The Zen Priest Dreams the Jesus Prayer

The Zen Priest Dreams the Jesus Prayer January 26, 2022






James Ishmael Ford

I find Jesus and the Jesus Prayer on my heart a fair amount of late.

And only a little less, Mary, for me as the great Western manifestation of Guanyin. Which in the joining in my heart I guess speaks volumes of me and my life between.

I even find myself appreciating the encapsulating story of normative Christianity, the creator God sending his only son down to the broken world to join it, and whose death somehow restores heaven and earth. At least as a dreaming image. And what is important for me, is how it joins together with that other story of a strange wandering prophet who healed and told stories, who challenged the occupiers and oppressors, and then died terribly for his troubles. And who did not rise. Except within the dream worlds.

It’s like with the Mu koan, where that poor student of the ancient way came to Zhao Zhou and asked, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” Desperation. Hope. A thousand doubts. And the master says, “Mu.” No. Not. The great empty. Boundless. Then the story is thrown away, and we are left with that word. Mu. I find myself left with that word.


The late Shin priest and scholar Taitetsu Unno noted that while similar in some ways and not in many others, the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu are both expressions of a “Way of the Name.” Sensei Unno describes some of his thoughts on the matter in a wonderful small essay, “Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu,” published Journal of Buddhist Christian Studies in 2002. What follows starts as something of an abstract of his reflection but becomes some random thoughts of my own. My Zen Buddhist appreciation of the prayer of the heart.

First there’s the idea of prayer. The Orthodox bishop and scholar Kallistos Ware calls us to observe four aspects of prayer: External prayer, Standing before God, Inner Act, and the Manifestation of Baptism. The first is what we most commonly think of as prayer, those acts of praise and our various petitions. Perhaps in practice a bit heavy on the petition aspect. The second is an invitation into silence. While silence is a door, it, like petitionary prayer or praise are each volitional acts taken up by the practitioner.

These things are important, very important in my view. We need to start. We need to turn our attention to the matters of the heart. And, again, praise and petition are ancient, ancient things. They are calls from the depths of our hearts. I hope I never disparage these things.

An important noticing, I find. That second part about standing before God, or for me being present to the mystery, or shikantaza, or silent illumination, or, well engaging the koan. There is a part where it is about me. I put myself on the pillow. I try to gather my mind. I notice. I let go.

Then there are the practices of words, that Way of the Word. Mu. Jesus. And Amida. And Guanyin. And Mary. Words that the weight of dreams. And hopes. And longing.

Word. That magical thing of the human way. Here I find the need to speak. Namo Amida Butsu. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Not the only ones, of course. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. There are others, of course.

But for me. Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mary. Mostly Jesus.

Julian of Norwich’s Jesus.

“The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life … The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss … This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.”

That Jesus. And at the very same time the Jesus who told stories. And died and did not rise. The Jesus who comes and goes in dreams.

As Sensei Unno notes those first two things Bishop Ware noted, petition and praise, and silence, are dualistic. Words addressed to an “other,” and silence as opposed to noise. The sitting down and shutting up thing of traditional Zen practice.

At first it is a struggle. Who or what is in charge? But, then for differing reasons, desperation, exhaustion, a hint of whisper to our hearts, we let go of our idea of what we’re supposed to be doing. In my own practice I’ve felt it like a sunflower being turned toward the morning. It doesn’t feel volitional. It’s just a turning.

In an attempt to capture this sense, the sensei cites Kosho Uchiyama, speaking specifically of zazen. But… “…it is precisely at the point where our small, foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of the self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of buddha is realized.”

That place. This place. In silence or with a word. Jesus. Guanyin. Mary. Pick your word. Or, rather it appears sometimes it picks you. Me.


Here we begin to open to the third and fourth definitions of prayer. Bishop Ware says of the third step “True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.” Silence is no longer simply shutting up, but a full-bodied witnessing. The fourth, that “manifestation of Baptism,” is an experience of grace. Unearned. What in Zen is sometimes called your face before your parents were born.

Sensei Unno contrasts this with a description of the Nembutsu from the thirteenth century teacher of the way, Shinran Shonin. “The great practice is to say the Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light. This practice, embodying all good acts and possessing all roots of virtue, is perfect and most rapid in bringing them to fullness. It is the treasure ocean of virtues that is suchness of true reality. For this reason, it is called great practice. This practice arises from the Vow of great compassion.”

