OMZ is closed Saturday, May 4th. Sesshin will be via Zoom only.

Patrick Hawk, Thomas Merton, and the dialogue between Catholicism and Zen Barry Magid May 12th 2012

Download Talk

I learned this week of the death of Patrick Hawk, who was one of Aitken Roshi’s first dharma successors. He was also a Catholic priest and he represented an important aspect of the development of the first generation of the School of Sanbo Kyodan, the school that grew out of the teachings of Yasutani Roshi. It was an important part of how that generation of Zen was brought over in a form that could mingle with Western and particularly Catholic traditions, an extension of what was being attempted by Thomas Merton a generation before. There were quite a few Catholic priests like Patrick Hawk who managed to study, often with Yamada Roshi in Japan, and who were able to put into practice what Merton was trying to do in theory, but never had a chance to do personally.

One of the things that made it possible for priests like Patrick Hawk to actually practice Zen was that they were engaged with a form of Zen that had been taken out of the temples and out of explicitly Buddhist religious practice and they created a form that was available to lay people without entering into monastic life, and without doing anything that looked like converting to Buddhism, which would have made it completely unacceptable to the Catholic hierarchy. What was offered instead was a sesshin-based koan-study-based style of practice that for that generation promised to open up contemplative experience, mystical experience in a way that was missing from a Catholic practice that was devotional rather than contemplative.

For Merton and for Hawk and for a lot of these folks, there was a sense that by doing this kind of practice with Mu, they themselves would be able to have the kinds of experiences that they had only read about in, say, John of the Cross, and the Cloud of Unknowing, and Meister Eckhart. The dilemma, then, was how to frame or integrate something of those experiences into their Catholicism. There are a lot of conceptual and theological difficulties that we’re obviously not going to go into here, but part of what’s relevant is that the Catholic picture of mystical experience is something that arrives by the grace of God, the gift of God. It’s not something you earn by your efforts, and yet the kind of sesshin that Yasutani Roshi did, looked like it was all about effort, pushing to break through. There’s also the question about what is it that you’re encountering when you have one of these experiences? What’s the relationship of the experience of one-ness or emptiness to an experience of God? Is it personal or impersonal?

There’s a lot that’s been written in Buddhist-Catholic dialog with how to come to terms with that. It’s interesting in particular to me to watch how these two traditions intersected in what each took from the other, although by and large, the influence was mostly in one direction. You don’t have a lot of sense that too much of Buddhist practice or thought was modified as a result of encountering Catholicism, but for a lot of Catholic priests and contemplatives, the addition of something like zazen practice considerably broadened their experience of prayer.

It’s interesting that both the Dalai Lama and the Pope, however, were very clear that they did not want to see this as both practices leading to a single common experience. There’s a lot to be questioned about what it is that we say is happening, whether any experience can be somehow cut free from its cultural and religious and historical context, somehow be ahistorical, transcultural. A part of what happened when people started writing about the intersection of these things, is that you get a lot of language about capital-E emptiness and capital-B being, whether these things are connected to capital-G god. For myself, I’m very suspicious all the time about capitalized abstractions and trying to equate them, or that they are somehow more foundational than small-g dog, or small-d dirt, as if what we’re doing in any kind of practice is penetrating the veil of appearances to some reality beyond.

I spent a lot of time studying Merton back in my early days of Zen, and one of the ways I wished some of his thought would influence the Zen I was practicing had to do with the idea of grace as something that was a matter of being open, self-emptying, receptive, rather than a matter of effort and drivenness. I thought the sesshins in the early days were all about effort, not about receptivity, and Zen could use an idea of grace. I think over the years I incorporated that into the way I think about no-gain and the way I’ve tried to talk about zazen not being a technique or a means to an end. Some of my thinking about that comes out of that encounter with grace.

In other ways this is relevant to me, is that it has a lot of parallels with the intersection of Zen and psychotherapy. Again, you have two self-contained systems interacting, mutually influencing each other. In the case of therapy, Western therapy has had a much bigger influence on the way Zen is practiced than perhaps vice versa, that this generation in our Zen practice has gotten much more psychologically minded, not just here in Ordinary Mind but throughout many, many lineages. I think it’s just not permissible anymore to teach a practice that ignores the psychological as somehow merely psychological.

There’s been a lot of ways in which Buddhism has come over to influence psychotherapy, but there, for better or for worse, it’s mostly come over not as a way of being or a perspective, but as a series of techniques. It comes over stripped of its religious aspect and it comes in as mindfulness or stress reduction or various aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy, with its talk about awareness. Again, in order to make acceptable what Buddhism offers to therapy, it had to stop being religious, in a strange way very similar to what it had to do to become acceptable to the Catholics. You had somehow to turn it into a technique and take it out of a religious context and then they would let it in.

In the various things I’ve read about Patrick Hawk this week, one quote of his stood out for me. He said that every religion, every practice, every practice center needs a back door. What that means to me is that all our practices, every religion, tends to become self-contained and tautological. It can explain everything. Whether you’re a Catholic or a Buddhist or a psychoanalyst, the danger is that whatever happens, you’ve got an answer for it. It makes sense within your system, which is fine except there’s not much of a way that new evidence, new information can get into such a closed perfect system. I think that’s the idea of a back door. We need a way to smuggle in something new once in a while. We need a way to bypass our own certainty, bypass the completeness of our system, and sometimes we only do that when we buy into another complete system and see how other we are to the other.

The other way that’s relevant to our individual practice is that each of us, as a personality, is in danger of being one of these perfect closed systems, where anything that happens gets mapped onto our own particular core beliefs, our own common sense. For better or for worse, everything that happens just proves what we’ve always known. Where is change going to come from? What kind of back door can you personally leave open to let in something new?

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.