tunnel vision: the surprise of devotion in Zen

Devotional Zen? It would hardly seem so. Students of Zen Buddhism are generally found sitting motionless on little black cushions with their eyes lowered, in ever-so-straight rows. Or silently chopping vegetables in the kitchen with slightly intense expressions on their faces, as they bring their minds back again and again to the mindful practice of "chop, chop, chop." And if you ask them what they are seeking through their practice, they are apt to mutter things about "seeking nothing," "the goal of goal-lessness," or "realizing emptiness" . . .

Even the images of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas seen on Zen temple altars are not generally regarded by Zen trainees as representing celestial beings who are the objects of worship; rather, they are seen as reminders of various aspects of the Buddha Nature of the universe, such as Kuan Yin representing universal compassion, which the trainee respects and seeks to emulate. Zen would seem to be almost the opposite of a devotional spiritual path, if by "devotion" we mean the practice of consecrating one's life to the Divine, or of celebrating the love of God.

Indeed, a number of us Zen students were attracted to this path precisely because it does not have obvious components of worship, belief, devotion or other "unnecessary religious baggage." Many years ago my own teacher, Rev. Jiyu-Kennett, Roshi, went to study Zen in Japan in a somewhat similar frame of mind. When she mentioned this to her teacher, Rev. Keido Chisan Koho, Zenji, the abbot of the great Soto Zen training monastery of Sojiji, he smiled. The process of Buddhist training, he explained, was like walking through a long tunnel. But unlike a regular tunnel where the goal is to get somewhere else, the important thing about this tunnel is what it does to you while you are walking through it. So it does not really matter which end you go in or which end you come out, what matters is that you walk all the way through and emerge a transformed person.

Then he gave a name to each end of the tunnel. One he called "Zen Buddhism"; the other he called "Shin Buddhism." Shin, or Pure Land, is the other major form of Buddhism found in Japan, and it may well be the most devotional type of Buddhism around. Shin Buddhists revere the Buddha Amida and worshipfully recite His name many times a day to refocus their devotional attention upon Him. Koho Zenji told my master that it was fine to enter the tunnel through the end called "Zen," with none of that "religious stuff" anywhere in sight. He just warned her not to be too surprised, however, if she came out the other end a devotional person.

And that is what happened to her. And so it seems to be for many Zen students. We, who go into Zen feeling all stern and rigorous and alone and intellectually uncompromising, get sort of "mushied up" by it somewhere along the line. Hearts begin to open, minds begin to soften, eyes begin to twinkle with a touch of mischief, and we get bowled over by the sheer love and divinity of the universe, within which we still don't necessarily find anything that we'd want to call "God." In other words, while the practices of Zen are generally not devotional, their consequences are.

It is fascinating to see how this devotional side shows itself among old Zen monks and other long-term Zen students. They seem to just start finding time to paint, write music or poetry, arrange flowers, cook, make tea, celebrate ceremonies and generally do things that express their love for the whole worldall of it in a spirit of joyful offering. In fact, they start acting as though their entire life was a series of offerings. Being Zen, they'll still grumble about "unnecessary thinking" if you ask them to what these offerings are being made. Maybe devotion doesn't always need to make its offerings to something; maybe it is enough that offerings of the heart simply be made. Maybe spiritual love doesn't always need a discernible Beloved; maybe it is enough that love simply be.

It is here then, in ceremonial, in the Zen arts, and in a thousand little unprompted acts of love, that one sees our devotional side. However, since our devotion is a spontaneous blossoming forth on an individual basis, rather than a practice, it is easy to miss. Most Zen temples offer training in one or more aspects of ceremony or the arts on a formal basis, but that is not where you will see devotion happening. Students learning these forms are using them as doorways into meditation and into a deeper intuitive feeling for Zen; it is not until later, when the flow through those doorways is outward from the heart of love, that they take on a quietly devotional aspect.

Of course, this devotional side of Zen does not always develop; some of us are simply not devotional types. Take me, for example. I was one of those kids who got kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many awkward questions about the existence of God. I have always had a logical sort of mind, and that was compounded by many years of scientific education. I became a Zen Buddhist because it was a religion that allowed me to accept it as a working hypothesis. Ceremonial doesn't really speak to me, and flower arrangement leaves me cold. I just really don't understand what this devotion business is all about.

I mentioned this fact to one of my fellow monks the other day, and she raised one eyebrow and gave me a quizzical look. "Then why did you give up a perfectly good career to become a monk?" she asked. "And why did you spend twenty-one years as your master's personal assistant, the last four of them helping to nurse her at all hours of the day and night when she was terminally ill?"
"That's different."
"Oh?" she replied. "And why have you spent most of your time since her death going around helping the temples of our Order and taking care of your own students?" "That's not devotion," I insisted.
"Right," she concluded, "it's not devotion; it's just an offering of love. Now, what was that definition of 'devotion' again?"
Maybe devotion gets even us "crusty" ones, in the end.

It may not be too hard to figure out why devotion happens somewhere along the way in Zen training. Let us relabel the ends of our tunnel using more general terms. We'll call the Zen end "meditation practice" and the Shin end "devotion practice." What is the purpose of meditation practice? Grossly oversimplified, we could say that it is to drop away the "self" and thus contact Truth directly. What is the purpose of devotion practice? Equally oversimplified, we could say that it is to surrender the "self" and thus contact Divinity directly. What is the difference between a self dropped away and a self surrendered? What is the difference between Truth and Divinity? I believe that there are, indeed, differences between those things, but I have come to suspect that such differences pale in the face of the shared similarities. Something seems to be at work in both of these great ways of spiritual practice that is bigger than their differences. And, of course, the two can be practised together.

I learned something about the similarities of these ways of religious training from watching what happened when Roshi Jiyu-Kennett and Swami Radha used to meet. These two women were each deeply experienced in, and committed to, their respective spiritual paths: one to Zen and one to yoga. Theologically speaking, they didn't have all that much in common. They would occasionally meet as guest speakers at religious conferences, and each would dutifully give a presentation from her point of view on the conference topic. But the interesting part for me was not so much in comparing their formal talks as it was in seeing what happened when they interacted afterwards. First of all, they seemed to intuitively understand each other. Each coming from a different perspective, time and again they would end up agreeing with each other. Sometimes, when a questioner would challenge one of them, it was the other who rose to respond. It even seemed as if, just for a moment, the two of them were one being. And they really enjoyed each other's company. It was not that they spent long hours in deep discussion, but they would often sit next to each other at the lunch table and it was obvious that they just deeply appreciated the simple fact of the other's existence. I could never quite put into words what I sensed they shared, but it was clear that a lifetime of Zen and a lifetime of yoga had brought these two teachers to a place that was very similar, a place that transcended the differences between the way of meditation and the way of devotion.

Of course, that tunnel of ours runs in both directions. So those who enter the spiritual path by the devotional end should not be too shocked if somewhere along the line something starts sort of "firming them up" and "quieting them down" a little. And, if an urge to spend time on a little black cushion should arise, wellthere is probably a Zen student nearby who wouldn't mind sharing theirs.

Rev. Daizui MacPhillamy is a Buddhist monk in the Soto Zen tradition. He was ordained in 1973 by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, who later named him as Master and Dharma Heir. Rev. Daizui served as her personal assistant for over twenty years, until her death in 1996, when he was elected to succeed her as head of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life