Fingers Pointing to the Moon: A Small Reflection on Zen Buddhism, Zen Christians, and Christian Nonduality

Fingers Pointing to the Moon: A Small Reflection on Zen Buddhism, Zen Christians, and Christian Nonduality July 18, 2018




The direction of my life has been following a path laid out by the masters of the Zen way. The practices of shikantaza and koan introspection have opened my heart into a path of presence and gratitude.

However, I came to this raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother and an Ingersoll atheist father. And with that at my beginnings I’ve always felt some tensions of the heart between my Zen Buddhism and the forms of Western rationalism and especially rationalist Christianity. This would lead me to at twenty-five year career as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Which because of its broad boundaries allowed me to at the same time pursue my Zen practice within the similarly open Japanese-derived Western Soto Zen Buddhist tradition as a priest.

And it would also incline me to a sense that what I’ve found in Zen, if it is as it claims, something as natural as the sun rising and the raven’s cawing, then there should be evidences of those insights in other religions, and of course without any religion at all.

Still, the “theoretical” structures that attempt to capture the Zen experience are based in several things. The ancient story of the Buddha is foundational. But, the potentiality of the master’s guidance needed the focus provided in Nagarjuna and his Madhyamaka school. Wikipedia summarizes:

“For Nagarjuna, the two truths are epistemological truths. The phenomenal world is accorded a provisional existence. The character of the phenomenal world is declared to be neither real nor unreal, but logically indeterminable. Ultimately, phenomena are empty (sunyata) of an inherent self or essence, but exist depending on other phenomena (Pratītyasamutpāda).”

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Especially for Zen. The article continues.

“In Chinese Buddhism, the Madhyamaka position is accepted and the two truths refer to two ontological truths. Reality exists of two levels, a relative level and an absolute level. Based on their understanding of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Chinese supposed that the teaching of the Buddha-nature was, as stated by that sutra, the final Buddhist teaching, and that there is an essential truth above sunyata and the two truths.”

Another way of capturing this insight beyond one and two is in the term “nondual.”

The terminologies and stories of the Zen way are astonishingly helpful for anyone wishing to find for themselves that place. And maybe they are the clearest yet articulated by human beings. However, I also know that once set down, written, circumscribed, it is by definition constrained, limited, with that not exactly the thing being pointed to. It is a pointing. And the temptations to confuse finger and moon, well, they are the stuff of legend.

We need constantly to review. And, I find “nondual” particularly helpful in capturing that broadness. Digging into this the Buddhist scholar, and perhaps not incidentally, Zen master David Loy, in his Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy identifies five “flavors” of nonduality.

  1. The negation of dualistic thinking in pairs of opposites. The yin-yang symbol in Daoism symbolizes the transcendence of this dualistic way of thinking.
  2. 2. Monism, the non plurality of the world.Although the phenomenal world appears as a plurality of “things,” in reality they are woven into a “single cloth.”
  3. Advaita, the non difference of subject and object, or non duality between subject and object.
  4. 4. Advaya, the identity of phenomena and the Absolute, the “non duality of duality and non duality,” such as the non duality of relative and ultimate truth in the Buddhist Madhyamaka and the “two truths” teaching.
  5. Mysticism, a mystical unity between God and humanity.

In Zen the nondual is expressed as those two truths and their identity, captured in the Heart Sutra as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form.”

And then what about other perspectives? For instance. What about the nondual in Christianity? What might that be? How can Christianity which in its normative expressions is relentlessly dualistic, have a nondual expression?

Well, this thought of a nondual Christianity is what I’d like to point to in this brief reflection.

Building upon the mystical traditions of Christianity, particularly as found in the Pseudo Dionysius, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhardt there are a host of modern writers who probably can be gathered together under the general rubric of “Nondual Christian.”

They include but by no means are limited to the Episcopal priests Cynthia Bourgeault and Mathew Fox, the lay Catholic writer Carl McColman, Catholic priests Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating. Carl McColman has provided several helpful reading lists that connect the foundations and contemporary authors. Here’s one.

The second I’d call Zen Christian. These are teachers and writers who are identified as both Christian and Zen – Zen, if not Buddhist. Many of them have completed formal koan introspection practice in the Sanbo Zen tradition and have dharma transmission within the Zen lineages. They include but are in no way limited to the Catholic priests Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, Robert Kennedy, Patrick Hawk, and Thomas Hand, the Catholic religious Elaine MacInnes, and the former Jesuit priest Ruben Habito. (For a biographical study of several of these teachers, go here.)

For me perhaps the most interesting is this later group. But, all of them taken together speak to something very interesting and while not unique have unique expressions suited to our times.

Here traditions are meeting, clashing, and, well, mutually informing. So, of course, there is some serious pushback. (for one example. And here’s another. These are critiques from the Christian side, dig around and you can find Buddhist critiques, as well…)


What will come of this rise of a nondual Christianity, particularly one deeply influenced by Zen? Who knows? I have some fantasies.

But, really, who knows?

The future is as yet unwritten…

The Thomas Merton Icon is by Robert Lenz

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