin church. The building was magnificent and the choir excellent. Even the sermons were good. But best of all was an unplanned and not very ancient part of the liturgy. Every time we were there, about a half hour into the Mass an old man would walk down a side aisle toward the center transept. He pulled a suitcase on wheels that made a sound so loud and obnoxious that you couldn’t help shuddering. The Mass continued over the din. One of the things I liked about living in Dublin was this typical Irish acceptance of an undignified assault on decorum, in this case a red nose on the Mass itself.
Zen and Catholicism meet deep inside me. There is no question of conflict or contradiction. There is nothing to contradict and nothing to harmonize. They don’t say the same thing, because they don’t say anything. They don’t address the one God expressed in different languages, because the only God there is is the God of silent music.
I believe strongly, based on many years of experience, that if you dig deep enough into Catholicism, you will find Zen. And with less certainty I believe that if you dig deep enough into Zen, you may find Catholicism. If you are practicing the kind of Zen or Catholicism that doesn’t have this level of mutuality, I’m not interested. It isn’t that I don’t think that would be invalid, it would just be the kind that doesn’t interest me.
I became liberated to a degree when I gave up trying to be a pope—a problem for serious Catholics. I don’t have to make public edicts. I don’t have to be infallible. I don’t have to legislate spiritually for anyone else, not even my children. I don’t have to be morally correct, which is entirely different from being morally alive. But I do have to speak to the world, again not by choice but by calling. It isn’t easy, knowing that my books play the same role as the resonant, wheeled suitcase ritually dragged into the holy of holies by a person joyously and unconsciously adding his counterpoint to the sublimity and bliss (yes, ananda) of the rite. If a born Catholic can preach Zen without any conscious reference to it, even if it’s painful to the ears of both Zen and Catholic devotees, then religion is still alive.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.