We might begin with petition, or praise. Most humans do this in their spiritual lives. Probably petition a bit more than praise. At least outside of public worship. Our need is great. No argument. Praise is good too. That song of St Francis is close to my heart. Pure praise. It is a doorway into something. Our longing if we’ve turned toward the intimate way is a powerful thing. We throw ourselves on the pillow. We call on Amida. Or Jesus. Or Guanyin. Or Mary. And even if our petition is for nothing more than good grades or for the brakes to work on our car, this is not to be disparaged. But. And.

There is a part of this that actually comes from another place. In one religion that is called prayer. In another it is the primal vow. For each tradition it is a calling into this world, here and now. But a calling into this world noticing a mysterious connection. That other place.

I am not that. But in truth it is me.

Sensei Unno notes that in Christian Orthodoxy there are four factors to the prayer. Simplicity and flexibility, completeness, power of Name as such, and the spiritual discipline of persistent repetition. The sensei finds consonants with the first three factors, but demurs on the necessity of repetition.

“Once calling” is a hallmark of the Jodo Shinshu tradition within which the sensei walked and from which he spoke. And it offers a profound truth. To sit zazen once is to open the many worlds, to answer one koan, is to have taken your place on the Buddha’s seat, to call Amida, Jesus, Guanyin, Mary just once is enough.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Just once.

Shinran taught “When the thought of saying the Nembutsu erupts from deep within, having entrusted ourselves to the inconceivable power of Amida’s vow which saves us, enabling us to be born in the Pure Land, we receive at that very moment the ultimate benefit of being grasped never to be abandoned.”

I believe this with all my heart. I know this in my bones and marrow.

And. In the tradition of the Jesus Prayer, while that, I hope is also understood, they repeat the words. The word.

It’s like the Christian communion. Is the ceremony once, a disruption of time and space at a gathering in an upstairs room in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago? Is it in the millions upon millions of times the ceremony has been revisited as a million, million different acts, or is it one?

So, it is always once, no matter how many times I say it. We say it. It is said by the angels of the divine court. Sung.

And with that, at the same time of when and where, then there’s a necessary surrender into this moment.

The moment that is Jesus is the moment that is Mu. It presents full and complete. And behind it lies the vast empty. Shining dark. Endlessly fertile.

In the Orthodox approach to the prayer, we are warned against “creating visual images, visions, or forms, as enticements to delusion.” Not, I notice, unlike Zen teacher 101. When the student comes in and speaks of visions, well, really, of any shift of consciousness, to say, don’t worry, this will pass. Notice. Let go.

Sensei Unno notes the traditional literature of the Shin way offers numerous practices that use visualizations. But like with repetitions of the vow, ultimately, we’re invited to lay down the raft. We’ve long sense crossed to the other shore.

So the dreams arise. That’s okay. Just let them go. My own practice of paying attention and letting go has come to a place where there’s more invitation into that letting go than anything else.

Amida. Jesus. Guanyin. Mary.

The work of the Jesus prayer as Sensei Unno presents it is two-fold. First it transforms our relationship with the world, which we discover is “infused with God’s presence,” and it shifts our relationships with other people. While a different world of language expresses this, the sensei suggests the Pure Land way is much the same. When we’ve opened to the vow, we see how we are connected to all things.

And. Of course. Not to be ignored. There are wild differences between the traditions. The universal may only be known in the particular, but with that, there are many different particulars.

There is what appears to be a fundamental dualism within the Christian way. Citing the classic Art of Prayer: an Orthodox Anthology, the sensei notes the importance of noticing the divide between “good and evil passions, grace and sin, God and Satan, life and death.” The later of each of these dualisms to be rejected, “hated, trampled on…” While within Shin Buddhism, at least, these apparent dualisms are invitations into transformation in which “bits of rubble are transformed into gold.”

As Shinran sings, “Through the benefit of the unhindered light, we realize shinjin of vast, majestic virtues, and the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts. Immediately become water of enlightenment.”

So, we, I also need to let the contradictions be. They’re there. I don’t need to square every circle.

What I do, at least these days, is sit down, gather myself.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Once. Maybe twice. For me always on the breath. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, on the inhalation. Have mercy on me, a sinner, on the exhalation.

Then silence.

Shining, dazzling, calling, inviting.


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